The Crisis of Democracy in 2017

Our world is one of tempests. We face challenges warping our fates in uncharted waters. Amidst the rancour, consensuses deemed eternal are seeing their foundations shaken to the core. Regrettably, one of them is the recognition of the indisputable ascendancy of democracy. Freedom House laments, stating “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017”. In such testing times it is imperative we revivify our steadfast values and restore our increasingly stressed faith in democracy.

A Swahili proverb stands as both a parable and polemic- “The king is king by the grace of the people”.

Laconically, democracy is choice. Not for those claiming selective superiority to exercise it, but for the people at large, the hoi polloi. The agency of popular choice is democracy at its most essential yet embryonic.

The perverse rises of figures such as Hitler via elections are not irrelevant. Less extreme parallels are contemporary authoritarian tendencies. However, this is not democracy but its vicious subversion. The scales of Justitia have majority opinion on only one side.

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Ensuing balance is provided by the spirit of democraticism. The crux is the conviction that everyone, simply by virtue of their being, deserve to be taken aboard. This ethereal force when institutionalised prevents a popular government from tumbling into a rabid tyranny of the majority.

With democraticism, democracy is constant intervention in all spheres. The benefit of the faceless yet multifaceted citizen stands paramount. This beneficiary citizen is simultaneously democracy’s lifeblood, the foundation of all power. Democracy is thus not a representation of reality.

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It is the blacksmith which crafts it.

The compass commanding democratic action is not just common good, but an idea which razed the Bastille in 1789- Fraternity. It deliquesced hierarchies, temporal or otherwise, at the altar of the singular citizen. A limitless endeavour by this free and equal citizen to transform given circumstances towards ever greater fraternity; this is democracy fiercely unsheathed, beyond the perfunctory.

Firstly, it is evident that democracy presupposes inviolable dignity and equality of the individual. At its crudest, democracy doesn’t perceive people as mere numbers. The populace isn’t an expendable resource, nor a vassal for criminal neglect. The feudal consisted of passive, replaceable subjects shouldering citadels of extraction and oppression. A democracy, in contrast, is of equals shaping and being shaped by their collective insight. They strive to erase inequalities that eclipse one’s dignity. Under no condition can anyone claim greater intrinsic self worth than others. Therefore through franchise we first remove political inequality and proceed thereon. It’s no surprise when Prof. Amartya Sen exclaims that “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”.

This justification of the centrality of equality rings true as long as we hold distinctions of privilege and creed unethical. The concomitant axiom is the cradle of policies aimed specifically at removing such distinctions. Examples include affirmative action, abolishing racial/ethnic discrimination, affordable health and education, etc. Such recognition of citizens as equivalent beings possessing undiminishable powers and rights is democracy’s greatest asset, and most exclusive.

Second is its idea of liberty. Encrusted in the crown of the American Declaration of Independence (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”), it is emblematic of a gamut of democratic freedoms. Democracy refuses to take the sanctimonious and appalling position of infantilising the populace. At the very outset, control over the self, and proportionate voice over the direction of the collective is established. One chooses what one wants of oneself, and of the society at large. No autocrat by any inventive authority may dictate a citizen. The framework of arbitrating where one’s rights end and another’s begins is chosen in democratic agreement (perhaps impetus being Mill’s Harm Principle?), with a certain inalienable rubric. The same applies to the arbiters; the people have democratic control over those who may control the people. No other system of governance so graciously accepts that man deserves enough freedom and responsibility to be a man.

India’s Supreme Court in 2018 remarked that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy”. I would go further to say dissent is the destiny of democracy. It is so because of democracy’s inherent preoccupation with defending the dignity of citizens. It insulates the realm of the individual from encroachment by the powerful or the majority. The fraternal binding force of democracy rests on free expression- to show mirrors to our wounds and raw nerves. Democracy has the peculiarity of being strengthened and refined through dissent.

Thirdly, democracy is about marching towards utopia as opposed to maximising ‘the given’, as Prof. Dipankar Gupta writes. It is preoccupied with altering conditions we’re ensconced in to yield to our principles. Alternatives to democracy are myopically sterile in their approach of being constrained to defending themselves in status quo. This ultimately corrodes what the system stands for, collapsing rudderless. To illustrate, look through prisms of two titans, differing in time and outlooks.

Otto Von Bismarck, the brilliant statesman of Germany, ordained “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. Au contraire stands the visionary linchpin of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His Objectives Resolution in India’s Constituent Assembly thunders- ‘All people of India shall be guaranteed and secured social, economic and political justice; equality of status and opportunities and equality before law; and fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action…”. He dared to give form to lofty ideals while a backward nation bled through ravenous communal violence, nebulous tumult, famishing poverty and more. The path of Bismarck is of perennial self- limitation. The way of Nehru is a blooming and breathing testament, constantly evolving. Democracy instills both courage and conviction to erect a tomorrow instead of being prisoners of today.

Fourthly, we must return to the role of fraternity in democracy. We inimically define ourselves in terms of who we aren’t. Our instincts spark cleavages stemming from endless sources of identity- ethnicity, gender, ideology etc. Fraternity is to reverse it, to coalesce us. It envisions a future of universally equal opportunities and dignity, not cornered away by cliques, sects or strata. It is about finding a broad ‘us’ addressing divisions. From this, an empathetic common collective achieves primacy. Only with fraternity can profound issues be tackled, the ones affecting us as a people (healthcare, education, economy etc.).

Without democracy, the floodgates of conflict rapidly open up. Stability here translates as vanquishing of one by the other. Benefits, if any, are extracted as spoils of war against fellow peoples. Status becomes a function of an identity akin the yellow badges of the Nazis. Your being is assigned values by what ultimately is arbitrary. Democracy can meanwhile ensure a harmonious, equitable, popular welfare. Conceptions like minority rights, human rights and asymmetric federal rights are all branches of fraternal deliberations. In democracies, different never implies unequal. The irony is, living under the tutelage of institutions which attempt to achieve this has turned us hostile by virtue of their failures.

The world was a mute spectator when Rwanda underwent genocide in 1994. The sheer extent of mass brutality leaves anyone speechless, petrified and disgusted. Predictably, the roots of the conflict radiated from identity. It is a solemn reminder of what can happen when fraternity implodes. Against this backdrop, picture Botswana. An inclusive, democratic system of government was evolved since 1966. Tribal differences were made subservient to the advancement of the commoner, regardless of affiliations. When diamonds were discovered in a part of the country, its wealth was vested in the state for redistribution, preventing infighting and inequity. This constant endeavour for the citizenry to progress as one has accorded peace and wealth. The gloom of the shadows of Rwanda highlights differences with Botswana. Furthermore, it underscores the efficacy of democracy in managing differences.

Fifthly, it’s the fact that in democracies stable economic growth and compounding inclusivity are more plausible. These important findings by Acemoglu and Robinson are echoed as I glanced at the fortunes of countries like Zimbabwe, Russia and Turkey. I also could not help but mention how ‘stale’ leadership is a product of mostly authoritarian means of clinging to power. As Ruchir Sharma points out, it spells doom for the uninterrupted reform needed to sustain economic growth.

I believe the denouement of the saga of democracy is yet to be written. I foretell with absolute certainty that democracy shall never have an obituary. I proclaim so for I have faith in the collective wisdom of humankind. When our passions subside we shall look back at pages of our histories and grow further emboldened in the values we so dearly cherish. We shall weather storms where the threat to the flame of freedom and democracy will be horrifyingly real. This is precisely why we must stand guard.

I end with words from the final address of the Chilean President Salvador Allende as a coup bombed his palace. He was martyred defending democracy. “History is ours, and people make history”.

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The Crisis of Democracy in 2017. (2022, Nov 18). Retrieved from

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