DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?

THE DANGER OF LANGUAGE

The Windrush scandal in Britain is a story of how the members of a group of the population during the last few years found themselves demoted to a state in which they could not sleep at ease at night out of fear that someone would come and take them away. The Windrush generation are the migrants from the British West Indies who brought their labour force to Britain after the Second World War, on British encouragement, both adults and children with their parents. (The Empire Windrush was a transport ship that brought the first contingent of organised migrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands in 1948.) They settled here, made their lives here and became British.

Recently, members of this group came under intense scrutiny from immigration authorities and many found their right to live in Britain questioned. They were harassed for documentation to prove their right to reside. They found documentation such as employment and tax and social security records, even passports, disbelieved. They were forced into bureaucratic nightmares to procure additional documentation, often at substantial financial cost. They were denied standard services, such as health care, or were forced to pay for normally free services. Some were detained, some lost jobs, some were deported or threatened with deportation, some denied travel on the threat of not being readmitted, some refused re-entry from abroad.

The refugee children scandal in the United States is a story children of migrants on America’s borders, whose right of entry were in question, having been forcefully separated from their parents. They have sometimes been detained in concentration camp like facilities in border areas, sometimes sent away to other parts of the country.

In retrospect, authorities in both countries have acknowledged that what happened was wrong, but what should not have been done was still done. In both these civilised democratic countries practices came into operation which we otherwise associate with totalitarian dictatorships. How could that have happened?

It happened, of course, because officials on the ground obeyed orders from above. It has sometimes been seen as a mystery that totalitarian dictators have been able to get officials to implement brutish oppression, but there is no mystery. When officials are embedded in bureaucratic structures of command and obedience, those in command can get almost any order obeyed. Officials may not like what they have to do, but it gets done.

But in these two stories, there has been something more to it than obedience. Officials have executed perceived orders with extraordinary and brutal zeal, even in the face of horrendous and irrational consequences. Hardly anyone in position of authority in the respective services seems to have raised any question or objection, at least on principle.

That kind zeal comes from something else than just orders, it comes from the language in which the orders are couched. Language of caution can influence officials to implement orders with common sense and flexibility. Language of aggression can bend them to bureaucratic insensitivity.

In both these stories, public policy went seriously off the rails. The reason for that is ultimately that leaders were aggressive with the language they used to promote and justify their policies. In Britain, then Home Secretary Theresa May announced that immigration policy should be designed to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, and made a great show of that hostility. Immigration officials took to looking for illegal immigrants behind every bush and turned on a minority of mostly poor and black citizens with rigid demands of proof of their legality. In America, President Trump has whipped up anti-immigration sentiments by speaking of immigrants as criminals, rapists, and as vermin infesting the country, and asked for zero tolerance in the implementation of policy. Immigration officials dispensed retribution against children, even down to taking infants and disabled children away from their mothers.

Public policy depends on leadership for good or bad direction. Language is powerful. It is a responsibility of leadership to use language with prudence. Aggressive language from up high is dangerous – not just careless but dangerous. We see that in these two stories. We have had leadership of terrible language. We have had administrative practices that belong in totalitarian dictatorships.

 

DICTATORSHIP AND IDEOLOGY

The three big powers in today’s world are America, China and Russia – two autocratic-dictatorial systems and one democracy.

The two dictatorial systems are in some ways different and in some ways similar. Russia maintains a pretence of democracy – Vladimir Putin has just been re-elected president. China has no such pretence – when Xi Jinping was recently re-anointed as party boss and state president there were not even make-believe elections.

They are similar in that both are engaged in aggressive campaigns for domination in their neighbourhoods and the wider world, campaigns that aim to undermine the position of the sole democratic super-power and its allies, such as democratic Europe.

They are different in the way they engage for added domination. China is a power with vast resources and is able to make itself stronger by the day. Russia is without similar resources. Its campaign is therefore one of strategic relativism. Says Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom: “Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.” This difference also makes for campaigns different in character. China is an elegant player on the world stage. Russia is an ugly and thuggish player.

Both engage, in their different ways, with assertive determination. This assertiveness and determination comes from both states being ideological states. In both countries, the leaders have dressed up their systems in similar ideological cloaks. They are now both nationalistic powers.

Putin’s Russia, explains Timothy Snyder, is inspired by a vision of a greater Russian spiritual empire. This explains, for example, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, a country that cannot be democratic and European because it is part of spiritual Russia. China is inspired by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of China’s “great national rejuvenation.” This explains, for example, China’s building of a new global architecture of power in the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the aim of China reclaiming its global position as “the middle kingdom.”

Both nationalistic narratives are also narratives of state and society. In both cases, the unit of purpose is the nation. The core of this thinking is that the nation is one and indivisible and that individuals have their existence as components of the nation. In the Russian case, which Snyder characterizes as no-nonsense neo-fascism, individualism is seen to be the idea of European decadence. European democracy, and the European Union, are therefore the enemies of spiritual Russia, not because of what they do but because of what they are. In the Chinese case, the “Dream” contains not only a vision of national greatness but also the idea, in Xi’s words at the launch of the “Dream,” that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.”

Nationalistic ideology gives both these powers backing for aggressive assertiveness, all the more being ideologies that submerge individuals into the nation. There is then no autonomous good for individuals that stands in the way of the good of the nation, nor of the state that is the custodian of the national good.

Democratic countries are by definition non-ideological. That is their strength in value terms. The idea that the state is the servant of the person is morally superior to the idea that it is the servant of the nation in the meaning that persons do not matter.

In power terms, are non-ideological democratic regimes at a disadvantage vis-à-vis ideological autocratic regimes? That is probably not the experience, but they may be at a disadvantage in some ways. It may be difficult from a democratic vantage point to grasp and understand the nature of ideologically motivated autocratic assertiveness. That seems to be the case today. The West appears unable to make sense of Putin’s Russia and Russian policies of aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, and of destabilization in Europe and America. The West also appears unable to make sense of Xi’s China and China’s audacious design towards no less than a new world order. The West is hopelessly lacking in hard-nosed realism up against very hard-nosed aggression from the autocratic powers.

WHO IN THE WORLD WILL DEFEND DEMOCRACY?

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.

CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

THE BRITISH ELECTION: DEMOCRACY WORKS!

Britain is in existential crisis. The union is in danger of breaking up. The country is exiting the European project of partnership. The duty of the government of the day in difficult times is to guide nation and people through. This government has instead tried to manipulate the crisis for party political gain and in defiance of its own population. That population has struck back to deny the government its reckless “mandate.” Democracy is a brutal affair. Governments that do not do the people’s work are supposed to be punished. It is democracy at work when they are.

It’s all about Brexit. The referendum settled the question of membership or not: Britain has decided to leave the European Union. But it settled nothing else, nothing about the terms of exit. All matters about Britain’s future relations to the EU are for Parliament to decide (as far as Britain is concerned).

The government, however, created a narrative according to which the referendum had also settled the terms of exit, a hard Brexit narrative. That narrative has no basis in the population which is divided down the middle on hard vs. soft Brexit. It then triggered an election in a scheme to get a majority in Parliament to allow itself to pursue its own Brexit without scrutiny. That was an attempted elective coup – and the electorate has rightly struck it down.

Before the snap election, the government had a majority in Parliament but not so much of a majority that it would not have to accommodate a range of opinions on how to take Brexit forward. That was a good political constellation for the nation in the circumstances. It was conducive to a compromise line on Brexit, corresponding to and respecting the deep divisions in the population on the matter, and to a cautious process under Parliamentary oversight. It was a godsend for a leader of stature to take the population as much as possible along in a difficult transition.

But that was not enough for this government. It turned on the people, lecturing them that it had the right to do Brexit on its own terms and that they had a duty to give it the “mandate” it demanded. Opposing views on the terms of Brexit were to be disqualified from influence.

It is a good day for democracy when the people punish a government that tries to subjugate them.

Of course, there are reasons why there is an existential crisis to manage in the first place, and those reasons are political. Britain was plunged into crisis by the unnecessary decision of then Prime Minister David Cameron to trigger the Brexit referendum (and before that the Scottish referendum). This was a gamble in which there was everything to lose and nothing to win, and a gigantic moral and political mistake. In triggering the snap election – another unnecessary election which I at the time described as “abusive” – Prime Minister Theresa May exasperated the crisis with another moral and political mistake.

Of course also, there are reasons why such grave mistakes could be made. Both the referendum and the snap election had to be ratified by Parliament. In both cases, the House of Commons did that in rapid knee-jerk fashion without putting any work into the decisions before it and their consequences, without giving itself any time for reflection and without anything like proper deliberation and debate.

So what we have here is a story of leadership failure under two prime ministers and of decision-making failure under a House of Commons that does not do its job. But also a story of the glory of democracy. When there are free and fair elections, in the end the people decide and cannot be taken for granted.

BRITAIN’S ABUSIVE ELECTION

Another election in Britain now is unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister says the country needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations. But what we need is not stronger leadership but better leadership.

The government has had all the mandate it needs and all the parliamentary majority it needs. But the Prime Minister does not want to work in collaboration with Parliament. She wants to govern without a Parliament she has to pay attention to. That, however, is the kind of strong leadership that invariable leads a government astray. We know that in this country. It is the way of political decision making that leads to, for example, invasion of Iraq.

A reasonably balanced hand between government and Parliament is to the country’s advantage. It makes for deliberate compromise governing, which is the spirit of democracy. In the case of Brexit, the population is divided down the middle. There will be Brexit but it should be on terms that heed both sides of popular opinion. With a setting in which the government had to pay attention to a, at least somewhat, assertive Parliament, we could have had a practical Brexit.

The government has invented a straw man called “the will of the people.” The people have spoken in a referendum and its “will” is a hard Brexit. But that is an abuse of public opinion. There is no such “will of the people,” the population is divided. The referendum was not about the terms of Brexit. The government has hijacked the referendum for a design of its own making. It is setting itself up to impose an ideological Brexit on the country.

It will be able to do that. But it will be the kind of mistake that is typical of its vision of strong leadership. The country will remain divided. We will get a costly Brexit. Britain will cause further damage to European friends.

Parliament had to decide the snap election with two thirds majority. It should have said “no” to an unnecessary election and told the government to get on with its business. Instead, the House of Commons voted to make itself irrelevant, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It happens while this is going on that I am reading Machiavelli. A constant in his writing is about the risk to rulers that they make mistakes and cause detriment to both the people and themselves. That risk is particularly high when rulers have unrestrained power. But another constant is this: there is a price to be paid for the abuse of power. The strong leader may get his way today, but history will take revenge and deny him a good reputation. Mrs. May might look over her shoulder to the reputations of her predecessors who also wanted strong leadership: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blair.