What happened to democracy?
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.