In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.
The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.
Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.
The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world. Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.
The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.
But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?
A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.
The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?
The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.
Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.
For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.
David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”
Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.
– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.