IS DEMOCRACY COMING TO AN END IN AMERICA?

This ought to be a frivolous question, but it no longer is. No less of an authority than President Barack Obama has issued the warning. In his final State of the Union Address in early 2016, he called on his fellow Americans to “fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.”

Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections has caused more observers to question the health of democracy in America, such as for example Professor Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the American government. However, the challenge to American democracy does not come from the election of an anti-establishment outsider, however outrageous he may be, but from a combination of two circumstances: the coming to power of a president with disrespect for democracy at a time when democratic institutions are already weakened.

What has eaten into the democratic foundations in America, more than anything else, is the power of money. The system is rigged in favour of the rich and of special interests. Washington perverts into collusion between big politics and big money. There is gridlock in government and anger in the heartlands. What is broken is finally we-feeling in the population and trust between people and government.

There are also other, if less dramatic, institutional distortions. During the last two or three administrations the balance of power between the main branches of government has been upset so that Congress has gradually lost authority. From one side, a politicised and unrestrained Supreme Court has usurped powers it should not have and made itself not just a guardian of law but a maker of law. From the other side, the Presidency has usurped other powers to govern without the collaboration of Congress such as in the widespread use of “signing statements” to limit his duties of implementing Congress’s laws and “executive orders” to govern without the consent of Congress.

The remarkable thing in the destruction of political equality and the pincer movement by the other powers against Congress, is that Congress itself is entirely passive. President Obama said that elected representatives are “trapped” by their dependency on raising ever more “dark money.” Congress has made itself an observer from the side-line to the deterioration of the Constitution.

Into this morass of institutional weakness steps a radical anti-politician. The inclinations of the person who becomes president, although constrained by checks-and-balances, matter enormously for the character of governance. American democracy is in need of repair. It has instead got a wrecker at the helm.

President Trump is not a man of democratic instinct. Of course, we observers from afar cannot know much about his true personality but it is to take him seriously to listen to what he says. He ran an outrageously ugly campaign based on anger, on fear of the other, on stimulating base mob instincts, on prejudice, on misogyny, on disregard of truth and facts, on disrespect for disagreement. He threatened his opponent with retribution and violence and held up the spectre of mass, possibly armed, action, having refused to commit himself to accepting the election result were it to go against him. He has been described, by competent expertise, as a world-class narcissist.

On the substance of his policies, we are starting to see the outlines, which are consistent with the persona we saw in the campaign.

  • A continuation in government from his habit in the campaign to disregard the truth and to use untruths as a method of working. The denial of truth and the propagandistic use of untruth is the method of dictatorship.
  • A systematic assault on the country’s free press. Journalists are collectively “dishonest” and what they produce is “fake news.” This is damaging. We are already into a Kafkaesque nightmare where the very meaning of truth and fact is being destroyed.
  • A continuation of disrespect for disagreement. An actress who speaks her mind gets clobbered, from the position of the Presidency, as “overrated” in her profession. A judge who rules according to the law, is branded a “so-called” judge. The White House spreads fear in the country.
  • An apparent uncontrollable urge to pick fights: with those who might disagree, of course, but also with his own administration and the intelligence services, and internationally with allies, such as the European Union, NATO and the neighbouring country of Mexico. A disregard for the duty of a powerful nation’s leader to make himself informed about matters he pronounces on. Washington spreads fear in the world.
  • A blustering use of executive orders, fortifying a precedent for governing without the collaboration of Congress. The deterioration of the Constitution continues.
  • And more drip-drip use of dictatorial methods. A lack of willingness to answer and inform, such as on his and his administration’s possible relations to an internationally aggressive Russia. Governance by prejudice, such as his (failed) attempt to ban all citizen from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

The administration is being ridiculed for being a mess. But that is to underestimate what is happening. This president came into office in an American democracy of institutional fragility. He has started to govern in ways that render the institutional foundations yet more fragile. The American polity needs an injection of trust but is getting ineffective and unsafe governance.

And whose fault is that? The American Constitution is designed to prevent any single president from doing much harm. But when President Obama says “fix our politics” he is really saying that the constitutional institutions are not what they should be. The Trump Presidency is unattractive, but it is Congress, finally, that is not doing its job.

PARTICIPATION I: IS PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY DEMOCRATIC?

The dust is settling after the British Brexit referendum – leaving us with this paradox: There was a majority in the population and in Parliament for Britain to remain in the European Union, but because of low turnout of younger voters, this majority did not prevail in the referendum. The matter was “put to the people,” resulting in a decision contrary to the popular will. Had the matter been left to Parliament, British EU policy would have continued to accord with the majority will of the people.

This paradox raises a question mark not only against the use of referendums but also more generally: is it a democratically good thing to encourage participation from below by the people in political decision-making? Is participatory democracy democratic?

In a series of posts on this blog, starting here, I will reflect on the theme of democracy and participation. The matter is all but simple. It might seem obvious that participation is a democratic good, but as so often what first seems simple on reflection turns out to be complicated.

I am in conversation with a student leader in Hong Kong who was one of the organisers of the “umbrella revolution” in late 2014 when up to 100 000 protesters occupied strategic sites in the city for a period of about two months and seriously disrupted governance and business. The action was in protest against what was seen as a stalled movement towards complete political democracy in Hong Kong. The student leader did not regret the action he and others encouraged at the time, but two years on needed to acknowledge, he said, that it had been of little or no consequence.

On the 21st of January 2017, the day the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions of women across America and around the world participated in Women’s Marches in protest against the anticipated policies of the new presidency. More than 600 marches took place in more than 80 countries, on all continents (including Antarctica), more than 400 in the United States, in probably the most massive political action from below ever seen.

It is easy to be sympathetic with young Hong Kong people who take to the streets in their demand for democracy. But did their action matter? It is easy to align with women across the world who stood up against the misogyny of the new American president. But did their action matter?

Of course, democracy depends on participation from below, but when and how? Of course, referendums are a democratic procedure, but when and how? Of course, manifestations of mass action are a democratic form of expression, but when and how? What is it right to do, and when? What works, and under what circumstances?

A sceptical view on participation was once expressed by the great Max Weber. He was an adviser to the German delegation to the peace treaty negotiations in Versailles in 1918 and got into a rambling and probably lubricated conversation one evening with General Ludendorff. (At one point he suggested to Ludendorff that he should offer up his head for execution as a way of restoring the honour of the German officer class.) Ludendorff asked him to explain the meaning of this thing democracy that he kept going on about. Weber replied: “In a democracy, the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ Later the people can sit in judgement. If the leader has made mistakes to the gallows with him.”

That we the people should just shut up and obey hardly corresponds to modern sensitivities, but could there be more truth to Weber’s provocation than we might like to accept? With participation, is it the more the better? Beyond voting in elections, how should we ordinary people be and get involved in democratic procedures and democratic decision-making?

In a thread of posts under the heading of “participation” I will try to find democratic answers to some of these democratic problems.

THE INEVITABLE UGLINESS OF DICTATORSHIP

China is the most sophisticated dictatorship ever known, so smooth in its operations that it often does not even look dictatorial. The leaders present themselves to the world as statesmen, immaculate in comportment, custodians of inscrutable wisdom.

But under the façade, their regime – however reformed, however much an admired model – is one that still rules, ultimately, by fear, intimidation, violence and death.

In researching my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I followed many cases of repression. An ugly regularity emerged. On the meeting ground between the regime’s agents and those who stand up to it, the little guys get beaten up by thugs – physically, systematically, at home, in the streets, in detention. Often badly, often to suffer grave injury. The statesmen, how suave they may appear on stage, behind the curtains are still the masters of mafia-style raw brutality.

Scott Savitt is an American who came to China in 1983 as an exchange students and stayed on as a journalist until 2000, when he was deported. He was then publishing an English language newspaper, Beijing Scene, with official Chinese backers, which however fell out of favour. His beautiful memoir of his colourful years in China has just been published as Crashing the Party.

He spent his last month in China in the Paoju Prison in central Beijing, next to the Lama Temple, known to innumerable tourists, who have streamed by it, as I have done, unaware that the shabby brick building was Beijing’s most notorious jail and torture chamber.

Here some bits of his experience:

“The cell is six-by-eight feet, windowless. The humidity is suffocating.”

Matong (shit bucket), the officer barks. I hear the officer empty it. Then he kicks it back inside, splashing drops of urine on me.”

“Time for the day’s only meal. Cold rice and dirty wilted cabbage. Flies swarm over the food. Several drown in the rancid oil.”

“Still not eating, eh? Starve yourself to death. See if we give a shit.”

“I steal glances into the crowded cells lining the hallway, packed with prisoners squatting with their hands clasped behind their heads, the painful position they’re required to maintain all day.”

“Blood oozes from the gash left by his steel-toed boot. He’s kicked and punched me regularly since my arrival. Sergeant Wang asks, Did you have an accident? Then he makes eye contact with the guard and cackles.”

“We have all the time in the world, Sergeant Wang says. Nobody knows where you are, and we can keep you here as long as we want.”

That was in 2000. Is that a long time ago? Since then, the screws of dictatorship have been ever tightened.

Democracy’s standing in the world is now so poor that it is standard in polite company to dismiss it as a mess of inefficiency, and to hold up orderly and effective autocracy as a better way. China is often the example.

The trouble with autocracy, however (in addition to usually being less effective in practice than in theory), is that if you allow it you are not likely to get benevolence. Order depends on state power, but uncontrolled power is dangerous to human dignity and freedom.

 

THE DESPERATE NEED FOR DEMOCRATIC REFORM

From a previous blog: “The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.”

Here is a short list of pending reform issues:

We need systemic economic reform. Societies that define themselves by security and inclusion cannot live by deprivation and division. Globalization and automation, the targets of the politics of discontent, come with enormous benefits in the form of affluence and quality of work and life. But we have not found a way of combining this progress with inclusiveness. To underwrite democracy under advanced capitalism, we need a new social contract. The shallow individualism and small-government gospel of Reaganism and Thatcherism has shipwrecked. Before inclusiveness in public policy must come inclusiveness in mindsets. It is a matter of nothing less than the reinvention of democratic political culture.

In Europe, the mindset of reform needs to include the European Union. British and European leaders should swallow their pride and sit down to devise a reformed union that can embrace all of Europe. The European Union is already a structure with many different forms of adhesion, from Swiss and Norwegian types of quasi-membership, via various combinations of inside and outside of the Schengen and the euro, to the comprehensive arrangements of the full-membership countries. Flexibility has proved to work and is now needed in respect to Brexit and to pre-empt other possible exits. Brussels may have to sacrifice a battle to win the war, but better that than to lose the war.

In Britain, the time is over-ripe for constitutional reform. It is a misunderstanding that Britain does not have a written constitution just because constitutional provisions are not collected into a single document with “constitution” its heading. But the constitution is poorly protected and open to political manipulation. The Brexit referendum was called by Prime Minister Cameron ahead of the 2015 general election for opportunistic party-political reasons. If they can, politicians of the day will manipulate the constitution for their own advantage. That should not be possible. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report of the inquiry into Britain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath was published, with deep criticism of a dysfunctional system of decision-making which resulted in colossal mistakes both on the entry into war and post-war management. Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.

In America, what burst through the surface in 2016 was the pent-up pressure from a long, relentless, step-by-step erosion of political culture in which big business has fortified itself as the power behind the throne. The reason there is gridlock in Washington is that the holders of office, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good. When big money is allowed to transgress massively into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be—those they wish to fund—and what they can decide once in office—that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big politics and big money. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money; it is money chasing politicians.

Read the full article in the Cairo Review.

CHINA AND THE EMBARRASSMENT OF WESTERN DEMOCRACY

It is an uncomfortable truth, as we leave 2016, the year of reaction, that democracy is in trouble. But the trouble for democracy does not come from Beijing, or from globalisation, or from abroad, or, in Britain, from Europe. It resides at home. The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.

The Chinese regime has had a good 2016 because it was a bad year for democracy. Official Chinese media and various commentators have made fun of the Brexit referendum in Britain and the Trump victory in the United States as being what you get if you are careless enough to let the people decide. The Chinese system is being held up as a model of stability. The leader, Xi Jinping, has exploited uncertainty and vacuum in the West, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru in November 2016 and then at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, to brazenly offer China up to the world as the guarantor of economic openness and free trade.

The awkward thing for the democracy side is that the Chinese dictators have been given a godsend of democratic weakness, so much so that Western democracy is widely seen to be in “crisis.” Both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were perverse. In Britain, there is a majority in the population and in Parliament in favour of continued membership in the European Union, but because of low voter participation among the young, that majority did not prevail in the referendum. In America, the losing candidate won the majority of the popular vote. In both countries, ugly campaigns embraced and encouraged sundry voices of xenophobia, fear of the other, racism and divisiveness which we until the fateful year of 2016 had thought had been marginalised to the dark and dusty corners of the house of modernity.

The turmoils of democracy in the West represent a shift in the balance of soft power in the world. Europe and America, in confusion and uncertainty, today look unimpressive. It is easy for Beijing to present the Chinese model as safe, stable and predictable. It is this shift in the power of esteem that Xi Jinping has been able to play on, successfully, in his travels to the West.

But there is more to Beijing’s interpretation of the misfortunes of democracy. The Chinese leaders have perfected a model which has proved itself functional for the perpetuation of their own regime. It is for that purpose above all that they are determined to retain dictatorial control and not risk democratic reforms. However, there is also a view, both among regime insiders and some commentators, such as the political scientist Daniel A. Bell in his The China Model, that the Chinese political system is genuinely superior to any democratic system, both in delivering effective governance and also morally.

We cannot know if the Chinese leaders really believe that their model is superior, or if their claim to superiority is only window dressing for the maintenance of the dictatorship they depend on. But if there is a temptation on their part to believe their own propaganda, that temptation will now have been stimulated. In my own analysis of the Chinese system, in my book The Perfect Dictatorship, I see the Chinese regime as a dangerous one in the world, or at least potentially dangerous. Its propensity to aggression is most visible in the South China Sea. The Chinese state is powerful. What may make it dangerous is a conviction in the minds of the leaders in Beijing that they are the custodians of a unique virtue. That conviction they are themselves cultivating with the revival of ideology in the form of the nationalistic and chauvinistic rhetoric of “the China Dream.” It has now been given the additional stimulus that their model has suddenly come to look better compared to the alternative. When democracy performs poorly, it is logical that those who have advocated autocracy feel that history is proving them right. It is logical that the leaders of a powerful state, who believe to be seeing that history is on their side, will make their state a more assertive one vis-à-vis neighbours and others.

There is a competition in the world between Western democracy and Chinese-style autocracy. For the West to stand tall in that competition, democratic governments must see to it that their democratic systems perform, deliver and command respect. The way to do that is through constant reform. Democracies are imperfect. They are strong not by being perfect – only dictatorships can be perfect – but by imperfections being recognised and worked on.

The systems the Chinese leaders and others are now able to make fun of, have neglected the imperative of constant reform. In America, the main problem is that the power of money has been allowed to prevail so that ordinary citizens rightly feel that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and that they themselves have no say. In Britain, the main problem is an excessively centralised system of political power with a wide gulf of distance between the rulers in London and the people throughout the land. In both countries, income and wealth has been redistributed to the rich and ultra-rich, leaving the middle class, not to mention the poor, behind in neglect and humiliation. The foundations of the democratic architecture has been allowed to crumble.

(First published in openDemocracy)

ELECTIVE DICTATORSHIPS

In America and Britain, the world’s core democracies, the legislatures, Congress and Parliament, are the weak link in the system of governance and in danger of marginalising themselves towards irrelevance.

We the people elect lawmakers to make important decisions on our behalf. An executive is constituted to collaborate with the legislature in the preparation of policies and to put into effect the lawmakers’ decisions. Among several reasons for this double structure of governance is that it increases the likelihood that decisions are well prepared and that governance will be effective. That’s part of the case for democracy.

Dictatorships do not have a similar double structure. There the making of law and the implementation of law is in the same hands. That increases the risk not only of despotic policies, but also of badly prepared decisions slipping through because there is not enough scrutiny in the process.

A problem with the democratic double structure is that there tends to be a tug of war between the legislature and the executive about who should do what. The executive invariably wants to dominate. If that is allowed to happen, the benefit of double structure scrutiny may go lost and democracy pervert towards de facto dictatorship. It falls on the legislature to stand up to the executive’s inclination to dictate.

In Britain, the tug of war has become visible in the preparation for Brexit. The government initially insisted that it should be in charge (by “royal prerogative”) with little or no involvement of Parliament until the government had negotiated a new deal with the European Union. However, that attempt by the government to claim for itself powers that belong to Parliament, failed when the Supreme Court ruled that the government did not have the authority to trigger Brexit without a formal decision by Parliament.

However, the remarkable thing in this process was that Parliament itself was unable to stand up to the government’s assault. We had the undignified spectacle of individual MPs appearing on the evening news and demanding that the government involved Parliament, while Parliament itself had no voice in the matter. Only when a private citizen brought the matter before the courts, could they lay down the government’s duty to collaborate with Parliament.

The government responded with issuing a Brexit Bill, as it then had to, but continued the battle for dominance. The Bill is only 130 words long, with no detail, and Parliament was given only five days to deal with it. Again, the spectacle of individual MPs popping up to complain and demanding that the government gives them more time. But Parliament itself has no voice in deciding on its own procedure.

In America, Donald Trump was inaugurated into the presidency and set about issuing a flurry of “executive orders” with wide reaching consequences. In so doing, he was claiming for himself the authority (the American version of “prerogative”) to make new law without involving Congress. This turned into a case study in the risks inherent in decision making without scrutiny. One sweeping order suspended entry into the country of all refugees for 120 days, of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and of all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. This was a manifestly bad decision, with unforeseen consequences galore and bringing global condemnation down upon America, a result of the decision having been badly prepared or not prepared at all. It was also a despotic decision, setting aside established American law in the matters concerned.

The order on refugees was brought before the courts by civic groups and immediately set aside as unlawful, at least in part. The remarkable thing, however, as with Parliament in Britain, was that Congress itself had nothing to say about the executive’s usurpation of legislative power. Some members of Congress grumbled but Congress itself said nothing.

At the time of writing, the outcome of these tugs of war is unknown. Meanwhile, the respective governments come under criticism for being power hungry and ruling autocratically. That criticism is valid, but superficial. The executive will, if it can, grab power. It is for the legislature to prevent it. In both America and Britain, the weak link in the system of governance is a legislature, Congress and Parliament respectively, that does not assert itself and fails to do its constitutional job. It is when the legislature fails that democracy can pervert towards elective dictatorship.

DICTATORSHIPS – IMPRESSIONS AND REALITY

I recently came across this: Visitors “coming home from Berlin, where they had been carefully showed around and flattered, praised the orderly regime of the country and its new master, and were coming to think that his claims to a greater Germany might be justified.”

That is from Stefan Zweig’s memoirs, The World of Yesterday. He is writing around 1940 and is remembering how “visitors” preferred to see the Hitler regime during the 1930s.

Well, substitute “from Beijing” for “from Berlin” and “greater China” for “greater Germany” and you have the preferred Western understanding of today’s Chinese regime, in particular that of business interests. Even people with extensive experience in China prefer to see the regime as a pretty benevolent autocracy, the main achievement of which is to deliver effective governance.

It seems to be a regularity in history that many in the democratic world bend over backwards, as long as possible, to give powerful dictatorships the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps out of convenience: it’s good for business. Perhaps because we do not have enough confidence in our own systems.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, I said that I think “the world has failed to grasp the scale of the repression now playing out in China, still viewing the country as a benevolent autocracy when in fact it has mutated into a very, very hard dictatorship which manages to look better than it is.”

In my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I put it thus: “I have been struck by how often visitors on some more or less official errand come home, having been flattered and entertained, without really having seen the obvious combination of misery and progress. In hindsight, I have not learned all that much from my own visits, except to have my critical instinct stimulated.”

Visitors to a dictatorship that is in control should know that their “impression” of things is not necessarily the way things are, in fact that their “impressions” are likely to be distorted. I know this very well from my own experience. I have had very good collaboration with academic colleagues in China at their universities and institutes, and if I were to go by my “impressions” from my visits, I would side with the benevolent view. But through my analyses I have found a different reality, a hard dictatorship, and one, as for my own “impressions,” that also holds universities and academic institutes in its firm grip.

Read another comment on the Western misunderstanding of China here.