Democracy in Crisis: What we can do about it

Outgoing President Ian Tan reflects on the state of democracy in our society and the role we have in promoting healthy democracy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later settled the greatest ideological debate of the 20th century – a contest between centralised authoritarian control and democracy, made up of, by and for the people. Across Eastern Europe, people rejected in mass numbers the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union in favour of self-determination and civil liberties. As the 20th century drew to a close, the consensus was clear: no matter the barriers, liberal democracy was fated to triumph.

Yet less than a quarter of a century later, democracy is in crisis. Checks and balances are slowly being eroded in emerging democracies as well as established ones. Nations once seen as a beacon of hope are sliding into authoritarian rule. Freedom House, a think-tank in America, recorded in their annual Freedom in the World report that 2017 marked the 12th straight year of decline in global freedom. Only 35 nations saw a net increase in political rights and civil liberties, while 71 experienced a net decline. Another organisation, V-Dem, notes in their annual democracy report that while the number of elected officials is increasing, the quality of democracy is declining.

In Australia, only 62% of respondents in Lowy Institute’s annual 2018 poll said that democracy is preferable to any form of government. Among 18 to 29-year olds, that figure drops to just 49%. A separate poll conducted by Essential Research in late September 2018 revealed that Australians concerningly hold little trust in key institutions. While the Federal Police, State Police and the High Court retains the most trust, only 28% trust the Federal Parliament, 31% trust their local State Parliament, 39% the public service and just 15% trust political parties.

Democracy’s threat

In the past, many thought that the greatest threat to democracy came from external forces. Today, the greatest threat comes from within. Many have lost faith and trust in the democratic process – disgusted by the revolving door of Prime Ministers, exhausted by the growing tribalism and partisanship in our politics, frustrated by how self-interested and out of touch our politicians have become. Others have seen their economic security undermined by growing economic inequality, exacerbated by the Global Financial Crisis, globalisation and the rapid rate of technological change.

We are more interconnected than ever because of social media, but also more divided by it. It is easier than ever for someone to broadcast their opinions, opening up new sources of information and news which do not meet the same journalistic integrity as established media. This doesn’t just lead to the prevalence of fake news, but also leads to more people listening to views consistent with their own ideology, further isolating themselves from opinions which challenge their worldview. Others are threatened by debate, openly ridiculing alternate views, or are wedded towards politically correct expression, further undermining the value and importance of an open debate.

It is also clear that liberal democratic governments worldwide, Australia included, have become too complacent and out of touch with the will of the people. Governments have been slow to respond to the hardships and realities of citizens, most preoccupied with short-term electoral gains rather than prioritising long-term planning. At times, governments have done too much, other times too little. We have seen the consequences of this shift to populist politics at the ballot box – the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and the increasing popularity of populist parties and leaders on both the far-right and far-left across the western world. Frustrated and exhausted, many have moved inwards towards the embrace of nationalist politics, protectionist policies and strongman leaders over the universal liberal values of the rule of law, open commerce, human rights and civil liberties for all.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “A little rebellion every now and then is a good thing”, and he isn’t wrong. There are times when democracy requires a good dose of populism to ensure that a government of, by and for the people are actually in sync with the interests of the people. It can drive much needed economic and institutional reform by addressing entrenched injustice, redistributing power away from central authorities or injecting new blood and insights into politics with a fresh dose of idealism and vigour. It keeps government on its toes, promoting good and better governance and raising up more active participants in the political process – all of which is a good thing. But when populism strays into nationalist and nativist tendencies, when democratic pluralism is rejected, when checks and balances are eroded and the rule of law ignored, when the rights of minorities, especially immigrants, refugees, and people of the Islamic faith, are curtailed or restricted – this is when populism poses a dangerous threat towards our liberal democracy.

Reclaiming democracy

We are a blessed nation. We have free, fair, clean and competitive elections. Our leaders are held to account by an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances. The rule of law reigns supreme and it helps protect our precious political rights and civil liberties including the freedom of speech, religion, expression and association. We have a press freer than most nations, low levels of corruption, a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another. Our Constitution, after all these years, still works and prevails.

We are also a compassionate and generous country. We welcome immigrants from across the world who come to this great country to join us, and not change us. In times of crisis and disaster, Australians have always been swift to help – from supporting our farmers in times of drought, helping rescue the 16 boys stuck in a Thailand cave or rallying together to buy strawberries after the needle crisis. We are a country which says that you can go as far and as high as your work and talent can take you; that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like or what your last name is. It is about where you are going in life.

This is the Australia which I know, the Australia I have come to love, the Australia worth defending. Our liberal democracy has ushered in over a century of political stability, and for the most part, decades of prosperity and opportunity for Australians. It has been passed on from one generation to another with the solemn responsibility of ensuring its protection and its passage to a new generation of Australians to enjoy. Afterall, as Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

To ensure that liberal democracy prevails for a new generation, it starts with us fighting for its principles and leading by everyday example.

In a highly charged political environment, we must resist the slide into tribal politics. Our politics today is more polarised and divided than ever, but we can transcend this tribalism and partisanship infecting our democracy. History shows us that tribalism can be overcome. In World War One, we saw French, German and British soldiers come together at Christmas in a moment of peaceful harmony in one of the world’s most tragic periods. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Americans rallied together to support their country against terrorism. Even in Romeo and Juliet, we see two warring families eventually coming together to put aside their long-standing feud. It starts with us accepting that the party we support isn’t always perfect, it makes mistakes and has its own frailties. It also means realising that no single party or ideology has all the solutions to our nation’s many problems nor have a monopoly on good ideas. It calls on us to reach out to find common ground, to realise that though we belong to different political parties, we all want what is best for our country.

Secondly, as we increasingly seek echo chambers and find comfort of whom we agree, let us take the time to understand why people we disagree with believe the things they do. We should not run away or shield ourselves from opposing or alternative views. Rather, we should cultivate and nurture personal relationships with those on the other side. I have always enjoyed the company of people whom I disagree with for the intellectual discussions we have and the banter we share with each other for they have proved more enjoyable and valuable than a mere echo chamber. Indeed, the State team is a testament that people with differing views can work together cohesively as one unit. And in the fullness of time, we will not just bridge that divide, but also become more enriched.

It also requires us all to elevate our political discourse. We debate our politics with robust vigour, and rightfully so, but we should also do it in a civil manner. We should be less swift to ridicule or condemn. Instead, we should be kinder and gentler to one another, realising that one person’s view, no matter how wrong or objectionable, should not have any more worth than another. Civility in our politics doesn’t require us to find consensus or to withhold criticism, but for us to be able to disagree with others without being disagreeable. Our approach should not be to put-down people for the view they hold, but to applaud them, especially in an age of cynicism, for having an opinion and being willing to express it.

In an 1814 letter, John Adams wrote that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” Is democracy condemned to fail? We do not know. But the practice of more civility and decency in our politics is the strongest antidote towards ambivalence and populist sentiments, the first step towards restoring greater confidence into our precious democracy.

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