EthanBenn, Staff Reporter
Democracy is a fickle thing, an often-contradictory concept which teeters on the edge of disaster, perpetually at risk of falling to the malicious whims of the majority or those in power.
Nothing has done so much to prove the fragility of democracy and liberalism than the events of the past year. From Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, the institutions which many see as holding up the values of popular sovereignty, equality, secularism and other noble ideals have weathered assault after assault – sometimes from within and sometimes from without, and will continue to do so. The United States, Canada, The United Kingdom, Germany and various other western nations have put their own values up for debate via decisions, policies and actions which are quite simply antithetical to democracy and liberalism.
The United States: Demagoguery vs. Democracy
A particularly American issue is the rise of the demagogue, for President Trump is not the first, and most certainly not the last, rabble-rousing, pitchfork holding, scapegoating mob leader to run for public office. By generating fear in the public and playing to their prejudices, demagogues ride an anti-establishment wave of (often misdirected or histrionic) outrage as they threaten and cajole their way to the highest office in the land. Andrew Jackson, Huey Long and Senator Joseph McCarthy were all apt at whipping the public into a frenzy, whether about Native Americans, FDR’s New Deal policies or communism. Scrolling through the President’s Twitter feed or watching his addresses and rallies shows a man capable of hopping from one outcry to the next while tactfully avoiding others. Not to mention the appearance of the proverbial “common man” which Trump routinely deploys, in addition to his cult of personality.
Why are such leaders so dangerous to democracy? Unfortunately, the greatest and most exploitable fault of democracy is that it relies on people. And people, for the most part, are not particularly intelligent. Time and time again politicians have harnessed the outrage of the lowest common denominator of humanity in order to propel their ambitions forward. In 2018, American voters could do better and avoid politicians eager to get elected by playing into the public’s fears. Rather than support a candidate who continually blames other groups for issues which they themselves lack solutions to support candidates with fact-based solutions to real problems.
The United Kingdom: The Trouble of Referendums
Yes or no questions suppose that an array of issues – which vary wildly between complex and vague – can be answered with either an affirmative or a negative. Very few things are an absolute black or white scenario in reality, yet popular referendums operate on the principle that public policy can be created on what is essentially an opinion poll with a promise attached to it. Brexit – a portmanteau of “British” and “exit (from the European Union)” – came to fruition through such a referendum in 2016, has continued into 2017 and will likely carry on into 2018. Voters in the UK could choose from two options, either remain in the EU or leave the EU, with no mention of the severity of the split – something which is still undecided upon by the Conservative coalition in power. Recent issues surrounding the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and its status in the EU have seriously hampered Prime Minister May’s efforts.
Government is a complicated matter, one which requires willing and informed participation of the citizenry as well as openness and clarity from those in power: the Brexit vote and aftermath over a year from the initial vote lacks both. Many “leave” voters were quick to regret their decisions, with some stating that they never thought that such a vote could be successful and others bemoaning, in hindsight, the simplicity of the vote. In fact, nearly as many leave voters – slightly over one-million, have changed their minds, enough to reverse the result. A yes-no vote separates satisfied voters from dissatisfied voters with no respect to the severity of dissatisfaction: while one friend in a group of their peers may suggest restaurant A, anyone who dislikes restaurant A may vote for restaurant B – though they may have little knowledge of their dining destination. The confusion of the public and confusion of the government have put Brexit – and the continued use of referendums – into serious scrutiny. Theresa May’s government, like all democratic governments, could do better to educate the citizenry if they want them to decide on important matters of state: government must be intelligent and rely on the intelligence of the populace in order to run efficiently.
Germany and Canada: Thoughtcrime
Naturally, no such action proves such a detriment to democracy like the Orwellian classic of thoughtcrime: any questioning of state-sponsored orthodoxy must be stopped, at all costs. Germany has a long of history of laws which punish such thoughtcrime – normally fines and police raids directed at purveyors of hate speech and bigotry, often related to denying or minimizing the Holocaust. In fact, the homes of thirty-six Germans accused of posting hateful content on social media were raided in June of this year, The New York Times reports. And while the internet cannot be a free-for-all and therefore a race to the bottom of human depravity, a traditionally liberal state using its authority to legislate what people might wonder or propose (however awful) as unlawful and deserving of punishment is deeply unsettling. Silencing the people who question events which can be factually proven does nothing but further the claims of the silenced. Furthermore, there is a blatant irony in using authoritarian techniques to respond to someone who questions the actions of Nazi Germany. Clamping down on what is acceptable for people to think and then mandating it by law is no way to change minds – exposure to information is the best cure for ignorance, one Angela Merkel’s government could do well to distribute.
Canada’s Bill C-16 likewise has a fairly innocuous concept – people who deny the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany are breaking the law: people who commit hate crimes towards individuals who may express their gender differently are breaking the law and in violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The issue again lies with the decision to give the state power to label certain thoughts acceptable and certain thoughts unacceptable – if you agree with the widespread notion of the “gender-binary” (i.e. there are boys and girls, men and women, who are referred to with he and she) and choose to act on your thoughts, perhaps not using someone’s preferred pronouns, you have broken the law by committing a hate crime. Mandating the legality of viewpoints is a poor decision generally, but promoting certain views while criminalizing others – especially when the scientific community as well as other experts have yet to deliver an answer to a multifaceted issue – is a dangerous game to play.
Democracies and liberalism center around freedom and choice: the freedom to choose your faith and practice it accordingly, the freedom of the press and its separation from the government, the right to make choices for yourself and your family – these are all professed by these nations, sometimes in documents centuries old, in anthems and patriotic mottoes or even in solemn speeches. However, it seems that many of the nations which claim to bear the torch of liberty and the scale of justice have let the flame burn down to low and the balance fall too far. For 2018, we should all hope that the great traditions of the past make their way into legislation and the minds of our leaders. Hopefully, these will be some of the few New Year’s resolutions that are fulfilled.