Under the cosh

Alamgir Khan
Thursday, February 11th, 2016


On 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, delivered a very short speech which ended with one of the most unforgettable words in politics: “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Since that day, most people in the world have been using those last words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as the definition of democracy. But that sort of government has been only a dream, not a reality, though there are many democracies in the world.


Democracy as a political system has been in bad health for long and the condition is deteriorating day by day. A period of political recession has set in and democracy is in trouble in most places of the world. It is in poor health in America, too. Barack Obama admitted in his State of the Union Address, “Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, …. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”


Now is the election season in America. “When it comes to political entertainment, it doesn’t get much better than presidential election season in the United States,” wrote Nina L. Khrushcheva, a Russian-American professor of international affairs. (The Marketing of the American President, Project Syndicate, 25 January 2016)  She wrote, “Americans tend to focus on excitement above all – who looks better, has a catchier sound bite, seems most ‘authentic,’ and so on, often to the point of absurdity.” According to her, “A president, in other words, is nothing more than a product to be marketed. And, as any marketer knows, the quality of the product is not necessarily what drives its success.” She mentioned a 1928 book by Edward Bernays who wrote, “Politics was the first big business in America.” We see “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has a small place in this and this place is becoming smaller day by day, almost everywhere in the world.


This is why Fareed Zakaria wrote back in 1997 in the Foreign Affairs magazine, ‘Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. … we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life – illiberal democracy.’ In his opinion, “many countries are settling into a form of government that mixes a substantial degree of democracy with a substantial degree of illiberalism.”


There are factual reasons to be concerned about the state of democracy in the world nowadays. Freedom House published a report on freedom in the world in 2009, which was entitled ‘Undermining Democracy.’ Its 2015 report is entitled ‘Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist.’ This journey of democracy world over from ‘undermining’ to ‘discarding’, as reflected in the titles of the report, tells a lot about the condition of its health. However, everyone cannot agree on the indices of freedom used here to measure the level of democracy in a country. Still, this report deserves attention because what it says in general is consistent with the present world situation.


Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research, wrote in the introductory chapter, “acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.” And the report says in ‘conclusion’, “For some time now, the momentum of world politics has favored democracy’s adversaries. While the dramatic gains of the late 20th century have not been erased, the institutions meant to ensure fair elections, a combative press, checks on state power, and probity in government and commerce are showing wear and tear in the new or revived democracies of Central Europe, Latin America, and Asia. In the Middle East, the potential of the Arab Spring has given way to the chaos and carnage …. In Africa, the promise of freedom survives, but the dominant trend is one of corruption, internal conflict, terrorism, …. Even in the United States, the year’s headlines featured racial strife, a renewed argument over counterterrorism tactics, and political gridlock.”


French economist Thomas Piketty exressed his concern for the state of democracy in his famous book, though his key point is Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, expressing his full agreement with the findings of Piketty, shifted the focus on ‘Democracy In The Twenty-First Century’ in a Project Syndicate article. Stiglitz was more worried about the condition of democracy than that of capital in the coming years. The reasons for taking his concerns seriously are many.

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