Democracy at the critical juncture

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Aug 18 2019 11:56 AM

We are all democrats now. We have heard this phrase so many times, declared by so many before, especially in the early '90s, from academics to political leaders and even religious leaders. Why not when we have witnessed more than 60 sovereign countries, most with nary the sound of a gun, democratizing, following what Samuel P. Huntington popularly referred to as the “third wave of democratization.” And we thought we have come to the century of democracy where political standards are set, as democracy has become the last standing model of politics and governance.

It was the most opportune time to declare that we have reached what Francis Fukuyama described as the “End of History and the Last Man.” Suddenly everything in the world seemed better, freer and without boundaries. This is the euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in November and December of 1991, respectively. Democracy has won, but as Winston Churchill would say, it remains “…the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

We might just be looking at democracy as our romanticized concept of politics and governance that our assumptions of what democracy is may in fact be everything that it is not, or probably our picture of democracy is incomplete. However we approach democracy, whether through its history and comparatively looking at different countries, it will show that not everything we ascribe in a democracy are not all how it is supposed to be. We may be giving too much emphasis on a particular aspect and forgetting how one element impacts on the overall scheme of politics and governance that help determine democracy from one that is not.

Consider for example how much significance we pin on participation as an element of democracy. The assumption that the degree of participation is an indication of democracy is right, but only as much as it coincides with the other deliverables of politics and governance, such as at the very least, service to the people, and by people we mean everyone as much possible regardless of race, gender, age, religion, culture and social and economic circumstance. This means, service to the people should satisfy the needs of all, which then goes without saying that a good balance is achieved between what the people need and the limited resources and opportunities.

Participation is therefore the mechanism of democracy. Without participation, it cannot be called democracy. Without participation one will only ask the question who decides what’s good for the people if not them? After all, why would there be a need for the people to participate in the first place if not to determine and achieve what’s good for them? On the other hand having to determine what’s good for the people will lead you to ask the next question how they come to know what is good and if the people actually know what’s good for them.

Democracy is thus a dynamic. It can never be constant as development entails constant change hence the need for participation. But it cannot be about participation for participation’s sake. Participation is inherent in democracy as it is what allows people, stakeholders in society to engage in a good exchange of ideas that should lead to understanding not only between and amongst them but of what is commonly beneficial for them at any given time. It should not be mistaken to be a mechanism of a particular segment of society goading the rest as they participate. This type of participation can only imply either an oligarchy or an authoritarian regime. If plain and simple participation, without any clear objective or direction to achieve an objective, it can only be what ancient thinkers call an ochlocracy or anarchy.

It is the element of “understanding” that is supposed to be achieved by participation that is the key in making sense of democracy. The people have to be aware not only why there is participation but also the nature and kind, even type of participation. Participation is thus the language used and therefore common to the people in order to facilitate understanding. This is what makes democracy a fundamental challenge in a plural or diverse society, especially in a huge country, especially in a state that counts as one people what is actually diverse and different peoples.

This has always been a fundamental question for democracy. The eminent sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset asked in his book in 1963 why Canada was different. Canada was established and developed as a democracy differently compared to its neighbor the United States of America even if they share a similar history. The answer, Lipset argues, is in the development of each country’s public institutions that in turn led to the different identities of Canadians and Americans.

The key in understanding the people and its country therefore is in its public institutions. Public institutions frame political participation, which as we have established in the forgoing, is the language that facilitates understanding as the people determine what is good for them. If the people view participation differently, there is very little chance that understanding can be facilitated. On the contrary, it will just result to indifference, even antagonism.

This explains why while it may be true that it is in the nature of man, of people to seek freedom, different peoples see freedom and even the way to freedom differently. You might be surprised to know that even those many consider to be “terrorists” are in fact after the same, freedom and of course accordingly, development. The different public institutions in each country only indicate different mindsets and ultimately different identities.

This leads Lipset to present that while democracy can be understood in studying the development of the United States as a democratic nation, he is “not holding up the American polity as an exportable model for all efforts at democracy. It should rather be recognized that the character of democratic polities may vary greatly, depending on various elements in the social structure of nations with which the political institutions mesh.”

The foregoing is a framework that will allow us to make sense of the current challenges to democracy, from the much feared and even loathed election and now presidency of Donald Trump, the emergence of extreme right parties in Europe and now with the drawn out popular protest in Hong Kong. Many have asked if there is a good chance it will turn out to be just like Tiananmen in 1989. If we are to use the framework we have established in the foregoing, the unfortunate answer to this question is yes. It can be expected to turn out bloody, more than Tiananmen. The reason is not so much about the kind of government China has, but more because the people of China may possibly view the protests in Hong Kong differently, that there will not be any opposition to whatever the government and its leaders decide to be the answer to this protest.

We shall get back to this in the next.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.