Democracy in Jeopardy: A Running Series of Commentaries on the US, France and India

The shock of Trump lingers among those of us – of which I am one – who had not fully understood that democratic societies are not permanent fixtures in the political scheme of things. In an effort to record my own appreciation of the fluidity of democracy, I have decided to start a running series of commentaries on “Democracy in Jeopardy”. They will include three case studies of how democracies are being challenged today – case studies in which I am personally interested – the Bengali elections in India, the PACA regional elections in France, and the statewide elections in the American state of Virginia. They all involve “sub-national” elections that are occurring this year (2021), with significant national implications for the future of democracy in each country.  But first, I start the series here with some personal reflections on why I am inspired to write about the overall issue of democracy in jeopardy.

First, then, I have to admit that I had completely forgotten the obvious warning from history that democracy is not a permanent phenomenon but is vulnerable even where it seems to be the most secure.  In spite of knowing about the history of Athens versus Sparta or the disintegration of the Roman Empire, I always set these aside as ancient history. More contemporary “circumstances” operated to infuse the likes of the American or French Revolutions – or even, somewhat, the supposed “Glorious Revolution” of England – with the seed-like power of growth into full-fledged democracies. Where these circumstances were flawed, as in Germany during the Weimar Republic, for example, or in Russia in 1917, for another, it’s easy to argue that the democratic seeds simply didn’t survive. And Alexis de Tocqueville was our guide for highlighting the American experience as the supreme vision for the democratic “city on a hill” for all of us to aspire to.

So along comes this Trump mania, this horrific aberration. Dear me, I said, this can’t last. Our democratic system will work to squeeze him out of any but the most extreme of fringe supporters. In the meantime, I did also start struggling, as many others have done, with the inherent contradictions of how our democracies came into being in the first place – the interplay with slavery in the US or the class structure and colonialism in Europe. Facing up to these contradictions is among the tasks I (and others) have given ourselves today. The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has been especially potent at confronting things, both in the US and around the world. And we have all become more aware than ever about the importance of making multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracies resistant to the hysteria of narrowly defined populism.

But what about the very system itself? If we face up to the structural flaws in the system, will that take care of it? Pass the laws to end the discriminatory practices and bring our communities together?  It seems not to be the case. It was, after all, what we did with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, wasn’t it? Why didn’t that take care of the matter? This is the revelation that I come to here, that reaches beyond coping with Trump as an aberration. Democracy needs work in and of itself. It is not a static thing that can simply absorb all of the demographic and environmental changes that have occurred and continue to evolve in our respective communities. Think about the fact that the civil rights movement itself was a turbulent time demanding change – as were other moments of revolutionary change in our historical path. An “American Revolution” to define us at the start, for goodness sake, and a horrifying “Civil War”, too.

The revelation today is that I feel the need to think about what it takes for the shared values of democracy to recreate themselves along a bumpier and more uncertain path than I had previously envisioned, a democracy that regularly needs to be redefined, not just reinstated.  Thus, the need for something more than a return to the way things used to be is challenging me to think and act differently. I used to think that the supposed “deplorables” who voted the “wrong way” did require our attention but that most of them could be persuaded by positive appeals to their interests, emphasizing where our mutual interests overlapped and trying to ignore where they deviated.  But the revelation now is that this phenomenon of voting “the wrong way” is deeply entrenched and reinforced by a sharp divide in the whole range of perceived interests!

What are the ingredients of democratic revival? Above and beyond the academic literature, the issue has inspired lively debates among scholars and activists in numerous settings – Freedom House in the US or the Center for Critical Democratic Studies in France are especially relevant. The Paris Peace Forum (PPF) had a stimulating series of sessions that caught my attention last November. And I have also been inspired by a a series on democracy convened by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to think about this question in the context of the interplay between domestic and foreign policy.

At one such  CFR session with Anne Appelbaum, author of Twilight of Democracy (the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism), three “kinds” of ingredients were identified:

  1. Institutional answers, the political institutions necessary for fair elections . a level playing field among competitors, free press, free courts, rule of law, but some aspects of the voting system or parliamentary rules may be outdated and need to be adapted to new circumstances.
  2. Communications and the way we speak to one another. We all know what an authoritarian Internet looks like, but not clear what a democratic Internet looks like. Currently it is controlled by an oligarchy. We need to rethink our rules of online space.  Broadcasting has now become “narrowcasting”. Multimedia with centripetal tendencies. We need to fix the fragmentation of each in their own echo chamber, but also change the nature of information flows by promoting public service and social media in place of the algorithms that increase and accelerate divisiveness.
  3. There is merit in democratic cooperation. The US has been seen as the leader and the standard-bearer, and we should be proud to be Americans at home and abroad.  Restate our values. Need a common set of goals. Address inequality and concentration of power. Deeper issues of cultural identity and need to be part of the solution.

These are useful categories of concern for this series of snippets, and I will tie them into my ongoing commentaries. Other CFR or PPF sessions have featured Jill Savitt from the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights, Danielle Allen from Harvard and the Commission on. the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and others like Yascha Mounk, Elaine Kamarck, John Ikenberry,  and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

I have been drawn to refreshing the memories of my own academic studies years ago when I studied the influence of political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Robert Dahl, economists like Hannah Arendt or Gunnar Myrdal or Amartya Sen.  I should mention Harry Eckstein here, too, since his theory on the congruence of authority patterns was the inspiration for my doctoral dissertation years ago.  And I don’t want to forget the impact of Alexis de Tocqueville, either.  But enough for now on the underlying theories.

I am starting this series of reflections on what it takes to see democracy as a fluid condition that takes more than the “righting of past wrongs”. I have in mind looking at sub-units of three different democracies to explore how this different perspective requires some new thinking – and acting. One is the regional election in the state of Bengal in India; another is the regional elections in France but with a focus on the “PACA” region, where I currently live; and the third is the state of Virginia, where I used to live and am still a registered voter. In all three settings, one might argue that there is still a democratic (small “d”) majority resisting the appeal of populist authoritarianism, such that the challenge is to mobilize  and broaden the resistance.

The continued evidence of Trumpism in the US, of Modi’s backsliding in India and of the extreme right’s appeal in France gives us three vivid and illustrative examples of why we need to embrace the notion of constantly re-examining how we define and apply our democratic values. I’ll take another look  from time to time at the underlying theories and prescriptions, of which there are many to draw from. Philosophers of the past (from Plato and Aristotle to Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, J.S. Mill or The Federalist Papers and even, for me,  Alexis de Tocqueville) abound. And I also have fond memories of studying Seymour Martin Lipset or Robert Dahl in college or Amartya Sen and Gunnar Myrdal in graduate school or writing about Ralph Bunche or Harry Eckstein or Robert Keohane in my dissertation. Lots of history to dig up here. And then there’s all the work being done by Freedom House in the US or the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm or the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva. But for now the focus will be on tracking these three examples (US, France and India), each in a separate and ongoing series of commentaries on the overall theme of “democracy in jeopardy”.

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