What hap­pened to democ­racy?

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

Democ­racy is in re­treat around the world. In Venezuela, it has col­lapsed into the au­thor­i­tar­ian regime of Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro, who’s grab­bing even more power for him­self af­ter last week­end’s far­ci­cal elec­tion. In Turkey, it has been hi­jacked by Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan who’s si­lenced the press, crushed op­po­si­tion and jailed 50,000 peo­ple on the pre­text of deal­ing with a failed coup. The Philip­pines tran­si­tioned from dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy in the 1980s only to suc­cumb to a new tyrant — Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte — who threat­ens to bomb In­dige­nous Filipino schools for al­legedly turn­ing out com­mu­nists. And this is just the start of the list. In its lat­est Democ­racy In­dex, The Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, a sis­ter to the Econ­o­mist news­pa­per, de­clared 2016 “a year of global demo­cratic re­ces­sion.” Of the 165 in­de­pen­dent states it in­ves­ti­gated, 72 ex­pe­ri­enced a de­cline in democ­racy. While half the world’s pop­u­la­tion lives in some kind of a democ­racy, only 4.5 per cent of peo­ple in­habit a “full democ­racy,” the in­dex said.

Sadly, Amer­i­cans no longer be­long in that most de­sir­able cat­e­gory. Their coun­try was down­graded to a “flawed democ­racy,” not be­cause they elected Don­ald Trump — he’s just a symp­tom of their prob­lems — but be­cause Amer­i­cans are so disen­gaged from a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem they no longer trust. It wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen this way.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 in­spired heady pre­dic­tions the world was strid­ing into a golden age of democ­racy. But Rus­sia’s foray into democ­racy dead­ended in the au­to­cratic Vladimir Putin. Many thought that af­ter China em­braced free mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, it would open its arms to democ­racy. Not only has that not hap­pened, China re­jects Western con­cepts of hu­man rights and free­doms as the prod­ucts of an alien cul­ture.

China’s eco­nomic mir­a­cle, one that has lifted hun­dreds of mil­lions out of poverty, has also shown that eco­nomic growth need not de­pend on democ­racy. Other coun­tries took note.

Per­haps the Great Re­ces­sion of the last decade con­vinced peo­ple democ­racy does not al­ways guar­an­tee wealth. Per­haps this ex­plains, in part, the wide­spread rise in pop­ulism, con­tempt for po­lit­i­cal elites, ero­sion of faith in in­sti­tu­tions and will­ing­ness to em­brace ex­tremes.

Can such trends be stopped? What­ever reser­va­tions Cana­di­ans have about their gov­ern­ments, they should be proud the Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit ranked their coun­try as the world’s sixth most func­tional democ­racy. We need to spread the word: Democ­racy is pre­cious be­cause it gives peo­ple a say, for bet­ter and some­times worse, in who gov­erns them and to what ends, and be­cause its prac­ti­tion­ers agree to obey the law. Just as im­por­tant, the lead­ers of the truly demo­cratic na­tions should, by ex­am­ple and ac­tion, in­spire other coun­tries to es­tab­lish gov­ern­ments of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple and for the peo­ple.

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