Democracy under threat

I am starting to believe that the idea of democracy is starting to come apart at the seams, worldwide. I seem to hear more stories of national elections being shams, causing deeper unrest, and sparking violence than stories of election success. The aftermath of the Kenyan presidential elections is the event that’s brought this idea to the fore for me. Right now, I’m trying to see where the roots of the trend lie.

It’s pretty clear from a Google search that the “democracy meme” is a well-travelled phrase. It is a meme that has trumped all comers: democracy is the political ideal that all citizens have aspired to. The supremacy of that idea has been under threat, however, by a bunch of big and small ideas:

  • separationist tendencies (sectarianism, tribalism, and balkanisation),
  • violent extremism as a (successful) form of protest,
  • acceptance of bias within and censorship of information sources,
  • that election fraud can work, and
  • limits and faults within existing, well-respected systems (a trifecta overcoming checks and balances, winner-take-all parliamentary democracies).

None of these ideas is powerful enough alone to overthrow democracy as an idea, but each holds enough sway with some population so as to do it some damage. I’m starting to believe that the sum of the damage may be too much for the long-term health of democracy world-wide….

The grand rubric of separationism got my attention first. Tribalism seems to be what’s making things come apart in Kenya, and different facets of that basic impulse (in the guise of sectarianism) seem to be sandbagging things in Iraq, as well.

I can’t claim to be an expert in Belgian politics, but I can say I have a feel for the place, and a general understanding of the impulse to divorce Flanders from Wallonia. Ten years ago, while I was living there, it was always a far-off threat. Now, it appears that it really is conceivable in the present. So far as I can tell, the real conflict in the divorce is custody of the Brussels region, their offspring.

I’ve long advocated a solution appropriate to Europe: strengthen the federation behind the European Union, and allow devolution to follow its course to the properly-sized political unit. Belgium was a fairly arbitrary construct, anyway. Since I landed on that opinion, the EU has failed to strengthen its union, and gone aggressively for expansion.

The point here is that democracy finds challenges in places that are fundamentally divided. I don’t mean a heterogeneous pluralism (which might be the best suited for democracy), but a nation with few, strongly polarised, communities. I believe when those communities are divided geographically, it may be better to split them into separate nations. When separationism combines with other memes that have come to the fore recently, it is difficult to get everyone lined up with enough mutual goodwill to make a go of it as one political entity.

What memes have also worked to damage the force of democracy? In western societies, I put a lot of blame on the willingness of people to shut themselves in insular information spheres: to seek out news sources that they agree with, and to shut out others as lies. Every news source has a natural bias, but – at least as I’ve been aware of it – US/UK “prestige” media has been much more reactive to the consumers in the past decade than ever before. Increasingly fragmented media (also moving to the internet) has allowed this positive feedback to magnify the effect. Governmental censorship is a more blunt form of the same effect. Educated citizens are more sensitive to it, but have been excusing it more and more in the name of protection, whether it be of our children, or from criminal elements.

In other places, cruder methods have done their damage to the integrity of democracy. Violent extremism (including terrorism) and election fraud (the ruling party holding the whole process in contempt) have been around consistently. But Al Quaeda’s audacious tactics have directly affected Spanish elections (and Pakistani, too, from the looks of it at this point), and have opened minority actors’ eyes to even more effective means of “protest.”

Election fraud might even have been the norm in the third world up through the 1980s, but it really felt to be on the decline in the following decade. I have to think that the persistent reports of fraud during the US presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 have sent a message out to more cynical elements worldwide that democracy can be fluid. Fair voting is optional. A free press and informed populace are enemies to power. Dissent is disloyalty. Displays of violence bring power. Displays of power justify themselves….


I don’t have any solutions. I’m just struggling to see the problem. I woke up this morning listening to the BBC World Service report on Kenya, and was moved to attempt to organise at least some of my thoughts.