Pay attention, democracy is more fragile than we like to think

A few weeks ago I came across a powerful blog post by Matthew Wright, an historian and author in New Zealand, entitled “Remembering the importance of democracy”. It included an historical synopsis of World War II’s European front that I shouldn’t have needed reminding of, being one of the first of the infamous baby boomers, born right after the War. If many of the lessons the world learned from World War II have lost their grip on someone my age, then how can we expect those a generation or more removed from the immediate aftermath to stay vigilant? How do we ensure that we don’t repeat the horrors that befell Europe?

Frighteningly, Matthew Wright reminds us that our grasp on democracy is pretty fragile. After reminding his readers of how close all of Europe came to falling to full-out fascism, with only Britain left to fight once France fell, he says:

“We take it for granted that the democracies prevailed. Actually, they did so only by a whisker.”

And he concludes his post with the sobering words:

“The what-ifs could doubtless be debated; but the point is that the Second World War was a near-run thing. Democracy was not necessarily going to be the winner. It was, of course, and the world was all the better for that. What worries me is that these lessons have been forgotten. But as the world slides into what is increasingly presenting as a new existential crisis, they deserve remembering.”

Lest we forget indeed. And although this is a depressing subject, it’s too important a subject for us to dismiss. Perhaps the impending arrival of Memorial Day in the U.S. is a fitting to time to put this concern out there for us all.

We’re used to thinking of all the “western” countries as being fully functioning democracies, along with several developing countries around the world. But the picture is not all that rosy. It appears that power, greed, and ultra-nationalistic inclinations keep getting in the way. And, sorry to say, those are precisely the ingredients for more fascist tendencies at the expense of democracy.

The word democracy itself means rule by the people. A democracy is a system where people can change their rulers in a peaceful manner and the government is given the right to rule because the people say it may. (source: aceproject.com) Democracy can take many forms, but its fundamental foundation is that every single citizen of voting age has a vote, a voice in how their government should be run.

Contrasting that, fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community (source: en.wikipedia.org), in other words the ideology of the far right.

There are examples of the desire for this far-right approach in many if not all western countries at the moment. History – including extremely recent history – shows us that following this path leads inexorably away from democracy and towards authoritarian rule, although that is usually not the initial intent or expectation of the followers. Would remembering the horrific outcome of the fascist experience in Europe a mere 76 years ago help us raise the alarm bells?

A UK-based research organization, the Economist Intelligence Unit, keeps track of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in 167 countries around the world, publishing their findings annually in their Democracy Index. They base their index on many measures which fall into one of 5 major categories:

  • Electoral process and pluralism
  • Functioning of government
  • Political participation
  • Political culture
  • Civil liberties

As you can see from the screen shot below of the Indices from 2006-2020, even among those countries we consider shining examples of democracy, the majority of their scores have fallen during that period. Some have stayed the same and, yes, happily some have increased, but the overall pattern is troubling. A screen shot of the top-ranking democracies for 2020 follows. There are also some very hopeful examples where authoritarian regimes have been removed and democracy restored; the full report can be found at Democracy Index. [Click on images to zoom in on more detail.]

democracyindex1
democracyindex2

Throughout my life – spanning the entirety of the post-WWII era – the western countries, led by the United States, have promoted strengthening the democratic process in other countries. The idea was that they had it all figured out. They were showing the way. International NGOs send election monitors into countries to oversee potentially troublesome election processes to ensure fair access of all eligible voters and the integrity of the electoral processes. The U.S. has gone into other countries with military force, with the stated objective of bringing democracy to these countries.

I’m very sorry to say this, but with the whole world watching U.S. citizens distrusting their own electoral process, encouraged in that mindset by their own elected representatives, it’s difficult to imagine the U.S. talking about exporting their democratic values in the near term. With more states purposefully putting constraints on their citizens’ voting rights and voting access, it’s difficult to imagine them being able to make the case to other nations for fair voting rights for all citizens. With the Republicans in Congress refusing to hold a commission to look at a serious, deadly, illegal invasion of Congress, it’s difficult to imagine the U.S. telling others they shouldn’t stand for such egregious actions.

Quebec and France have passed so-called secular laws that prevent Muslim women wearing hijabs – simple head scarves – from accessing public services (like riding a bus) or being a public sector worker, unable to work as public school teachers or daycare workers, or as nurses or doctors. It’s difficult to imagine those governments being able to take the high road on discrimination issues. So much for equal opportunity. And on it goes. The shining light of democracy isn’t what it should be at the moment.

Folks, we need that light of a  voice to all and dignity for all to be shining again. We need our elected leaders to be doing the right things for the right reasons, not for keeping influential (rich) donors happy or for appealing to the exclusionary preferences of some of their far-right voters.

I know we can do better, but we have to start now. Together. Everyone. For the benefit of all.

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18 Responses to Pay attention, democracy is more fragile than we like to think

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Fascinating post Jane for someone who isn’t really invested in politics and how it shapes the world. Certainly I’ll now bookmark the EIU and try to pay more attention. In my own micro-world, politics in Jersey remains very much ‘parish pump’ and – in a small community – you need to have thick skin to take up politics as a career. Yet our voter engagement is low, maybe 30%. Lack of party politics here is the reason so the stark divides we see elsewhere simply don’t exist.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      And a fascinating comment! There is always so much for me to learn about Jersey. Our voter turnout here isn’t much different for our municipal elections, which are also non-Party and of course impact everyone’s daily lives quite a bit. Now that I think of it, perhaps it’s the more divisive issues that bring voters out.

  2. Everyone should have health care, I agree and it is so important that we come to a place of peace for the whole world. You are also correct about people in my country only thinking for themselves and their goals and needs, not all of us of course but enough right now to make things ugly. I hope and pray more people have empathy and help each other out in the big picture of things. It isn’t looking so good right now though.

  3. People here in my country are seeing all kinds of news that comes out in different ways. Unfortunately there are huge amounts of censorship going on that lead to people questioning things and loosing their faith and trust in our system.
    Here in our state of Arizona alone we have watched as our politicians battle it out over election fraud. We hear stories of how this was the safest election ever, meanwhile another report comes out where dead people voted, hard drives were deleted, ballots were thrown away. people voting from places where no homes are.
    Then we see images (before they are pulled off of course) of witnesses being shut out from seeing the election in progress, video footage of boxes being delivered after hours when no witnesses are around and ballots dropped off from these locations. There are so many images out there, but then they are pulled off. Images of ballots being thrown away and people coming into areas they shouldn’t be in where ballots are suppose to not be tampered with. All these different views and news stories would drive anyone crazy. What is the truth anymore.
    Then the Jan 6th event happened and extremist from all sides tried to take down our capitol. Watching the live streamers vlogging would show a different picture then what regular news was reporting. People were walking in lines, police were directing them through to the capitol.
    Attacks started happening and then many people started trying to pull down and stop the ones who were trying to damage and cause chaos. There were many people trying to protect the capitol and even a group of men (retired military not guards) surrounding some police officers in order to protect them from being attacked. All that footage was censored from others seeing it. Why such secrecy?
    The capitol building we are told has locks from inside. Why were these doors unlocked? They knew that there was a crowd of people outside, yet the doors were not secured and locked with extra security around.
    Also, the new administration we are being told will not release the camera footage from that day so we all can get the answers to what happened and to who unlocked and directed people to go into the capitol. Again…why? If there is nothing to hide, then why hide it?
    There were no flames that I saw as I watched live footage before all live images were censored that is. Yet weeks later a magazine article of the event would make it look like the capitol was on fire on the cover of it’s magazine…which wasn’t true. Why make it look that way. It just causes more people to loose their trust in everything.
    Meanwhile people here in my country hoping for peace finally after years of so much hate would learn that children at the border were still being put in cages with our new administration and president, yet they were hiding the fact that this was happening. Then the images would come out that it was so much worse with what they were doing. Why not allow reporters and other politicians down to the border to report how people are really being treated. Why is this administration hiding that?
    Now we are hearing that our new administration in office is going to start building that wall again. I never believed in walls. They not only keep people out but they also keep people in. Is this true?, time will tell I suppose.
    Then we see images from our newest president’s son doing terrible things on his laptop. These images and story are also deleted and prevented from people seeing of course. So much secrecy going on in this country and people everywhere are loosing their faith in our system.
    Several blue states sent infected people into nursing homes that ended up costing many seniors to loose their lives. There were a couple politicians (Democrats) that got their own family members out of those homes before they allowed the infected into them.
    Meanwhile at the beginning of this pandemic there was a navel hospital at the ports ready to take in the sick so as not to increase the spread to others. But New York, with the highest numbers of death, did not send their sick there, instead they followed the same formula that California, and Michigan did and sent sick into the nursing homes where our most vulnerable were, which caused the virus death rates to be so high. Seems planned out to some of us. Why? I ask myself…such evil to not protect our older generation.
    People wonder what is happening here in our country. Hate, that’s what’s happening. People are seeing so many different images and hearing so many different stories it is causing a lot of distrust. This isn’t about right and left either, but they are turning it into this by making everyone feel like they need to choose sides.
    Anyone that doesn’t agree with the side they are on gets hated and attacked, which is just a wicked distraction to turn us against each other. The only ones I truly trust are regular people, not a politician. I grew up Democrat and through out my life I have been registered at different times with all parties. Finally after all these years I figured out what party I actually belong to and that is the party of the people and for the people.
    I hope and pray this world starts treating each other with love and choosing the ones nearest us to reach out to and love. There is so much corruption in the political and social media world and it will only make things worse if people do not start seeing this, that we are all being lead around into a circle of hate.
    Sorry Jane, about this long rant. I feel like everyone is afraid to be honest about how they really feel when they think someone will…maybe attack or hate them if they bring up sensitive subjects, but this is something I feel I needed to write. The answers to why so many are confused right now in our country. So many lies and truths, that’s what it is. It’s so hard to keep up with it all, and that is why our country is in a mess right now. Stay safe over there. I am praying that Canada opens up soon and you all can get back to regular life once again. God bless you and your family too.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for your impassioned observations, LRH. I’m glad I could provide you with a place to unload! That’s important, especially in these stressful times. I grew up in the U.S. and didn’t expect not to return after university; that was just life happening. But the U.S. is not the same country I left in 1963, just 2 months before JFK was shot. Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party, nor could they be part of what it is now. The world was a better place when America really was the acknowledged and respected leader of democratic ideals, recognizing that striving for the good and doing it don’t always align perfectly. But it seems that the American concept of individualism has gotten in the way of working towards any common cause for the betterment of the country whatsoever. This is different from other western country, where, for example, the idea of not supporting universal healthcare would be impossible to understand. The voter restriction laws Texas just passed today don’t bode well for positive action for democracy either. But the bottom line is that the rest of the world hopes that the U.S. can move beyond its current challenges and regain its work towards opportunity for all. For the sake of all Americans and for the well-being of the rest of the world.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned that post-WWII legacy of the U.S. and other western countries helping to promote democratic ideals. What we’re now experiencing in regard to removing safeguards in equal access to voting (i.e. Texas, Florida, Georgia) is a complete reversal from that legacy. Some of it is rooted in proving obedience to the Mar-a-Lago denizen, but sadly it’s also about using power. Nice to see you shining a light on this, Jane. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Marty. It’s so, so sad. Using power to disenfranchise legitimate and often marginalized citizens in their own country. The world was far better served by the U.S. being a strong leader in democratic ideals. Far better served. 😥

  5. Agree with your post, Jane, but I fear it’s an uphill climb. Still, one worth doing. There are more voters than there are politicians. I think there’s a slowly growing number of activists. We can’t afford not to vote, not to speak out. Complacency and apathy need to change among citizens before things start to get better. I believe it can be done.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’ve got it, Debra. Staying involved, voting, and being active when necessary. We can’t relinquish our responsibilities as citizens. Citizens who care about dignity and opportunity for all and a society that expects, supports, and promotes values and programs that support that goal.

  6. heimdalco says:

    I intended to add but forgot … President Biden is a reason for hope. I pray that his strength, honesty, decency & determination to return the US to its former standing & leadership position will prevail. He is an honorable man & a gentle yet determined leader.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree. I just wish the political culture that has developed weren’t making his job so immensely difficult. Many, many people around the world wish him very, very well.

  7. heimdalco says:

    As sad as this blog is, it is true. As an American I am daily appalled by the direction our country is taking … the drive of the Republican Party to maintain control & doing everything they can … right or wrong, honest or dishonest … to make that happen. It is party first, country second or even farther down the list depending on what is happening on any given day.

    My heart weeps & aches as the uninformed in droves follow like mindless sheep & champion the rhetoric of a twice impeached former president or the conspiracy theories of QAnon. Not only does my heart weep, the direction of this country, the impediments to voting in future elections, the savagery aimed at minorities absolutely scares the hell out of me. What kind of example is the US providing today????

    Throughout my voting history if my chosen candidate lost an election I was always pretty sure that the opposition winner would take care of our country because that was the goal of ALL leaders even if there was disagreement about policy. I don’t feel that way now. I pray that in my lifetime I am able to see a global return of honesty, decency, undiluted democracy & equality.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking & chilling post.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, heimdalco, I know just what you mean. I grew up on Long Island (a long time ago) and felt exactly the same way. Were we just naïve or have politicians really gotten this greedy and deceitful, not in it for the betterment of the country, all its citizens, and for making the world a better place? What happened to that dream and expectation??

  8. Sobering, but unfortunately true. I feel as though the U.S. is teetering on the brink, and the next couple of elections could bring disastrous results. I am hoping that President Biden’s policies will help steer this country on a saner course. Time will tell, but as Maine Historian Heather Cox Richardson has noted, the future is not set. But the road ahead is long, windy, and bumpy.

  9. annemariewatson says:

    Exactly.

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