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.]
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.