When we entered the 21st century almost two decades ago, the occasion was marked with an exuberant sense of optimism which was shared across the many parts of the globe. The Berlin Wall, and with it, monolithic totalitarianism, had collapsed the previous decade ending a generational ‘Cold War’ and the ever-present threat of nuclear catastrophe.
There was, indeed, much to celebrate. The 1990s largely saw the expansion of liberal democratic institutions not only in Eastern Europe, but also in the Americas, parts of Africa, and in Asia.
Then, of course, 11 September 2001 changed almost everything overnight.
The subsequent so-called ‘War on Terror’ saw a destabilisation of the Middle East and with that, a steep rise in Islamic fundamentalism and the primacy of so-called ‘national security’ over fundamental rights and freedoms – as well as perhaps, even human empathy. Our language and outlook indeed changed and many issues were viewed within the murky prism of homeland defence. We also witnessed an increase in suspicion and mistrust of those ‘not like ourselves’. The vilification of ‘The Other’ (e.g. refugees, people of other races, religions, nationalities) began to dominate the collective psyche and adversely affect public policy across many Western democracies.
Then there was the other part of the so-called early 21st Century ‘double whammy’ – the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). This self-inflicted event is described as the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The GFC served to intensify the inequality between the rich and poor, worsening deep discontent within liberal democratic systems and fuelling the rise of right-wing, xenophobic and racist populism. To put it simply, resentment grew among those who became poorer and when resentment grows, there is inevitably a search for a scapegoat – someone else to blame.
Indeed, the GFC served to hasten the decline in trust and public confidence in our democratic institutions and elected leaders. Bit by bit, discontent increased with many voters turning to alternative political parties to be their new voice.
Alarmingly, once described as the staunch international ‘defender of democracy’, the United States deteriorated from its ranking as a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2017. The most recent ‘Freedom in the World’ report lamented the decline in global freedom. Indeed, it boldly declared that for the first time in generations, ‘democracy is in retreat’.
Now, as we approach the 2020’s, the creeping threat to our democracy has not abated. It has grown stronger. This current decade has attested to the rise of the populist Right, which has cynically used economic inequality and immigration (aka ‘The Other’) as predictable electoral tools in their mission to undermine and subvert democracy and human rights. (Interestingly, the rise in the number of refugees across the globe has been a direct result of both climate change and war, something the populist Right refuse to acknowledge let alone address).
Unfortunately, some sections of the trans-national, corporate media have also played their insidious role to undermine and trivialise our democracy. The concentration of media ownership and the misuse of social media advertising techniques have only added to the malaise of the fourth estate and in turn enlarged the growing cracks in our democracy.
Perhaps one of the greatest threats to the long-term viability of our democratic system, is the steady decline in accountability and transparency. Initially under the guise of ‘national security’, certain rights to information were curtailed as part of the ongoing fight against terrorism. However, now there are growing instances where some leaders refuse to be accountable for their actions or even their own words. What would have led to a resignation a generation ago is now met with obstinance and denial. Matters that would have easily created a ‘Watergate’ type crisis are now dismissed as ‘irrelevant’, ‘old news’, or even ‘fake news’.
Our ancestors fought and died for the attainment and maintenance of our modern democratic system. Never perfect, it is, however, overwhelmingly preferable to other political systems that instigated oppression, genocide, slavery, discrimination, corruption and human abuse and abject misery.
No matter how much we may take for granted the rights and freedoms that many of our ancestors could ever dream of enjoying, the alternative – a slide into authoritarianism, totalitarianism, oligarchy and dictatorship is not an option for our descendants. We must be prepared to defend our democratic institutions and processes by opposing any measures, political parties, movements and individuals which undermine or weaken them.
Importantly, we must also be prepared to enter a public discourse to find new ways of enhancing and expanding our democracy to meet the needs of a rapidly changing polity. Authentic engagement with alienated communities must be at the forefront of any project to augment our current democratic and electoral systems.
Democracy works best when everyone feels they have a voice. Those wanting to defend democracy must acknowledge that re-vitalising our democratic institutions and processes must be coupled with a desire to improve our economic system to one that is inclusive and meets the needs of those feeling left behind due the adverse effects of neo-liberalism.
Importantly, sustained defence of our democracy is not someone else’s job. It’s everyone’s job. The power of democracy lies in our participation and apathy continues to be one of its greatest enemies. With so much at stake, we cannot be the generation that loses this fight.