The last (and most difficult) challenge to democracy

Democracy means freedom. But does it also mean destruction of that freedom?

The last (and most difficult) challenge to democracy Photo: Unsplash

Winston Churchill supposedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But that was before the internet and social media. Were he alive today, he would be shocked by how democracy, although not or not yet like “all the others,” is already (at least in the United States) in danger of becoming one of the worst form of government. This is all due to people having finally discovered that democracy allows them to be what they want to be, if not what they have always been: mean, mean-spirited and nasty.

Fueled by new news media and social media (which have objectively taken one side or the other), they blame “fake news” and invented the concept of “post-truth,” and even “alternative facts” to justify themselves. These people, who are “the people” touted by democracy as its foundation, have finally answered the call of democracy to be more active and participatory. But democracy never expected that along with their higher participation they would come out with such force that life under American democracy is now locked in gridlock and deadlock, and drowned in the sea of noise, nastiness, ugliness, rudeness, hate and bigotry, all cast in short sentences.

The “demos” in the Latin root word of democracy have become demons, demagogues, demigods and demonstrators, not democrats as expected. What was supposed to bring about government that compromises and consults, this “new” democracy has produced a government and people that just insults and insult each other, respectively. Even Churchill would roll in his grave were he to see it.

But It wasn’t like that before or during Churchill’s time, or even for hundreds of years. To be sure, democracy has been threatened by many things before, including by other systems of governing. The challenges came from all directions: from above (absolute monarchy, theocracy); from below (anarchy); from the right (fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism); or from the left (communism, socialism); or what Churchill had lumped together as “all the others,” from which democracy has escaped unscathed or with only a few bruises. So much so that the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” in 1992, with democracy being anointed as the default mode of governing.

But a mere two decades later, several countries around the world reversed their marches toward democracy (Egypt, Thailand, Venezuela, to mention only a few obvious examples), signaling that not only history has not ended but that the notion of democracy as a default mode of governing was also not without a fault. And the “fault” is now emerging as democracy’s biggest challenge.

While all the other or previous threats challenged democracy’s fundamentals (people as the sole origin of power; one-person, one-vote; government by representation, chosen by the people in a free election; accountable to the people, serving the people and implementing everything according to the rule of law; guaranteeing equality and individual freedoms, etc). The new challenge is both difficult and pernicious because it does not challenge any of the above tenets or the principles or fundamentals of democracy, but it embraces them all, wholeheartedly.

In other words, the people are killing democracy by living up to democracy’s fundamentals (active, participatory), and democracy itself has been so obsessed with these fundamentals, it forgot to consider or take into account the people’s mentals. The people are now abusing democracy by acting democratic; they even amuse themselves by being so. This is either the real democracy or the new “mediacracy,” where all the principles of democracy come into play all at once and in full force through social media, day in and day out, unchecked by any sense of decency or even morality.

While democracy has always been protective of all its principle tenets, it is the lack of people’s participation it fears the most, as having a potential not only to weaken democracy but to change it into some of “the others” that Churchill alluded to, such as oligarchy, fake democracies (like many of those “people’s republics” or “democratic republic”) and the like.

To be sure, democracy also fears great men and strong leaders who could abuse power. It also laments a stupid and ignorance electorate that could choose equally stupid leaders, confirming the cynicism that in a democracy, the people always vote for leaders like themselves and get the leaders they deserve. In other words, an ignorant electorate can choose ignorant and mediocre leaders who can then proceed to drown a country in mediocrity. We find such “the blind leading the blind” and “the bland leading the bland” in most democracies of today, which are moribund, highly ritualistic, lacking in innovation and creativity, and led by a bunch of mediocre people. Democracy has become not a meritocracy, but a mediocracy.

But democracy descending into mediocracy is not always fatal and that is why democracy fears the lazy electorate the most, because it can descend into the more dangerous slide to abuse of power through corruption of power by the oligarchs and strong types. With average voter turnouts in most democracies have declined (55 percent in the United States alone between 1960 and 2016), the fear is real.

Unfortunately, democracy did not foresee what would happen if the people really respond wholeheartedly to the call to take part in the democratic process and really do their so-called civic duty. They say, “Be careful what you wish for,” which is as good a warning to democracy as it is to everything else.

As of now, it turns out, while “the people” remains democracy’s real strength, once they open their mouths widely and vociferously, these same “people” turn out to be democracy’s Achilles’ heel This is because democracy counts on the people, literally, to establish what is right or what is good, but the people could not do this, then and now, without quarrels, conflicts and even fights. So, democracy skipped this moral dilemma and opted for a procedural solution: count and think of win or lose, not right or wrong. The winner is right and good, the loser is wrong and bad. If democracy was a painting, it would be like painting by numbers. 

Democracy has always been a procedural system, not substantive, meant to skip the moral issues by counting. That is why democracy usually succeeds in establishing a democratic government (through counting votes) but often fails in trying to make a democratic populace and democratic culture, because to do the latter, you need a moral system. Hence, so-called democratic values were tacked on to procedural democracy: election, counting, winning and losing. This first part establishes who rules but the second part is how to rule, and it is in this segment that most democracies often fail, because it is the same moral system that democracy, to begin with, wanted to avoid. 

With the emergence of the internet and global social media platforms, the same “people” who used to fall asleep through elections in previous times, woke up and filled the airwaves and broadbands with verbal outbursts. Democracy, which has assumed people are always right and the more active they are the better suddenly got caught in a double bind: high participation (good), but in a highly charged and hateful atmosphere (bad). Democracy has become social media crazy, or a mediacracy.

In this atmosphere, sadly enough, the back and forth in social media does not look like an intelligent, let alone thoughtful, discourse the food for thought that nourishes democracy. If it has not become a toxin that poisons all aspects of democracy and life in general, the level of this discourse has certainly been “pretty low” (to quote US Senator Lindsay Graham). This social media culture in fact has penetrated even the realms of democratic leadership and elites. America now has a president that thrives in that atmosphere and thinks that tweeting every midnight attacking everyone is part of democracy. He is right in one aspect and one aspect only: that it is part democracy to speak directly to his people, but in messages lasting no more than one sentence, pushed out by raw emotions and not deep thinking. This instant democracy will kill democracy as we know it.

It is the dawn of “democrazy,” as some have said, from which democracy may never be able to recover, not only because no one has seen it coming or knows where it is going but because this new phenomenon (high participation, the people know best) are the very foundation of a healthy democracy. This, until the content of that people’s participation is taken into account, which the concept of democracy never did and never anticipated. In other words, this challenge is the most difficult because it conforms to all democratic principles except in content.

This is a fight between form (people) and content (voice), which democracy likes if voice means “votes” but never prepared or anticipated it if it meant “noise.” The noisy ones can always hide behind democracy’s freedom of expression and the like. If democracy is only about elections, and the noise is only once every four or five years, democracy and modern life can survive it. Unfortunately, two things conspire against it: democracy is not just about election every few years but all year around, and about every aspect of life (freedom, law, justice, way of life and much more) and the noise, celebrating or taking advantage of it through uncontrolled social media outbursts is also year-round, every day, every night, every morning.

The noise is drowning democracy, and the media have finally caught up with the message, something no one, not even the famous Canadian 1970s media studies guru Marshall McLuhan even thought possible. That it will drown the very political system that allows and guarantees its existence. Democracy itself, is new, unpredictable and may constitute a challenge with which democracy may not be able to cope.

Democracy may have met its Pogo moment: it has found its real enemy, and it is itself and nothing is harder in life than fighting oneself. 

Ziad Salim is a retired Canadian academic living in Indonesia

You need to login to write a comment!