At the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos last year, after a long and hotly debated moment, including a cameo by the Saudi king, two things were said.
The first was by Brazilian president Michel Temer, who earlier, in a moving speech at the event, had said that “Brazil has emerged from authoritarianism … to democracy and open societies.” But then, in the next few minutes, Temer added: “We must listen to those who want to change things.” In other words, reform wasn’t just for others. Temer thought the U.S. system was the best. His question was how to protect it.
“All institutions of democratic government are under pressure from all sides,” Temer, a center-right politician and close supporter of President Dilma Rousseff, who is currently imprisoned by the Brazilian Congress, said at the time. “We must protect political sovereignty.”
The comment was not a rhetorical flourish. From President Donald Trump’s profanity-laced attack on the media, to violence and ballot-stuffing in the U.S. midterm elections, to Turkey’s crackdown on potential demonstrators, democracy has come under attack in the Western world. The issue has come to the fore during critical times, as some of the old answers that have served democracies for so long — expanding the market and embracing technology — are threatened.
Despite the past week’s events in the United States, none of this has yet had much impact on the traditional thinking about how to protect democracy. These days, the top three things countries, businesses and civil society have in common seem to be a willingness to talk about rights protection and accountability for power holders. But at the other end of the scale is a political philosophy that abhors any form of outside interference, an ideology that regards democracy as a singular ideal and one that, so far, remains capable of surviving popular advances.
This disconnect has mattered before, notably during the Cold War. At this year’s meeting in Davos, almost everyone discussed the threat to democracy posed by Russia and other forces, but not enough about how it might be defended. In a one-on-one conversation with The New York Times in Davos, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, referred to a model of governance that put “the people” first. “Democracy … is dead,” he said. “For us, it’s more important to get on with spreading our vision of a new society where everyone has the right to free expression and protection from the state.”
The concepts of accountability and citizen rights, meanwhile, seem to be where democracy fails. Transparency is often seen as the most efficient way to manage power, but is little used because people rarely directly benefit from it. Transparency is seen as protecting the masses against abuse, but it can too easily be used to protect the powerful. And in the struggle between the West and authoritarianism, the fight between liberal societies and despots, there is growing evidence that democratic governance is under threat. In countries ranging from Turkey to Egypt, the free media is often in the crosshairs, a phenomenon highlighted by the New York Times Magazine in a recent article. The result has been a shift away from elected governments and the elected press, often going to the rise of elected figures who have already established themselves as the head of state but then imprison journalists and clamp down on information.
It’s hard to fault this attitude. With most information online and the vast majority of information coming from social media, even governments who once had significant outlets, have lost the ability to control information. At the same time, some governments have become more authoritarian, rather than less. In Brazil, a right-wing president has declared that he intends to use the nation’s judiciary system — and the Supreme Court — against anyone he finds to be challenging him.
These trends have taken place despite popular gains. In 2019, Brazil’s Brasilia inaugurated a new president who hasn’t sought to rein in the police and vigilantes who have violently demolished large swathes of the Amazon. In the United States, Trump’s big victory is replicated by the GOP-led Congress; its most visible members are men from right-wing media and social media; its next congressmen include academics, agitators for social conservatism and former members of the House Freedom Caucus. It’s not clear how such differences in opinion on issues of governance and power, when they break with tradition, matter. And the old means that seemed to work before are no longer effective.
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