This post is written in response to two articles in the April 13 print edition of The Economist, both under the Leaders section: ‘Israel’s election, Bibi the conjuror’ and ‘Elections in Indonesia, The wrong way to win.’
It’s becoming quite clear that democratic erosion might not just be a disease afflicting the United States. In fact, it seems to be mutating into an awfully contagious pandemic. On nearly every continent, the pillars of democracy may very well be crumbling, leaving many of us wondering if this great social experiment is beginning to fail.
When we talk about our democracy failing, all too many Americans look directly to the 2016 Election. Others, who enjoyed the outcome of 2016, look to 2008. Undoubtedly, though, this prevalent concept of democratic erosion took root in the twenty-first century. But, it is not to say that it is unique to the United States, or to our presidential elections. To truly analyze whether democracy is crumbling, it is important that we not just consider our democratic republic, but others worldwide.
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has won a record-breaking fifth term to his office despite the looming corruption charges hanging over his and his government’s heads. In an opposition party backed with strong military generals, Netanyahu was still able to maintain his semi-despotic hold over Israel. But then, we ask, how?
As put by The Economist, his victory comes from a “mixing [of] muscular nationalism with Jewish chauvinism and anti-elitism,” while simultaneously declaring himself innocent on any charges lobbied against him. He has “sowed distrust” in the other government institutions in Israel and has implemented extremist rhetoric to win over the right-wing voters. It is unlikely that he will annex parts of the West Bank as he promised to those voters, but that is irrelevant. The problem here lies in principle: Mr. Netanyahu used any and all means necessary to secure his fifth term.
Mr. Netanyahu’s extremely pro-Israel views, and the views of his supporters, are not inherently false or blatantly wrong. They are, though, ignorant of the “changing political and strategic landscape.” Mr. Netanyahu has made it clear that his opinions are absolute and unwavering, that any supposed guilt of crime is falsified, and that the true enemies are the institutions trying to bring him down. This is eerily reminiscent of not just the American political climate, but of the political climates of history that have torn down social orders and plummeted regions into mass chaos.
Simultaneously, Indonesia is approaching its presidential election this week wherein 265 million citizens are expected to go to the polls to select a new, or the same, executive. The incumbent is Joko Widowo and his opponent is a former general, Prabowo Subianto. The sitting president is a small businessman, a former mayor, and a man of the people, so to speak. He has worked to improve the lives of the impoverished in Indonesia and has promised to continue to do so in the future. In contrast, Mr. Prabowo is a self-proclaimed “strongman” in stark opposition to the president, who has declared himself an “economic nationalist” with the goal to “make Indonesia great again.” Undoubtedly, no one needs these dots connected for them to the executive in the United States.
This presidential election, in a nation particularly renowned for its civilized and well-respected democracy, has fallen prey to democratic backsliding. The leading candidates have resorted to extremist rhetoric that has cast the opposition as criminalized villains who will destroy the social and economic welfare of the state. Despite the incumbent’s strong term in office, he and his administration have learned that one of the most effective means of getting one’s way is through “bullying and intimidation.”
The Big Picture
America is not alone in its fledgling democratic norms. Israel cannot have both a permanent hold on all the land it claims without sacrificing the “ideals of a proper democracy that does not discriminate against Arabs.” Politicians in Indonesia are “not willing to stand up for Indonesia’s long tradition of tolerance.”
The message here is clear and succinct, and in accordance with much of the political and social theory that currently stands on the concept of democratic erosion. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance have fallen to the wayside, if not having been entirely forgotten. Politics has filled itself with identity-based resentment, with certain groups claiming to hold superiority of thought and culture. Politicians are willing to corrupt both their cabinets and themselves to maintain their holds on power. Extremist rhetoric divides and impugns.
The examples, too, go well beyond the United States, Israel, and Indonesia. The United Kingdom cannot deliver on its Brexit deal with the European Union, and its politicians and political institutions have fallen into disarray as a result. In Spain, last year’s ousting of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey over a no-confidence vote installed Pedro Sánchez, intensifying Spanish partisan divides among an already vitriolic situation in Cataluña. Mexico’s former President Enrique Peña Nieto concluded his tenure buried in corruption with approval ratings in the single digits. Extremist groups are gaining traction in the politically unstable landscapes of Greece and Italy.
So, what’s the point? Democratic erosion is not just a national problem. It is an international issue that needs to be addressed. From Trump to Netanyahu, from Widowo to Sánchez, from Nieto to May, the faces of our global democracies are all signaling to us the same message: something has gone awry. The solutions, undoubtedly, are challenging and, perhaps, in some cases, unattainable. Regardless, we need to acknowledge the common thread and the repeating themes across all social levels of global democracy. Extremist rhetoric, intense nationalism, vilified politicians, and identity-based classism have all contributed to world wars and global conflicts in the past, never mind the simple breakdown of political systems. It is time that the people of the world – and not just the citizens of the global superpowers – recognize that it is time to address this pandemic before it is simply too late.
While one radically negative change can ripple, so can one radically positive change. It works both ways. Restore tolerance, forbearance, and respect, and there might be time to turn this ripple into a wave in the right direction.