First, listen to this. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Earl Miller, in a webinar organized recently by Cosmos Foundation, told his audience, 'Democracy can only function when all people are fully included, their rights are protected, their voices are heard, and their votes are counted.' He felt that a country's future success would be fueled by 'strengthening of democratic institutions and governing structures with plural and democratic electoral process in place.'
The country the US envoy was talking about is Bangladesh.
Now read this. In a cover story for the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, Barton Gellman, a noted American journalist, made the following observation. 'The next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by voters will not decide the Presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away., or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified President.'
The country Gellman is referring to is the USA.
The concern for Bangladesh's democracy is genuine. Its elections are defective, press freedom is under assault, and space for democratic opposition is shrinking. The same is also true for the USA. The reference to the first coup attempt made in Gellman's excellent expose was the insurrection of 6 January, which saw several thousand people marching into the halls of US Congress where the two chambers of the US legislature had convened to certify the winner of the 2020 election. Cheering on the mob from the sidelines - and from the White House - was the man who had lost the elections but claimed he was the real winner. Almost a year later, he continues to make the same claim, and 68 percent of Republicans agree with him. In Gellman's reckoning, American democracy is being stolen right in front of our eyes.
Mr. Ambassador, are you listening?
Gellman and most sane observers in the US have repeatedly rung the same alarm, urging Americans to wake up from their stupor. 'We fight like hell and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.' These are the words of the man who had lost the elections exhorting his followers to take up arms. And in response thousands marched into a building the Americans so proudly hold up as their symbol of democracy. The insurrectionists were there not to protect democracy, but to steal it.
They failed by a whisker, but next time America may not be as lucky.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking at Biden's Summit for Democracy (9 and 10 December), was even more explicit. She admitted the US democracy was not immune from threats. 'January 6 looms large in our collective conscience and the anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy,' she said.
Given the reality facing America and its democratic traditions, the sobering observations made by the US Ambassador about Bangladesh and the challenges for its democracy are all the more curious. America is a house on fire. Should it be the one telling others how to put out the fire in their homes? Can a patient be the doctor and write prescriptions for others? Referring to the Summit for Democracy convened by President Biden, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post cautioned, while promoting democracy worldwide is a great idea, Biden should begin at home.
In other words, a little bit of humility is in order.
Let's dig a bit deeper and read a bit more from the Ambassador's well-considered advice to Bangladesh and its people. 'United States supports free, fair, credible, participatory, and peaceful elections that reflect the will of the Bangladesh people. ... In every country, it is important that all political parties, voices, and all voters can participate and have confidence in the electoral process.'
For Bangladesh, a country described by Freedom House as 'party free,' these are correct diagnosis of the ailment it suffers from. But they are no less appropriate for the USA, a country that scores in Freedom House's Democracy Index 83 points out of 100. Fully 'free' but not exactly an ideal state, like Sweden which scored the maximum. Things could get much worse if the 'coup plotters' get what they want.
Currently, very concerted efforts are underway in the US not only to deny a large section of the population from voting but to render all votes meaningless. In 2020, after his election debacle, Trump with the help of a couple of lawyers had come up with the novel idea of asking the State legislatures to reject the officially certified electors and come up with their own. Taking a cue from the vanquished President, State legislatures in Wisconsin, and several other Republican-led states, are drafting new laws that will empower the lawmakers to have the final say on which slate of electors is sent to Congress for the final certification.
If the Republicans win back both Houses in 2022, as is expected, the mobs will win, the people will lose.
Most sane Americans are genuinely concerned. Donald Trump has given rise to a cult never seen before. Five years ago, not yet the winner of his party's nomination, he had told an adoring audience in Iowa that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and he wouldn't lose any voters. 'It's, like, incredible,' he said sounding not a bit embarrassed. Now, after being impeached twice and losing an election to a candidate he called 'sleepy Joe,' he has become the cult leader whose followers are eager to take up arms, literally, and storm the proverbial palace.
Barton Gellman writes, Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.
If this is a harbinger of what is about to unfold, we should all be very fearful.
It is in the backdrop of this emerging reality that I read the Ambassador's remarks and felt a little squeamish. Americans are always very good at telling the world about its support for democracy, though its actions tell a very different story. Building democracy means building democratic institutions, including pluralism, free and fair elections, free media, and a vibrant civil society. This is hard work and needs time. America Instead prefers a short cut, often opting for regime change as a quick fix for the global democracy deficit. At the turn of the century, the good-doer Americans were engaged in violent regime changes in various parts of the world, all yielding disastrous results.
This was the beginning of what Anne Applebaum calls the decline of the centrality of democracy to American foreign policy. This only accelerated during the Trump years, when his acts not only undermined democracy at home but also encouraged those abroad who openly flaunted democratic norms and practices. Trump thought winning the election would make him King, but when he faced road bumps, he proceeded to befriend those who were either actual Kings or wannabe kings (read autocrats). This is how we got the Dutertes, Orbans, Modis, and Sissis of the world and their unbridled march to authoritarianism.
Let's admit, democracy is in retreat and the world's autocrats are on the rise everywhere. Now is the time for a genuine leader who will lead us by example. At last week's Summit for Democracy, President Biden spoke eloquently of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, including to his own country. With disarming honesty, he said he wanted to host this summit because 'here in the United States we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort.' President Biden also said, the world now desperately needs a genuine champion of democracy.
Could America be that champion?
I think so, I hope so.
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