Eyad Abu Shakra

Our World and Democracy… What Democracy!?

The late British leader Winston Churchill made one of the most eloquent political claims of the contemporary era when he said that "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

If this iconic leader of the so-called "free world" and Western democracy has such a view of the political principle that democracies have sought to promote - or rather, impose - across the world, can some of us in the "Third World" that is accused of being backward not be excused for being less naively fascinated with the ideals of democracy as they are manifesting themselves today??

Here, I reference another example of critique, of the Soviet Union, attributed to an American journalist during the Cold War. The journalist asked a Soviet politician about the lack of democracy in the USSR. I am, of course, paraphrasing the conversation:

- Democracy means holding elections and having political parties, and you do not have that in the Soviet Union.

- We do have a party, and we have elections at various party levels. We elect officials, from local councils to the Presidium...

- But you have only one party. What options do citizens actually have?

- It is true, we have one party. But the difference between us is marginal, as you have only two parties in America. You don’t have much broader options than us!

This dialogue may seem somewhat absurd. It could indeed be seen as totally illogical under normal circumstances, but if we were to brush over the historical developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we would find the following:

First, absolute choices are available to voters under normal circumstances, during times of peace and a desire for coexistence. However, the electorate is often denied such choices under other circumstances, when the authorities are facing an external threat or senses a domestic threat.

For example, despite being a democracy, the US did not hesitate to detain innocent Japanese nationals after Pearl Harbor in early 1941. Most Republicans saw nothing wrong with Donald Trump refusing to acknowledge the presidential election results in the fall of 2020, although those elections were held during his term. Moreover, the majority of Republicans continued to support him after he incited an attack on the Capitol building (the heart of US democracy) on January 6, 2021.

Second, democratic systems (under normal circumstances as well) are broadly tolerant of the "radicalism" of marginal forces, nihilistic factions, or anarchic groups. However, what is known as "establishment" parties share ideological assumptions and are usually governed by networks of higher interests that often go beyond diverse political choices. Thus, when these higher interests impose themselves, effective alternatives essentially disappear.

For instance, in Britain, "anti-Semitism" (as Israel defines it) accusations have become a sword yielded against anyone who objects to the violence in the Gaza Strip, which even President Joe Biden called "over the top." The two major British parties, the Conservatives and Labour - the right and the left - have a "shared interest" in rejecting the characterization of what is happening in the Gaza Strip as a "genocide," despite the fact that 30,000 people, most of them civilians, have died since the attack on October 7.

Remarkably, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is not the only one that insists on using "soft" terms to obscure who is behind the violence. "Bombardments" become "battles;" and victims "die," they are not "killed." In fact, Israeli newspapers like Haaretz appear more objective and bold in their coverage, characterization, and analysis of the events there than serious British newspapers.

Third, the societies that have experimented with "electoral" democracy are gradually staying further away from the spirit of democracy. They are veering away from its foundations of coexistence and tolerance, which guarantee the right to choices, hold those in positions of power accountable, and the independence of the judiciary.

Thus, we see some "electoral" democracies are in crisis, either as a result of the spread of ethnic, religious, and sectarian populism, as in the case of India, Hungary, Italy, and even the United States, or because they have made "hysterical" bets on any option that had not been tested as they seek an escape from reality, as is the case in Argentina today... and as had been the case in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro.

Fourth, the future of coexistence and international and global compromise seems threatened not only by the distortion of democracy as a principle, practice, and conviction, but also by two major emerging threats:

- The "demographic bomb," with all its deadly implications for migration, asylum, desertification, and scarcity of resources.

- And the "technological bomb" of "artificial intelligence" after the "communication revolution" and the rise of "information technology" diminished the role of humans in cultural interactions and limited cultural fusion.

Today, humanity is gradually transforming, in the best case, into consumers and spectators. In the worst case, we are becoming mute and deaf puppets on which higher volition that we are unable to - or even unaware that is in our interest to - resist.

We are now prisoners of a world we were told we have been subjected to our free will. We now find ourselves incapable of electing a town president or a village mayor or getting news that is not fabricated or finding information that is not falsified!