Given the recent examples of major democratic voting, first in Great Britain on whether to leave the European Union (by a narrow margin, the people voted to leave) and second, both parties’ presidential primary process in the united States, there are lingering questions as to whether or not the process a) was fair and unencumbered by dis-and-mis-information, b) free from external and inappropriate tipping of the scales either in favour or in opposition to a particular position or candidate; c) whether the result was, is and will continue to be in the best interest of the people casting votes.
The Economist magazine’s front cover this week depicts a chasm in a canyon, illustrating the new “divide” about welcoming immigrants/refugees or keeping immigrants/refugees out. This burgeoning human drama, of epic proportions, compares with the Ruanda genocide. the Bosnian horrors, and other massacres in history. War, instability, unfettered dictatorship (Assad) supported by other unfettered dictator (Putin), forces like ISIS, the Taliban, and the rampant spread of terror, famine, hopelessness and disease, linked intimately to the failure of the world political bodies to design and to deliver measures that halt hostilities, while working like beavers at providing basic necessities like tents, food, and emergency medicine and health care….these factors all contribute to the rising tide of homeless refuges, and migrants willing to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of a glimmer of hope in another place.
Europe, especially France, Germany, Belgium are all trying to cope with a tide of new immigrants the integration of whom fully into the respective cultures seems to have barely begun. And all of the exaggerated fears of projected terrorists onto these migrants, most of whom are indeed Muslims, are now giving rise to voice of withdrawal, isolation, anger, including new political parties, barbed wire fences, opportunistic bandits charging thousands for sea crossings in crippled boats resulting in the drowning of some 3000 men, women and children.
President Obama late this afternoon credited the conflict in Syria for much of his crop of grey hair, told the press conference he does not trust Putin and Russia to make good on any agreement to co-ordinate military actions in Syria and told his audience there is not a single meeting that he attends on this file at the conclusion of which he does not ask, “Is there any other thing we could and should be doing to intervene in this very complex issue?”
The campaign in Great Britain about leaving the EU was, according to most reports reaching north America, saturated with exaggerations, distortions and rhetoric based on appealing to and generating the fears of Britons that they were losing control of their country, their capacity to absorb and accommodate the tide of immigration and to make appropriate business deals with the rest of Europe. Today, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada, announced a cut of the bank’s interest rate, from .50% to .25% to attempt to prevent a deep recession, following the fallout from the vote.
Britain’s short and medium-term future prospects are looking somewhat bleak. And there are still many who believe that there ought to be a second and sober vote to overturn the original result. The anger and fear that undergirded the voting patterns were not, for them, adequate bases on which to make the national decision. Scotland, having barely rejected a vote to separate from Great Britain, and having voted solidly to remain in the EU is contemplating their next move which could mean a negotiation to remain within the EU, and who knows what that would mean for Great Britain.
Voting over the last several months in the United States too has produced results about which many are so queasy that they are leaving the Republican Party, fund raising for the Democratic candidate, and even still contemplating some method by which the Republican National Committee could overturn the results of the series of primaries, and replace their nominated candidate with someone else. In a historic move, Obama, the outgoing president, has publicly declared his opinion that the Republican candidate is “unfit” to hold the presidency. So the many days, weeks and months of campaigning, starting with some 17 candidates, has left both the Republican Party and the United States gaping in consternation, anxiety, and even downright contempt for the decision of a large slice of angry non-college-educated mostly male voters who, as the tail, are not only wagging the dog of the party, but have taken control of the race for the White House.*
For the last eight years, the world has watched as a series of votes has elected hundreds of Tea Party wing-nuts to the House of Representatives, determined to sabotage the presidency of Barrack Obama, especially after a Democratic-controlled Senate passed Obama Care, the Affordable Health Care Act providing health insurance for some previously uninsured 20 million Americans. Even today, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Obama’s nominee to replace him hangs in limbo following the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal even to hold hearings and a vote to affirm the nominee. The Constitution is clear about the presidential responsibility to appoint a replacement in such circumstances and about the Senate’s responsibility to hold hearings and an up or down vote. The voting patterns of the last few elections have contributed significantly to this gridlock. Out in the hinterland, too, many states legislatures, under Republican control, have passed bills restricting the right to vote for minorities, (obviously that means Blacks, Latinos and the poor, and under-educated who lack the requisite identification cards demanded by the legislation. Once again, politicians, having seduced their electors to put them in office have abused their offices to ensure their own re-election and the decreasing possibility that minorities, who have historically voted Democrat, will be unable to vote.
Recently, there are glimmers of hope that some of these restrictive laws are being challenged and overturned, as blatantly racist-inspired. So the democratic vote in a highly advanced political culture is proving to be subject to manipulation by those in office and leading to a needed intervention by the legal system, a job it should not have to undertake, if the politicians were concentrating on the public good, and not their own narcissistic goals.
And then there is a debacle of the Democratic National Committee’s 20,000 emails dumped into the public domain that substantiate the charges of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders that the party establishment were actively engaged on behalf of Secretary Clinton in her campaign against Sanders in the Democratic primaries. The infrastructure of the political parties, both Democratic and Republican, are appearing to erode in terms of their efficacy and their fairness, adding to the already mounting distrust of the political establishment. So it could be argued that it is not democracy that is under threat, but only the current batch of practitioners. However, such an argument merely narrows the focus of the argument.
It is the wider element of the failure of democracy and the failure of the institutions which have been developed by those elected in democratic elections to grapple with the pressing issues of income inequality, global warming and climate change, civil wars and the challenges to national security that plague many developed and third world countries.
If there were ever a time when the democratic process of fair and open elections that have not been purchased by a few billionaires, and that have not been hijacked by demogogues like Trump, and that have not danced their way around the many pressing issues needing public debate, deep reflection and considered conversation, (way beyond the trite “we hate Trump but Clinton is so dishonest”), it is now.
The public, including the reporting class, has a right to ask penetrating questions about policy and direction their political candidates are proposing. They also have a right to demand to be heard, and to be offered a platform, as were the Khan’s at the Democratic convention, to express deeply held views, even if, or especially if they are highly critical of a candidate. Democracy can work only if the people, of whom for whom and by whom the process has been designed, play a highly active, informed and courageous role demanding that candidates release their tax returns, demanding that candidates come clean in their answers, and demanding of their neighbours that rather than leaving the process to a minority of 35-40% of elegible voters, they raise the national totals above 70%.
In an age when leaders can and do manipulate the public’s opinion of both them and their policies through the various sources of demographics and niche marketing by means of wedge issues, it is even more important for the ordinary citizen to become armed with the information, rehearsed on its implications and articulate in its deployment in the political arena.
Democracy may well be under fire; and only the public can turn the process into one that serves the whole population. And in order for that to develop, candidates who can and will commit to compromise, to study, and to show up on the really tough and politically inconvenient issues, and not only those that serve their personal ambition.Don’t look for these idealistic apparitions to morph into action in the next few months or years. It is going to take several Bernie Sanders’ to generate the democratic revolution for which the world yearns. And, as in all issues, the clock is not an ally.
*Whether Putin himself has or will continue to interject his security and intelligence apparatus into the current presidential election in the United States hangs like another cloud over the transparency, the credibility and the trust of people watching around the world in the democratic process, to which he gives a mere superficial nod in his own "election".