I read and heard about Hong Kong’s students putting themselves at risk demonstrating for democracy, and my first instinct was sympathy, sympathy for their passionate idealism, but sympathy in another sense too, for their sad illusions.
I ask myself, and it is not a trivial question, what is it exactly that they believe they fight for? Democracy has become such a totemic word, we all are trained to revere it, unquestioningly, almost the way 16th Century people were expected to behave in the presence of the Host during Communion.
But just where in the West do we see countries who call themselves democracies behaving in democratic ways, indeed where do we see genuine democracies? And if it is such an important concept, why should that be?
In Canada, to start where I live, we have a serious democratic deficit. A Conservative government today, elected to a parliamentary “majority” with about 39 percent of the national vote, behaves for all the world as an authoritarian government in many things at home and abroad.
It turned its back completely on Canada’s historic support of green initiatives, embarrassing our people in international forums with blunderingly incompetent ministers of the environment. It has built a large new batch of prisons, completely against the general public’s sympathies and in contradiction to historically low and falling crime rates.
It echoes the sentiments from Washington on almost anything you care to name and does so completely against Canada’s modern history and prevailing public opinion. It has lost the respect Canada once commanded in the United Nations. It has dropped Canada’s tradition of fairness in the Middle East, blindly supporting Israel’s periodic slaughters, ignoring the horrifying situation of the Palestinians. Only now the government decided to send fighter jets to support the American anti-ISIS farce, an act completely out of step with Canada’s long-term policy of using force only where there is a United Nations’ mandate.
But Canada still has a way to go to match the appalling modern record of Great Britain. Its recent prime ministers include Tony Blair and David Cameron – men, supposedly from separate parties, who both cringingly assent to America’s every wink or nod suggesting some policy, ever ready to throw armies, planes, money and propaganda at questionable enterprises their people neither understand nor would be likely to support if they did.
Promoting the mass deaths of innocents and the support of lies and great injustice are now fixtures in the mother of all parliaments. And, with all the scandals around Rupert Murdoch’s news empire, we got a breathtaking glimpse of how shabbily public policy is formulated behind the scenes, of how smarmy politicians like Blair and Cameron cater to unethical individuals of great wealth and influence.
Israel’s endless patter of propaganda always includes the refrain, “the Middle East’s only democracy.” The press does not think to ask how you can have a democracy with only one kind of person wanted as a voter and with only one kind of citizen enjoying full rights. Nor do they inquire about the millions who live under systematic oppression enforced by that “democracy.”
Effectively, Israel rules millions of people who have no rights and no ability to change their status through any form of citizenship, not even the ability to keep their family home if Israel suddenly wants to take it.
We have seen “democracies” like that before, as for example in South Africa or in the Confederate States of America, both places where people voted but only a specified portion of the people, millions of others being consigned to a netherworld existence maintained with a carefully designed structure of fraudulent legality. Ironically, viewed from the Middle East’s perspective, it is undoubtedly a good thing there are not more such democracies as Israel.
And the students should perhaps keep in mind the tragic example of Egypt. It too had huge demonstrations with thrilling moments like a dictator of 30 years fleeing and the nation assembling its first free election. But a brief spring garden of elected government was bulldozed after the government said and did things its small neighbor, Israel, did not like.
There were more huge demonstrations and thousands of deaths and illegal arrests and the return to military dictatorship in a threadbare disguise of elected government. Eighty million people must now continue life under repressive government because seven million people with extraordinary influence in Washington can’t tolerate democracy next door.
As far as what Colin Powell once called the United States, in a tit-for-tat with a French Foreign Minister, “the world’s oldest democracy,” well, he was just as inaccurate in that assertion as he was about hidden weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. America’s own founding documents do not proclaim a democracy but rather that most fuzzily-defined of all forms of government, a republic.
It was a republic in which the President was not elected by the general population, where the Senate was appointed, where the Supreme Court had no authority to enforce the high-sounding phrases of the Bill of Rights, and where as little as one-percent of the population could even vote – it was, in sum, an aristocracy of wealthy and influential citizens dressed up in high-sounding phrases. The American Revolution was aptly summed up by a writer as “a homegrown aristocracy replacing one from abroad.”
And since America’s founding, while the voting franchise gradually has been extended to become nearly universal (prisoners and ex-convicts still often cannot vote in a nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate), equally gradual changes in the structure of America’s institutions pretty much keep that original form of government intact.
At every level, barriers erected by the two ruling parties make it nearly impossible to establish an effective alternative party. Even getting listed on all the ballots was an immense task for a billionaire – Ross Perot – who in fact represented no substantive alternative by any measure.
The two parties’ privileged position also is protected by the need for immense amounts of campaign funds, America’s regular election costs being in the billions, the Supreme Court having declared money as “free speech.” You do not get that kind of money from ordinary citizens, and you necessarily owe those who do supply it, and you simply cannot compete in American politics without it.
For major offices, the vetting of politicians is now so long and demanding that no candidate can possibly run who isn’t completely acceptable to the establishment. The campaign money simply will not appear otherwise. Such quiet political controls are now backed up by a gigantic military-intelligence establishment with such authorities and resources that it much resembles a government within the government.
For example, with the NSA spying on every form of communication by every person around the clock, information about politicians is close to perfect. No undesirables can slip through and no undesirable policy can be enacted given the ability to threaten or blackmail every politician over his or her monitored personal and financial affairs. Nobody in his right mind calls that democracy.
The truth is that despite a long history of struggle, revolutions, and movements of various descriptions characterizing the West’s modern era, those with great wealth and influence still rule as effectively as they did centuries ago. Their rule is not as apparent and open to scrutiny as it once was, and there are many mechanisms in place to give the appearance of democracy, at least for those who do not examine closely.
Modern elections require money and lots of it. Voters’ choices are limited as surely as they are in many authoritarian states. The ability of any elected officials to act in the public interest is curtailed by a powerful establishment and a number of special interests.
Once in power, modern democratic governments behave little differently than many authoritarian states do. Wars are started without consent and for purposes not in the public interest. Secret services carry out acts government would be ashamed to be seen openly doing. Armies for needless wars are conscripted or bribed into existence. Rights people regarded as basic may be suspended at any time. Injustices abound.
Many “democratic” states practice illegal arrest, torture, assassination, and, above all, secrecy. Secrecy is so much a part of things today that when citizens do vote, they haven’t the least idea what they are voting for. Public education is generally poor, especially with regard to the real workings of government and the encouragement of critical thinking. The press has become nothing more than an informal extension of government, a volunteer cheering section, in many important matters. Voters go to the polls hardly understanding what is happening in the world.
So I praise the idealism and bravery of the Chinese students, but I know democracy everywhere remains only a small, hopeful glimmer in the eyes of people.
John Chuckman is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.