If you think that democracy is about ‘government of the people by the people and for the people’, you are dead wrong, not these days. The way democracy has evolved in recent years in both developed as well as in developing countries, it has become more of a system that may be, just may be ‘of the people’ and to an extent (i.e. after accounting for vote rigging and populism that distort public choices but are norm in many countries) ‘by the people,’ but certainly not ‘for the people.’
In recent years, the rise of neoliberal economic system has witnessed rising role of money and the moneyed in the political system, offering wicked competing political pied pipers the opportunity to woo people over the cliff. Indeed, in some countries, populism and thuggery have replaced reason and decency in politics and in the process, have let the moneyed and the muscled colonise democracy.
Yet in other countries “politics of nationalism, sectarianism, and identity – a politics based on cultural values and symbolism rather than bread-and-butter interests” has turned democracy into a majoritarian exclusionary governing institution. For example, in recent times, rise of majoritarian ‘Hindutva’ politics in India has completely marginalised and made its 200 million Muslims not just voiceless but their lives are now under threat.
What is also quite disturbing about democracy these days is that thanks to corrupt institutions and power of vested interest the dumbest and the most uncouth person on earth could get elected if a certain individual plays the game right or manages to get the backing of the lobby group or the lobby group picks this person as their chosen candidate. Otherwise, how else would someone as dumb as Trump ever get elected as President of the United States of America or for that matter someone near demented like Biden, get nominated as the 2020 US Presidential candidate of the Democratic party. True, Biden is not as rustic as Trump, but his cerebral condition is anything but inspiring.
Indeed, democracy has been debilitated so much that even in a country like US which has world’s most educated, best universities and most Nobel Laureates failed to produce a single decent and thinking candidate for president. As a result, Americans are now left to choose between Trump and Biden, essentially a choice between a despicable and a duffer.
To all these, move your sight to the rising spectre of geopolitics and re-shaping of democracy especially in less powerful but strategically important countries. Indeed, from Iraq to Bangladesh and thanks to hegemons and their geopolitics, democracy has started to look more like a weapon of mass destruction in some settings – countries after countries have been invaded and destroyed; in some countries legitimately elected governments have been toppled and replaced and yet in others, elections have been manipulated and rigged to install hegemon’s hand-picked puppets and repressive regimes, all in the name of democracy.
Referring to the corrupting influence of geopolitics on democracy and sprouting of its various hegemon inspired manifestations in several parts of the world, Arundhati Roy has observed that ‘democracy’ has now become “Free World’s whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of tastes, available to be used and abused at will.”
This, in short, is the political economy of present-day democracy. Indeed, the scenario is anything but inspiring. But should we despair?
Amartya Sen once said that “In earlier times there were lengthy discussions on whether one country or another was fit for democracy….. the question itself was wrong-headed, a country does not have to be judged fit for democracy, rather it has to become fit through democracy.” True but given democracy’s current distortions and its exclusionary dynamics, societies need not just any democracy but fitting democracy.
The good news is that those that subvert democracy, corrupt systems and dent ethics are in the minority and not that popular either – for example, a recent poll in USA has revealed that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches and traffic jam!”
Thus, given that the human capital for goodness is in the majority, change is possible. One option is to bring change through mass upsurge which besides being messy and bloody, success is not that certain. The other more doable option is to build, within and across nations, collective awareness through social media and work for structures and processes that make democracy truly representative, normatively participatory, stringently accountable and indeed, empowering for all.
The author is a Professor of Development Practice at School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and former senior policy manager of the United Nations