Headlined “Dawn of the Demagogues”, The Sunday Age on February 25, 2018, devoted two pages to addressing the question: Is democracy winning or losing the global contest? Written by the newspaper’s Europe correspondent, Nick Miller, it quotes two Harvard University professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of a new book called “How Democracies Die” who assert scholars such as themselves are increasingly concerned that democracy may be under threat worldwide, even in places where its existence has long been taken for granted.
In a 2011 survey in Venezuela, with president Hugo Chavez promising democracy but descending into a totalitarian mode of power politics nonetheless, a majority of citizens gave the country a score of at least 8 out of 10 on a scale where 10 was “completely” democratic. The professors warned consequently that “Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.” But is it really? Maybe in Venezuela at that time, but as people take to the streets in so many countries to protest against supposedly democratic governments for their human rights abuses, corrupt malpractice and encroachment on basic freedoms of speech and expression as well as media independence, is democracy being eroded or is people power an illusion of imagination, even delusional in its belief that it can benevolently affect change and expose its leaders as fascist frauds who masquerade as loyal friends.
In 1989, 52 countries were defined by the Polity Project as democratic with a score of 6 or higher on its democratic scale as the world witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Compared to 1971 when just 31 countries were so defined, in those ensuing 18 years there was a substantial leap to democracy, with an even more outstanding tally in 2015 with 103 countries achieving 6 or higher on the Project scale. These so-called democracies raise a very complex conundrum as Levitsky and Ziblatt claim: “Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” So are these countries legitimate democracies or simply possessing a fatuous and pretentious façade? Certainly, if the Harvard professors’ perspective is valid, what can we understand by the people who protest vociferously in the streets against their elected governments? Or is there power a non-sequitur; an irrelevant tangent to a tapestry of democratic dreams and idealistic aspirations, where the realpolitik subverts protest as no more than a mirage of naïve hope, inherently impotent and unimportant to the governing elite maintaining control.
Instead of just lamenting the downfall of democracy into some abyss of annihilation, it may be apposite to analyse why thousands of people marching in the streets is seemingly meaningless in so many countries with the Polity Project scale invoking derision in its denial of reality. Likewise, may be the Harvard professors need to examine whether countries regarded as democracies were ever democratic in the first place; the question being not how these democracies are dying, but how so many leaders have cunningly, albeit spuriously, convinced others of their democratic persuasion.
There are 60 non-democratic countries, 20 full autocracies and 40 more autocratic than democratic, four fifths of people living in those countries reside in China, which at least has no illusion of permitting its citizens a multi-party choice in elections, a right to dissent against government policies and practices or a free and liberal media, among other things. Certainly in China people are clear about how they can publicly “think” and behave but are the so-called 103 democracies really that different in their exercise of power? It is almost three years since I wrote about the demise of democracy and it seems that demise has continued, but while I asserted people “don’t notice how (their)…voice has become soundless and mute…and that too many ordinary mortals have forgotten they have a voice at all!” it seems pertinent to acknowledge many people have indeed discovered a “voice” and are vehemently using it in mass protests around the world.
Thousands of Americans have protested in the streets against Trump and even just last week school students paraded their placards demanding gun control after the latest Florida school mass murder, and in Turkey, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Thailand, Spain, Italy and Cambodia to mention a few nations, people are marching against bribery and corruption, censorship and limitations on the media et al. Yet, the governing elites continue in control leaving me to ponder how they do this? Are they aided and abetted by the military and the police to round up “the usual suspects” like Alexei Navalny in Russia and murder others? Are they complicit in assassinations such as of the investigative journalist and his partner who were killed in Slovakia this week? What exactly is happening behind closed doors in the corridors of parliamentary power and can ordinary people do anything about the crises in their countries?
Depressingly, I still believe in a conspiracy of control not just in China and North Korea but to a lesser extent I’m glad to say, in so many countries that disingenuously call themselves democracies. Trump’s election in America is testimony to people power to some degree in that the votes of a dispirited populace turned against the elite. Nonetheless it is indeed reassuring that the Mueller investigation about Russian collusion in Trump’s election victory is proceeding as this would never occur in many other so-called democracies.
In Israel, police recently recommended charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but according to Project Syndicate writer, Shalom Lipner, published in The Australian on Thursday March 1, 2018, there is no surety about what will transpire due to different party policies and beliefs in the Israeli parliament. “The stakes have never been higher…” he concluded for Netanyahu and the country. This understanding implies that maintaining power in parliament, both for individuals and the parties, will be paramount in deciding the outcome for Netanyahu. It is hardly about democracy or legality but about maintaining control by diverse power brokers.
Relevantly, Transparency International just released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index revealing that of 180 countries, New Zealand is now considered the least corrupt with European nations Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland also ranking highly as do Canada and Singapore. Australia is equal 13th scoring 77 on the Index since it began in 2012 when it ranked seventh. It ranks just behind Germany with Hong Kong and Iceland, the US and Japan 16th and 20th respectively. China ranks 77th scoring just 41. The Index, based on perception, considers the prevalence of bribery and misuse of public funds as well as the strength of integrity measures such as whistleblower and journalist protections and anti-corruption bodies. Many African, Asian Pacific and Middle East countries rated very poorly and Israel was not included in The Age article I perused.
It seems corruption in its many manifestations permeates much of the world, including the 103 countries defined as democratic by the Polity Project, including Australia. What can one make of this? Do governments even care about their people and is that intrinsic to being democratic? In this perspective, it is worth considering that it is 25 years since a Royal Commission was held in Australia into psychiatric abuse. The Commission reported widespread systemic abuse with many recommendations for reform yet recent media reports detail continuing abuse, neglect and inadequate community services and care. Apparently nothing has changed with the recommendations failing to be implemented presumably because governments do not rate the mentally ill as important.
This failure reflects anti-democratic values with thousands of people’s personal experience of psychiatric abuse translating into formal complaints reported in The Age a couple of years ago seemingly ignored; the Royal Commission’s review filed away in a now forgotten drawer as antipathetic to the system. Perchance those who control this system, the psychiatrists and other mental health professionals such as supporting GPs, psychologists, nurses and social workers among others, have a vested self-interest in maintaining their control without any semblance of democratic governance.
Furthermore, in late February 2018 another report was issued about the insidious prevalence of family violence with social commentators sadly saying on The Drum program on ABC-TV on Thursday, March 1 they have known about this crisis for 30 years and as with mental health, nothing has occurred to redress the situation. What was significant, by omission, was the ABC commentators, all female including the program’s presenter, conveniently ignoring that while I in 6 females experience family violence, 1 in 16 men do too. The entire discussion focused on services and assistance for females with no mention whatsoever that women were also violent perpetrators towards men who could similarly suffer from homelessness, lack of professional help, services and proper care. Unsurprisingly too, there was no mention of women to women violence or men to men within families. It is sad for me that my novel “The Circle War” which detailed both male and female violence will never be published. I’m not at all defending the men who are violent towards women nor am I at all condoning it, likewise, the violent women, but this reality is rarely mentioned in media reports or discussions and when it is, there is no attempt at understanding why they are also violent. The focus is on why men are violent. Is this just another example where democratic policies, designed for people’s wellbeing and safety, are not considered important enough, especially for men and women who suffer by other women?
Indeed, last week the newspapers published a story about two teenage girls who planned to “poison” a school mate with a chemical concoction. The ABC news reported it that night but didn’t mention the culprits were female. It left the gender unclear leaving viewers to probably assume they were male. Furthermore, the girls were only suspended and the police could not lay charges because the “victim” did not want to formally complain. Not only do I believe that fails our democracy very depressingly, but what of our laws when these girls apparently get a “lenient” suspension only? The Victorian Government is now discussing plans to address this anomaly.
Maybe one shining light in Australia’s democracy is the outcome of the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse where many perpetrators have been caught, judged and sentenced to jail. Compensation is also to be paid to the survivors who testified. However, negatively again, Australia’s policy on asylum seekers and conditions on Nauru and Manus Island were consistently denounced by not just ordinary people in a plethora of newspaper letters but journalists continually wrote lengthy and in-depth articles exposing the tortuous plight of these refugees in detention, to no avail within government or opposition either. For several years as well, various UN agencies, doctors and aid workers also highlighted and condemned Australia’s policy as an abuse of human rights almost on a daily basis. What was the outcome? The situation persisted unchanged until the PNG Supreme Court closed Manus detention centre in 2017 with Australia arranging a deal with America for some refugees to be settled there, but hundreds are still in limbo without any effective, compassionate or humanitarian policy change by either the LNP or Labor Party. People power subsumed as subversive?
I mention these examples to highlight that whether people take to the streets against governments, whether royal commissions are held into pervasive social problems (Victoria had its own Royal Commission into Family Violence a couple of years ago) and whether political leaders are found to breach the law, eliciting changing is another issue altogether. I do believe wealthy, vested self-interest can prohibit reform and genuine change but I’m unsure as to how one can implement change without the powers of many institutions and services being willing to in the first instance, even countenance that possibility. The status quo remains entrenched without conjecture.
It also seems self-aggrandisement and personal prestige dictate much of what goes on in too many countries, sidelining ordinary people without the resources, necessary skills or network connections to do anything, myself included. My salvation is I write, believing, perhaps very idealistically, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Simultaneously as I have penned, much of what I write does not get published because it’s contrary to accepted so-called expertise and wisdom.
So whither democracy? It is an old adage that people get the government they deserve, but what politicians do people want to vote for? Certainly, I abandoned the Labor Party after decades because of its stance on asylum seekers and adherence to off-shore processing as well as its support for the LNP meta-data laws which could negatively impact journalists doing their job. Obviously, I couldn’t vote for the LNP either so I turned to the Australian Sex Party, but aspiring to work voluntarily for it to push their stated sex education policies and getting nowhere, I lost my respect for it too. Disappointingly, it has now changed its name to the Reason Party and lost my support completely.
Withstanding that and believing politicians are fallible and imperfect, there is no one I want to vote for at the forthcoming state and federal elections partly because they have abandoned democratic values, but even more significantly, I realised they too are delusional in their avowed commitment to democracy. Certainly, we have fair and free elections comparative to many other countries, but the choice of candidates and parties attest to a “veneer” of democracy as Levitsky and Ziblatt postulate.
So three years after my first Conspiracy of Control blog it is still extant and pervades our so-called democratic institutions and services across the country. It may be that people who genuinely believe in democratic values do not want to participate in a system that can render them impotent. Is it an innate limitation of democracy as it’s practised as one can only vote for those who are pre-selected and/or nominate as independents? Furthermore, may be democracy is relative and compared to China, Russia and many other countries, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy freedom and liberty, however proscribed.
Public censorship and self-censorship still affect us yet my perspective has changed somewhat in believing I can at least write what I want and post it on my website without fear of retribution. People can also protest in the streets, in print in newspapers and online and we can reasonably and inoffensively say what we like without being imprisoned.
While Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, it is obvious that some people are deemed more significant than others, as governors and the governed. It may be that as one 60yearssomething male friend told me on two different occasions when I asked him what he cared about, his response-“my survival”- possibly and probably echoes millions of people whose personal interests transcend any compassionate care about others; as if these perspectives are mutually exclusive. Sadly this may be true for most ordinary people and politicians around the world. Perhaps the pertinent point about democracy as Lincoln defined it, is survival at what cost and on what basis?
I have just finished an article in The Age Good Weekend magazine of Saturday, March 3, about a website called Change.org, established 10 years ago by American Ben Rattray which enlists petitions signed by ordinary people to effect change in particular policies across the world. The article narrates many success stories for people otherwise denied or unable to campaign for new policies; a website encouraging civic participation and democratic practice.
Rattray himself was quoted: “(Living) in DC, I studied firsthand the inability of everyday citizens to have a voice in what Americans liked to think of at the time as the world’s greatest democracy.”
Believing online participation is still in its infancy and that new technologies will transform representative democracy, Rattray contests this is not impossible, but “inevitable”.
I can only hope he is right!