Is Democracy Broken?

A commentary on the present state of the world’s democracies.

A few weeks ago, we visited friends in a nearby city. During one of our discussions, this friend mentioned that he is disillusioned with democracy (not his exact words). I asked him why and he questioned the type of leaders that were being elected; leaders who were racist, narcissistic, misogynistic, anti-immigration, and who support white supremacy. This got me thinking. I began to wonder if democracy is broken.

When I visited China last November, our tour guide said something that made me question democracy. Our guide said the democratic world accomplishes little as governments are always squabbling. He further explained, whenever a democratic country elects a new political party, the previous party’s policies are reversed, thus little progress is made. I elaborated on this in my post on China (see China post). This begs the question: Are our democracies working efficiently? Is there something wrong with the way democracy is presently practiced?

Presently, there is increasing popularity in electing extremist right-wing politicians. According to Reference, neoconservatism is considered to be one of the more extreme right-wing ideologies. It takes a firm stance against anti-authority media and aligns itself with religious conservatives. Religious conservatives have specific positions on certain political issues such as abortion, homosexuality, creationism, science education, treatment of prisoners, immigration, and many other issues. Typically, conservative Christians favour anti-abortion laws, oppose gay marriage,  and many have a hardline against illegal immigration (see Intelligence Report).

Extremist right-wing politicians also tend to be nationalistic. In high school social studies—one of the courses I taught for many years—nationalism is defined as the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals. Nationalist leaders are gaining momentum in Europe (see BBC). American president Donald Trump calls himself a nationalist. (See HuffPost). There are many extremist right-wing nationalistic politicians being elected. Why is this so? Does this mean democracy is failing us?

When our politicians act more like school aged children with their bullying behaviours and temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, I believe democracy is broken. When it becomes acceptable to vote for politicians who spout rhetoric that is divisive and “unchristian,” democracy is failing us.  When it becomes acceptable for the US president to use profanity, such as the “F” bomb (listen to Trump), we are electing a breed of politicians of the lowest kind.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced criminal investigations for fraud and bribery. A google search shows numerous US politicians under investigation. The US president is under investigation for obstruction of justice as well as other crimes. Two former Brazilian presidents were investigated for a scandal known as Operation Car Wash (see BBS).

My province recently elected a premier who was under investigation of voter fraud (see CBC). I thought politicians where supposed to have integrity. Even more disturbing for me, is our newly elected premier handed out earplugs to his caucus, clearly indicating his refusal to hear debate from democratically elected opposition members about a bill that removes some bargaining rights for government workers (see HuffPost). This kind of behaviour from a leader stems from arrogance; a leader who thinks his party knows best and those who have alternative views are to be ignored. I thought the heart of democracy was healthy debate. Apparently not in my province. Former US president, Barack Obama said, “The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose.” I believe this to be true. When healthy debate is squashed in our legislatures, then as far as I am concerned, democracy is broken.

That leads us to the question: What is wrong with democracy? Former British Prime Minster, Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Perhaps he is onto something.  Louis L’Amour, an American novelist said, “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.” Exactly!

My brother and his wife worked during our province’s recent election, and both expressed how appalled they were by the electorate. They said they had numerous voters in their 30s and 40s who were voting for the first time. They also said they fielded numerous questions asking how the voting process works. Both my brother and his wife were shocked when several voters asked them why there were names on the ballots which they did not recognize. Many of them were looking for the party leaders’ names on the ballot. I was shocked to hear this. This is why, at least in part, democracy is broken. The voters are failing democracy.

Former US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” That is it! Voters are too apathetic to educate themselves. That explains, at least in part, why Donald Trump won the 2016 election.  Trump’s supporters are largely uneducated, according to polls (see Inquisitr).

Former US president, John F. Kennedy, once said, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”  I have to wonder if unprepared voters, who buy into the dangerous rhetoric being spouted by extremist right-wing nationalistic politicians is putting world security at risk. History teaches extreme nationalism started both world wars. Jose Marti, a Cuban poet, writer, and nationalist leader said, “The first duty of a man is to think for himself.”  Democracy is literally “rule by people,” and is a system where the citizens choose their leaders or government. To fix our broken democracy, people need to start thinking for themselves and educating themselves. Voters need to make informed decisions when voting, and that means determining what news stories are true and which are “fake news” stories. This does not seem to be happening at the moment as most voters believe the rhetoric spouted by extremist right-wing nationalistic politicians. English humourist, writer, and journalist, Allan Coren says, “Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, American 19th-century philosopher says, “Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors.” Are we electing dictators? Seems that way to me. Are we electing bullies?  I see this more and more, and voter ignorance is to blame.

Former US president, Abraham Lincoln said democracy is “government of, by and for the people.”  I still believe this is why democracy is the better system when it is not broken. Former US president Barack Obama said, “No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise.” Perhaps compromise is another problem. We’re living in a polarized time in history and compromise seems to have gone out the window. Each political party thinks they know best and are unwilling to listen to other parties’ views. An openness to different points of views and a willingness to compromise must occur for democracy to work effectively! Politicians must unite and do what is best for all. 

I know it is more complicated than what I’ve outlined, and democracy has problems other than those I’ve addressed above. The issue of corporate donations to help political parties get elected, for example.  Corporate wealth increases when a corporation’s preferred political party is elected and makes policies that perpetuate corporate greed. An informed electorate that votes responsibly is a good start to fixing our broken democracies.

Leadership at a New Low

A commentary on some of our world leaders.

On December 6, 2018, just eleven days after returning from a trip to China, Canada arrested the chief financial officer (CEO) of Chinese tech-giant Huawei for breaking United States (U.S.) sanctions against Iran. Canada legally acted on an extradition request of the U.S. since Canada has had an Extradition Treaty with the United States since 1971.

Now, because of our legal obligation to honour such a request, my country is caught in the middle of its two largest trading partners—two super powers essentially—and worried about having to choose sides. If Canada extradites the Chinese executive to the States, it will result in deep anger from China, and letting her go free will anger the U.S. which is our chief trading partner.

China warned Canada there would be severe consequences if it did not immediately release the CEO of Huawei. Since the arrest, according to The Guardian, 13 of Canada’s citizens have been detained in China. The Guardian reports that at least 8 of those 13 have since been released.  The media has mostly focused on the two detained Canadians who have been accused of endangering state security. On the 14th of January, 2019, a Chinese court issued a death sentence to a Canadian man accused of drug smuggling. This young man appealed his original 15-year sentence, and in a sudden retrial the death sentence was issued. This all sounds like bullying to me. Bullying is bullying whether it is in a schoolyard, or part of world politics. According to Forbes, China is accused of bullying several countries, such as The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Really, Canada is caught in between two bullies. You could take the classic bully story line of the ‘big bully’ frightening the smaller kid to turn over his or her lunch money to the bully. If you apply it to Canada’s current situation, it would be a small child being tormented by two ‘big bullies.’ Both bullies want the victimized kid to turn over the lunch money to them. The child victim is damned no matter what he or she does. If he or she turns over the money to bully one, there will be a deep anger, and likely retaliation, from bully two. If he or she turns the money over to bully two, there will be a deep anger, and likely retaliation, from bully one. It’s the old idiom, damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Every possible action or inaction would result in a negative outcome.

That brings us to the United States (U.S.). The magazine, Foreign Affairs has been the leading forum for discussion of American foreign policy and global affairs. It describes the United States as the “bully of the free world.” The Washington Post says, “Trump’s America is a bully, not a beacon.”

In my June, 2018 post called, A Flashback to School Yard Supervision, I reported on how Trump displayed bullying behaviour over perceived trade inequalities with Canada. On Twitter—he seldom exhibits bullying behaviour at news conferences—accused Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau as “meek and mild” and “very dishonest and weak” all because our prime minister declared that U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum were “insulting” and his insistence that Canada would not be pushed around.

The English Oxford dictionary defines a bully as “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable,”or as an individual who “seeks to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone perceived as vulnerable.” There is no shortage of examples of Trump seeking to intimidate a vulnerable person, world leader, or country.

Temple of Heaven exercise park

I’ve visited both countries. I mentioned earlier that I returned from a trip to China just prior to all of this tension between Canada and China. I found the wonderful people of China to be welcoming and friendly. In fact, one man gave each of us a mystic knot tassel, a Feng Shui symbol for good fortune. The retired Chinese people at Temple of Heaven fitness park were very happy to demonstrate their physical fitness abilities. While watching musicians and large groups of people singing in this same park, one Chinese person grabbed the hands of two people in our tour group and starting dancing with them. The Chinese people we met were non-threatening, welcoming and kind.

I’ve been to the United States many times, met several Americans in our Canadian national parks, and I travelled with Americans when we were on our Irish tour in the summer of 2018. The Americans I met were friendly, happy to talk to us, and were genuinely non-threatening in any way. In fact, while on our tour of Ireland, one our fellow American travellers bought me a whiskey while visiting an Irish Distillery.

mystic knot tassel,

What is really going on is that my country, Canada, is caught in the middle of a trade dispute between the U.S. and China, the two biggest economies in the world. The U.S. is accusing China of unfair trade practices. The Americans want China to import more American goods and to stop forcing American companies to hand over their valued intellectual property if those companies wish to do business in China. This dispute became a ‘trade war’ when tariffs implemented by the Trump administration, and China retaliated with their own tariffs. Are tariffs a form of intimidation? You bet. Is Trump trying to intimidate China to do what America wants them to do? Yes. Is China attempting to scare Canada? There is no argument there.

Are China and the United States—one could include Russia in this list—bullies? If the ordinary citizens of those countries are not the bullying types, then it must be their leaders who are the bullies. And because they are bullies, the citizens, who are innocent people, get hurt. Canadians in China are being detained as a form of retaliation for Canada’s participation in the arrest.  Business Insider warns that tariffs will likely increase the price of goods, which can have serious economic effects. Several economists and business groups have warned that higher prices from tariffs can hurt American firms and consumers. Ordinary citizens in both countries are harmed because they have to pay more for goods.

Trump is a bully. Same can be said about China and Russia’s leaders. Bullies on the world stage are not only a threat to world peace, but heartlessly make decisions that often are not in their ordinary citizen’s best interests. It is time to elect—when that is possible—world leaders who have their people’s best interests at heart, and not their egos.