Reimagining Democracy: Holding Up A Mirror

(Note: An edited version of this piece first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English.)

Democracy is a bit like hot chocolate. Most people seem to love it because it creates the perception of safety. Amidst the uncertainties of everyday life and the terrifying crises that threaten our planet, it is that thing they gather around with the hope of finding respite. I make that choice, so I have an inkling of why others gravitate towards the same. It seems like the best apple in a basket of largely rotten ones.

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I do not want to live under dictatorial rule. I care about my civil liberties. I value the constitutional protections that are available to me. I want to be able to speak without censorship, travel without restriction, and love without fear. I like knowing that the law has my back. Living in a democratic country seems to look after most, if not all, of these needs. That is the fundamental expectation that every citizen has. Whether it is fulfilled or not is another question altogether.

Democracy is not a flawless system. It creates the impression of a level-playing field but ends up strengthening networks of socio-economic privilege. It has not put an end to corruption or abolished the death penalty in some countries despite all its claims of ensuring accountability in governance and upholding the dignity of human life and liberty. Democracy has bred the tyranny of the majority, and done little to quell violence against minorities. It validates anyone who can prove the strength of numbers. It does not guarantee equality, justice or even ethics.

Democracy makes us believe that everyone has a say, and that they will be heard. It gets us to think that dialogue is a better way to address conflicts than suppression of speech. It gives us the assurance that people will not be stripped of their human rights, that the state will not harm them for questioning government policies. These are the founding assumptions of democracy but they are dishonoured every single day. Injustice is overlooked. Crimes go unpunished.

Why is democracy then a kind of ‘secular religion’ that billions of people all over the world place their faith in? Legislation is their scripture, and every election an act of prayer. There are no shrines to pray to but courts of law fill in for them. Guardian angels get replaced by cops and armies, the clergy by a set of policymakers. There are no deities to be pleased with offerings but there are palms to be greased with bribes.

My extended analogy might seem exaggerated but democracy is a practice just like religion is. Both are fuelled by an elaborate system of values, beliefs and rituals. Both lure their followers with the promise of freedom. Both are cemented by communities of belonging. Both are held hostage by the very institutions created to serve them. Both are so convinced about their own infallibility that they often fail to spot what needs repair and reform.

The United States of America is suffering from an epidemic of gun violence. India has failed to make women and trans people feel safe in public spaces. Germany is grappling with the resurgence of right-wing groups. Pakistan has a government that runs at the mercy of its military. France seems clueless about how to address ethnic diversity without compromising on secularism. Canada appears progressive but depends heavily on the war economy. Nepal is trying to get on its feet but would collapse without foreign donors keeping up the cash flow.

If you had the opportunity to create a political system that took the best of what democracy offers, and fixed all the problems democracy suffers from, what would that system look like? What kind of leadership would it have? How would it address the refugee crisis? What stance would it take on abortion, maternity leave, and queer rights? What steps would it take to deal with racism, misogyny and Islamophobia? Go ahead, and dream what you want to see in the world.

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