Even the most powerful democracy in the world, whose values had instigated coining of the term “American Exceptionalism” exemplified by the ideals of individual rights and freedom in America, is witnessing a sort of redux of absolutism forcing many to query whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of democracy in that country.
The world had witnessed a constant effort by America to outdo Europe in terms of freedom and liberty since its emergence from under the British domain, and its struggle to secure moral ascendency over it. The reason perhaps can be found in the famous Oscar Wilde quip that America has “never quite forgiven Europe for having been discovered somewhat earlier in history than itself.”In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted the gradual descent of America into what he called “democratic despotism” nearly two hundred years ago. That view stemmed from his sojourn across the country in 1831. It is a disquieting fact that the phenomenon is infecting other countries too.
Ours is a republic—at least that was what the character of the state was intended to be as visualised by the founding fathers. The underlying spirit in naming the country thus was to emphasise and justify the name itself—people’s democracy or, in other words, popular sovereignty. However, that has not been the case. It might sound facetious to suggest that the infectious nature of this phenomenon puts us in very good company. As one distinguished professor of politics writes, “Authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements have grown strong enough to threaten democracy’s long-term health in several rich, established democracies, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”
It seems that given the recent trend of assuming an authoritarian character by some elected governments, visceral tribalism-fostered exclusivism and vicious majoritarian rule snuffing out heterogeneous politics—the likes of which we witness in the largest democracy in the world—elections, participatory or otherwise, have become the shortest way to absolutism. Belying the universal precept that “every person is born with the faculty to govern himself”—the basic human faculty that allows voters to choose the best way to be governed—the means of doing that, i.e. an unencumbered atmosphere to choose public representatives, has been snatched away from them.
In the case of Bangladesh, it is disheartening to note the growing apathy of the public towards elections. And the fact has been admitted by an MP, once a minister of the current AL-led alliance government, and still part of it. The polling figures of the 2018 national elections dished out by the EC are misleading. Their veracity has been exposed only too clearly by the turnout figures of the recently concluded local government elections and the trend of vote-casting in the local elections in the last decade. Unlike the 90 percent turnout in the parliamentary elections, which defies common sense (100 percent turned out to vote in 213 centres), there was a diminished rate of voter turnout in the last upazilla elections. For example, voter turnout in the first four phases was 43.31 percent, 41.25 percent, 41.41 percent and 36.50 percent respectively. The upazilla elections held in 2009 had a 70.57 percent voter turnout while in 2014 it dropped to 61.23 percent. The spiral down has to do as much with the charterer of politics in our country as with the pathetic role of the Election Commission. Not only is this bad for democracy, it is also harmful to the system of governance. Why?
Role of the voters does not end with elections. While in our country, Election Day is the only day we have democracy, in a real democracy that has ideals and mores firmly ingrained in the character of the society, people not only elect their representatives but also participate in the formulation of policies, rules and regulation because “democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”
But in countries where members of parliament do not depend on popular mandate or have no need for their votes, people become irrelevant. Rules are framed and laws are enacted to benefit a coterie. It no longer remains participatory but becomes a usurped democracy which is by the few and for the few.
One wonders whether James Madison had our country in mind when he was writing his Federalist Papers. His words seem so eerily prescient fitting exactly the model of governance that is dictating the order of things obtaining today. He had said, “Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any manner affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change…” and which consequently accords “unreasonable advantage to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the monied few, over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people.” Madison had also said, “The reason pure democracies fail is that majorities learn that they can legally take property and/or liberties away from others. Those subjected to abuse can be anyone outside the majority coalition, and their minority status can be based on race, religion, wealth, political affiliation, or even which city or state they reside in.”
That would be a fitting epithet for a society that had promised but has failed to deliver an egalitarian dispensation for the people, where the interests of the greater majority of the poor and middle-class would not be sacrificed at the altar of the interests of the miniscule minority. A look at the budget would prove Madison’s words true. The interests of the “great body” have been forfeited by the obligation to serve the interests of the few that command the major wealth of the country. That would never have been possible if our democracy would not have been divested of its spirit.
Look at the many regulatory banking policies that have made a virtue of the culture of loan default. It will not only encourage pathological and habitual defaulters to seek more loans and default even more, but will also inspire other borrowers to become defaulters. Because of the lack of the spirit of democracy and a pliant opposition in parliament, nobody feels accountable to anybody, because people are irrelevant.
At the conclusion of the US Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a lady whether America would be a monarchy or a republic. He had replied, “A republic… if you can keep it.” Our founding fathers had given us a republic. After fits and starts and the painful interregnum of 15 years from August 1975, there was a new dawn in January 1991. But after 28 years since, would one be remiss in asking if we have been able to keep our republic?
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.