BY NURMASH TOK
Democracy finds itself in an increasingly hostile environment, placing it in the most precarious position in decades. Democracy has been opposed by some for eternity, but new threats from within have emerged. Often implicitly, the most established democracies have begun to row back on their commitments.
How we define democracy is disputed, but not knowing what democracy is has made it gradually harder to defend. Generally, we might associate a ‘democracy’ with free and fair elections, representation, freedom of speech, equality, freedom, and accountability. Whilst correct on principle, these are just ideas we associate with ‘democracy’. Democracy has no concrete definition, instead defined by these subjective associations. For example, what does ‘freedom of speech’ look like?
Parts of the world have always rejected democracy. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China present democracy as incompatible with their society’s values, ineffective, and make little effort to disguise the autocratic nature of their states. Their opposition to democracy is nothing new, having long threatened democratic systems, often supporting the rise of autocracies through their diplomatic interventions. This threat to democracy has been persistent but is on the rise due to further steps away from anything that resembles democracy. Take China’s recent threats to Taiwan (a strong proponent of democracy) as an example.
Next is the threat from states that could have shifted either between a full-fledged democracy or an outright autocracy. Most notably, Russia. Russia looked set to be one of the world’s leading democracies in the early 2000s but has since moved to be an advocate of autocracy, with nothing close to free or fair elections.
Perhaps most concerning is the rolling back of democracy in states that have previously been its most ardent supporters. General dissatisfaction with conventional democratic politics has weakened the credibility and foundations of fair democratic systems. Therefore, belief in democracy is no longer the most uniting and social force in the world’s most advanced democracies, with many people now prepared to part with democratic principles. Often out of desperation, the hope for change and improvement places ahead of democracy itself. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US, with Trump and his loyal supporters still denying the result of the 2020 election.
The design of a democracy is an important, highly subjective, and non-uniform practice. Inadequately designed or weak democracies threaten democratic principles, with failures and inefficiencies inevitably leading to an anti-democracy backlash in society. Challenges emerging from poorly implemented and inefficient political systems are often mistaken for challenges of democracy throughout the Western world. In the US, longing for a charismatic leader, frustrations over the democratic process, and the alienation of certain groups in society due to elitism explains the loyalty of Donald Trump’s supporters and their willingness to undermine democracy. However, the core principle of democracy itself is not to blame for this. It is a poorly implemented system. The solution for poor democratic design is not a shift to authoritarianism but more democracy. It is illogical to oppose democracy, with any anti-democracy movements emerging from systems that are poorly implemented or not truly democratic in the first place.
At its heart, the basis of democracy is political equality and popular sovereignty. For this reason, it should be a universal condition for every human society. There is nothing subjective, ‘Western’, or controversial about advocating for the natural equality of every individual and people’s say in decisions impacting their lives.
Ownership of ourselves is a natural condition. We are not brought here by choice or with prior knowledge of the world, so society is only fair if each person has an equal opportunity to live and decide what happens to their life. Arguments against democracy are unreasonable, whilst the arguments for it are compelling. People should be the source of legitimacy for decisions and decision-makers when choices impact them, and no one should have more power over decisions than others.
Many countries are wary of democracy. However, they shouldn’t be because the two simple ideas of popular sovereignty and political equality are at its core. The rest is flexible. Autocracies should embrace democracy, as the right design will produce a legitimate and context-specific political structure; be it an illiberal democracy or a religious one, it is only fair that equal people choose. Tunisia, a success story, took this step towards democracy - others should now follow.
The concept of democracy should be everywhere, as it is the only system that provides legitimate decision-making and fairness, backed by the idea of equal individuals deciding what is done to them collectively and individually. Practical implementation and the form democracy takes can and should vary depending on the cultural context.
It has never been more crucial for established democracies to defend their structures and to encourage others to adopt them too. Now, more than ever, less bureaucracy in the electoral process and defined citizen rights are needed to address the issues people find with current political systems. Democracy is not the source of our problems; democracy is the solution.
Image: Flickr/ vote