We are taught to believe that democracy is more than just the least-bad system, a default we turn to because despotisms are awful. Human beings naturally seek positivity in their lives, and so we accept the supposed wisdom of the crowd: the public knows what’s best.
But reality is straining that idea to the breaking point.
Fake-democrats all over the world use digital trickery, intimidation of watchdogs and opponents, and twisted procedures to build dictatorships of a manipulated majority. That’s how it is in places like Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Philippines, and the racket seems resilient.
Moreover, genuine democracies are producing electoral outcomes that are self-destructive at an alarming pace. Democracy is not much good if it destroys itself. Three countries stand out as causing themselves such damage that national suicide is no great exaggeration.
Israel itself is an obvious case, self-destructing in two separate ways.
The first way is through the settlement of the West Bank, which will make the military occupation of the area irreversible. With over a half million Jewish settlers in place, many deep inside, even some peaceniks think a pullout is impossible. It looks like Israel will eventually be forced to annex the area and grant millions of Palestinians the vote. With the West Bank, Israel would be only 60% Jewish; with Gaza it’s majority-Arab.
The second way is through its coddling of the haredi minority. Haredi men receive a state salary for lifelong religious study and so half of them do it, with the others barely employable since the state continues to fund schools that won’t teach math, science and English. Israel also pays child subsidies that help prop up haredi family sizes approaching 10, meaning the sector is en route to a majority within a few generations. Its constantly growing share of the vote gives the Right – of which haredim are at this point an inseparable part – a majority that reinforces the first suicide path in a feedback loop that seems irreversible.
Israel has, incredibly, about as many tech unicorns as Europe, and its per capita GDP is higher than France. But its voting patterns make this temporary: Goodbye, Start-Up Nation, and goodbye, Jewish state.
Next up, the green and pleasant land where I lived for almost seven years, as AP’s Europe-Africa editor. Britain has insisted on calling itself the “United Kingdom” but its electoral decisions may soon render that designation factually incorrect. It will have to either jettison Northern Ireland or erect a customs border either on the Irish island or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. And Brexit has so upset the Scots that Scottish independence, one way or another, is now likely.
The post-Brexit UK is experiencing shortages of everything from medical equipment to chemicals to foodstuffs which it excuses to its people as part of a global “supply chain problem.” It is actually happening because the EU was the UK’s major trading partner, and trade and transport are now too difficult and expensive. Self-delusions follow naturally from the strikingly mendacious 2016 ‘Leave’ campaign that compelled a move that is predictably spreading misery – a disaster yielded by reckless politicians, indifferent youth and a collective infantile tantrum.
Finally, we have no less than the United States of America, the place where I grew up. By the time I left it, in my twenties en route to being a foreign correspondent, I considered the place to be a model for the world. This tells you something about young foreign correspondents.
Not only does the US elect (absurdly) sheriffs and judges, but it cannot get rid of the death penalty, can’t decide on providing a minimum of healthcare for all, and can’t connect leading the developed world in gun ownership and leading it in homicides and massacres.
There is a rot at the heart of America: the setup whereby every state regardless of size has two members in the all-powerful Senate. The Senate confirms Supreme Court justices and cabinet officers, has sole power to remove the president and must pass all important legislation. Mathematically, a Senate vote in tiny Wyoming is worth 70 in California (by relative size of the population). When it comes to electing presidents, in the less distorted but still-outrageous Electoral College system, the multiple is four.
The bottom line is that a bunch of small US states, rural and therefore conservative, hold the rest of America hostage. This stacks the system in favor of the Republicans, who have won the most votes nationally only once since 1988 yet held the White House half that time. Predictably, this party is heavily engaged in voter suppression while perfecting the dark arts of gerrymandering and challenging elections lost.
The Democrats are aligned with majority opinion on everything from abortion (don’t ban it) to taxation (more on the rich), healthcare (make it universal), gun control (increase it) and climate (stop denying it).
But they are squandering it by becoming identified with an unpopular progressive movement which is driving Centrist voters to the Right despite the dangers that the Right poses to democracy. Most Americans cannot abide demands for equality of outcome (as opposed to opportunity), viewing people (especially men) as guilty if accused, dispensing speaking rights by group identity and nonsensical demands to “defund the police.”
The setup begs to be changed, but there are too many small Republican states that benefit from it for constitutional amendments to stand a chance. If Donald Trump is returned to office in 2024, which could happen due to the system, don’t be surprised if the Democratic states which power most of the economy look for ways to leave the union.
This triple suicide is a warning to people in all democracies. Everywhere we see masses of voters at odds with the educated classes and the societal elites. Huge majorities among the “experts” – in many categories in which fact-based and reason-oriented expertise might exist – disagree with the direction of their societies.
Cynics might argue that this reflects opposing economic interests – hegemonic minorities clinging to their privilege. Certainly some Trump voters are rebelling against their marginalization via a globalization of industry driven by shareholder value only.
But beyond that, we may be living in an era where the issues on the table have become too complex. Most people lack the time, ability or inclination to grasp them. It is fertile ground for emotional appeals, simplistic arguments, and knee-jerk decision-making.
There’s no easy answer. But to minimize the danger, democratic countries should promote education as widely and as deeply as possible. And they should instill in children a love for their democratic rights.
When we vote, our hands should tremble with awe. We should be moved to the core by an understanding that this privilege must be earned each time anew – through respect for oneself, respect for others and respect for the facts.
The writer is a former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He is the managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him on Twitter and www.twitter.com/perry_dan