Sunday, October 2, 2016

Democratic uncertainty

Jean-François Revel in his book The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) wrote in regards to democracy (and love) that there is no accepted definition but instead clear symptoms.  In other words, the proof that a country is a true democracy is whether it is a free press, safe environment for opposition, protection of minorities and exchange of leaders, to name a few. Of course, there are intermediate states between ultimate democracy and absolute dictatorship but an analysis of all the political conditions quickly demonstrates which citizens actually have rights.

Pseudo democracies have always existed.  The Soviet Union, Mexico and India had regular elections while Hitler was an elected leader, albeit only once. Such countries generally have constitutions and legal codes that formally but not in practice allow protest and opposition.  Modern examples of fake democracies include Turkey and Russia. In these countries, the same leader has ruled for more than a decade, as president or prime minister, with any effective opposition leader being arrested or, as Putin has done, assassinated. The press is effectively government run.  Of course, the established leaders are quite popular. In fact, one sure sign of a non-democracy is when the ruling party received more than 80% of the vote.

Worldwide, today's democratic politics are quite volatile. Many countries conduct elections in an environment of non-tolerance or even hate between the competing parties.  While the tone of the discussions in these countries can be disconcerting, especially in terms of racism, the mere existence of a public debate on key issues and its presence on all forms of media without fear of a legal or extralegal penalty provides hope for the future. The United States and Europe will emerge stronger as the candidates and the public discuss and determine their place in the world and the role of immigrants in their societies. In Israel, the call for increased control of the press by the ruling party is worrying but the court system and major parties still promote freedom of speech. India and Mexico, formerly fiefdoms of their ruling parties, frequently replace ineffective governments to the benefit of their countries. Brazil even impeached its president, an unlikely event a few decades ago.

According to Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty, an observer can have total knowledge of location or direction or partial knowledge of both but not complete knowledge of both. In other words, the closer you look at the trees, the harder it is judge the forest and vise versa. As a foreign observer watching the political processes occurring worldwide, I appreciate democracy and relish the viewing of them even if the actual content of the public debate is disturbing or insulting. In such societies, controversial issues are resolved for the public good, not for the benefit of a specific party or leader. As Revel said, in practice, with all of its imperfections, democracy is much better for people than totalitarianism.

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