Democracy in crisis
Democracy in crisis
Democracy seems weaker than we thought, it seems to be under attack. Is this the beginning of the end or is it the beginning of something new and positive? Vanessa Baird writes.
A picture on a wall of a pro-Trump protester. QAnon ‘shaman’ Jacob Chansley appeared in Tunbridge Wells, UK, a few days after the attack on the US Congress in Washington on 6 January 2021. KARWAI TANG/WIREIMAGE/GETTY
A friend’s mother is afraid that she will lose her family as they each have the Covid-19 vaccine. She thinks it is a secret way of putting in a microchip to take over their minds.
It is not possible to argue with her. What she believes will happen is a nightmare but she believes it because of what she’s seeing online on her mobile phone. She sends my friend the proof - YouTube video links. Many times a day. There is so much evidence. So much information. How can it not be true? Her Facebook friends believe her. They don’t think she’s crazy. Why won’t her family listen? It’s terrible.
This is a family crisis from the North of England. But it shows us something about the world, about very different ‘information universes’ in families and communities from Brazil to India, France to the Philippines. And perhaps most dramatically in the United States.
As I write, there are reports that 64 per cent of the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump still believe that he won the 2020 presidential election. They believe that Joe Biden, with his 81 million votes, the electoral college, and majorities in both Senate and Congress, ‘stole’ it.
Only hours after the attack on Congress by a crowd of Trump supporters, 147 Republican Congress members refused to accept the election results. Days later, the angry supporters said that the FBI and the CIA organised the attack on the Capitol.
Democracy is all about diversity, different opinions and ideas. But we must agree on some things for it to work. Without some shared truth, how can we to talk to each other? How can democracy continue?
Leaders Tell Lies
Jen Psaki is the new White House press secretary. In her first meeting with the media, she promised to bring back truth.
Psaki’s promise was the opposite of Kellyanne Conway’s words ‘alternative fact’ four years earlier. As Counsellor to President Trump, she defended the lie that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever.
By the end of his term in office, The Washington Post said Trump had told 30,375 lies, about 21 a day.
Trump is not the first or the last lying politician, just the biggest. The UK’s Boris Johnson isn’t as big a liar but there was his most famous lie that the UK was sending to the EU £350 ($480) million a week. It was all over the side of a big red bus during the Brexit campaign. China’s President Xi Jinping is telling plenty of lies about the Uyghurs – ‘we are just educating them’. Vladimir Putin is so well trained in the KGB school of disinformation that he finds it very easy to lie - ‘we don’t poison our opponents’. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro seems to almost enjoy blaming the Amazon’s fires to clear the way for cattle ranching on ‘foreigners and environmentalists’.
Today in mature democracies with many parties we can hold leaders to account but lying is usually not punished. We don’t seem to care.
But we should care. Lies, disinformation, and misinformation are important for autocrats. They prepare the way for something worse. Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, described how the German people were prepared in the 1920s and 1930s for something very much worse.
Every year PR firm Edelman publishes a report on trust around the world. In January 2021, it said there was a state of ‘information bankruptcy’.That seems odd when you think of how much information there is on the internet.
But in the 27 countries in the report, trust in all information (search engines, media, social media) was at a record low. Trust in leaders was also low with government leaders coming last.
A protest in London against Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg with public anger at the activities of the digital companies. VICTORIA JONES/PA IMAGES
People do not trust journalism and traditional media but the information source that people trust least and think is the worst for democracy is social media.
Things have changed a lot. Ten years ago, in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, people thought Twitter was positive thing. It was possible for pro-democracy activists to communicate with each other and the world. Social media could offer some protection against immediate violent clampdown. And it can still offer some protection today, for example, in pro-democracy protests in Nigeria, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Russia. Social media made it possible to communicate in the middle of a pandemic about Black Lives Matter across the world after the killing of George Floyd. When authorities shut down the internet or block social media, it’s almost impossible to know what’s going on. This happened during the conflict in Ethiopia and the elections in Uganda, and it is happening in Myanmar. It is essential for human rights and democracy that everyone has digital technology.
But the negative effects of digital technology are becoming clearer. Most public and government worries are around harmful content: hate, extremism, racism, sexism, disablism, and other online violence. People are trying to get the digital companies to remove the worst forms of online harm and ‘fake news’.
But the problems are much deeper. Shoshana Zuboff writes that digital companies are taking away people’s rights and independence. It’s all to do with the business models of big companies like Facebook and Google and the way they use surveillance, data, and targeted advertising.
The research organization Ranking Digital Rights says that these business models are bad for us individually and possibly really bad for democracy.
The problem is that fake news, anger, and conspiracy theories get more hits and make more money for the digital platforms. This is important to their success and their profits.
They talk about defending democracy when they finally banned Trump after the Capitol riot, but Facebook and Twitter have played a big part in promoting his lies and they made money from this.
There are other ways in which the tech companies threaten our democratic and human rights as they improve surveillance technology and services that they can sell to repressive governments, and not repressive governments. Progress in biometrics and neuroscience give them ways to ‘hack the human’, as Yuval Noah Harari says. ‘Democracy was always under threat but we are facing a threat to democracy that was never there before. Tech now makes possible totalitarian regimes, digital dictatorships. For the first time in history, it’s possible to watch and monitor people all the time.’
We must regulate digital tech companies. They have too much power and go too deep into all our lives. There is a more and more agreement about this but how do we regulate them? The European Commission seems to be furthest in developing regulation. In December 2020 they published two plans for a Digital Services Act and a Digital Markets Act. They talk about rules for accountability, openness, and fines for up to 10 per cent of a company revenue. This may not be enough, and the companies are likely to fight it, but it’s a start.
Conspiracies and neoliberalism
There are many conspiracy theories online – and they make money for the platforms and conspiracy entrepreneurs such as Britain’s David Icke, the US radio host Alex Jones, and those behind QAnon.
Many theories are silly – Icke’s ‘a small group of reptiles rule the world’. It’s hard to think of them as political. But many have a political function. Often they are antisemitic. Philosopher Quassim Cassam says conspiracy theories are ‘first of all political propaganda. Their real function is to promote a political ideas.’
So, Alex Jones says, ‘the murder of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary school was fake and no-one died’. It is very cruel to the families of victims, and it helps the gun supporters. And ‘George Floyd is alive’ is an attack on Black Lives Matter.
People like conspiracy ways of thinking for many reasons. Social psychologists find that anxious or depressed people or people suffering a traumatic loss of some kind (such as divorce, bereavement, or unemployment) seem more likely to like conspiracy theories. The conspiracies give them something. In the far-right QAnon conspiracy (‘Donald Trump is here to save the US from paedophiles, financiers, and the deep state’) it’s little bits of secret information, to get people interested, from a place which seems close to the centre of power. Followers can feel superior to the people who read mainstream news. QAnon has also reached the ‘alternative’ wellness, anti-vaccine, and yoga communities.
There were always conspiracy theories and we find that in the end some are true. The oddest ones like QAnon’s may have little bits of truth in them. They come from real events and cover-ups.
For example, pharmaceutical companies have acted unethically for profit. They covered up the opioid addiction scandal for years while the billionaire Sackler family made money. Financier Jeffrey Epstein was a paedophile who trafficked underaged girls for his friends. The bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis went free but ordinary people lost their homes and their public services. Billionaires own a lot of the mainstream media and it does what they say. And don’t forget Bush and Blair’s big lie about weapons of mass destruction. Or neoliberalism’s bigger lie that globalization is good for all, and the market is wise and giving.
White supremacists and far-right militias fight leftist anti-racist counter-protesters in Stone Mountain, Georgia, US. JENNI GIRTMANN/ ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS/ SIPA USA/PA IMAGES
Hopeful and fearful
Trump, the orange man. has left the White House and Biden has reversed many of his most racist, sexist, xenophobic, climate-trashing orders.
Liberals and progressive people across the world can feel relief and dare to hope – especially in countries like Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, the Philippines, and Britain. Their rightwing leaders supported Trump.
Ndindi Kitonga is a Black Lives Matter activist from Los Angeles. She says, ‘The Biden administration gives us an opportunity. We can breathe, we can think together. We can come back to an understanding of truth and facts together. There is hope there.’ But she adds, ‘We are still afraid. Afraid for our lives. I see Confederate (white supremacist) flags here in LA. In the past months people with guns protested against us all the time.’
The challenges for the new US administration are very big especially with the badly handled pandemic and the world’s highest number of Covid-19 deaths.
Then there is the problem of many millions of Trump voters who like their guns and believe the government lost the election. Surveys of Trump voters in 2016 showed most were white men over 40 with poor education and low incomes, many living in the South or unemployed in the post-industrial rustbelt.
But it’s not the whole story. Many are not ‘poor whites’. Some are small business owners and some are big business owners, like the Group of Growth billionaires who funded Republicans trying to change the 2020 election result.
The new administration will need to stop their power and bring strong health and job creation policies to what Trump called and used successfully the rural and rustbelt ‘losers’, the ‘forgotten men and women’. If it fails, the effects could be terrible. Ex-Trumpers could move further to the Right, and become more violently fascist. Around the world and also in the US and Europe, far-right terrorism is increasing, with a 250-per-cent increase in attacks in 2020 over the year before. The threat from them is greater than Islamic extremism.
Walden Bello is an academic and activist from the Philippines. He experienced the authoritarian coups in his own country in 1972, and as a student in Chile in 1973. He thinks the US has entered a ‘Weimar era’, as in 1920s Germany, when people do not respect democratic elections and street violence becomes normal. He told Democracy Now that what happened in the Capitol was not unusual. ‘When rightwing groups begin to lose elections and they begin to see that their opponents are winning elections … they go to the streets and to violence.’ And he warned about the strength of American political institutions, because Trump showed over the last four years how he could easily violate so many US traditions, and we have not seen the end of that.’
Those weak-looking institutions of democracy need defending. But bosses from big US corporations are also a threat to democracy like the armed crowds with Confederate flags. Bosses from big US corporations said very clearly that in the interests of democracy they would no longer give funds to the members of Congress who objected to Biden’s win.
Robert Reich is an academic and was US secretary of labour. He replies, ‘For years, big corporations have attacked democracy with big money, silencing the voices and needs of ordinary Americans and increasing the anger that opened the door to Trump in the first place. Their attack hasn’t been as dramatic as the Trump thugs who attacked the Capitol, and it’s legal – although more damaging in the long term.’
Somos Tribu is one of the many independent support networks that started during the pandemic. This group provides food and aid to people in the Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas who the government cannot help. JUAN CARLOS ROJAS/ PICTURE ALLIANCE/ PA IMAGES
Bigger, better, greener democracy
When US activist Astra Taylor was researching her book Democracy may not exist but we’ll miss it when it’s gone, she was sad about college students’ low level of engagement or interest in democracy. Some said they put a higher value on social mobility and career opportunities than on their democratic rights.
Poor leadership, political cronyism, and bad handling of coronavirus have increased the interest in rule by unelected specialists and technocrats. ‘We can’t trust politicians. We cannot trust people to make good decisions. Better to leave it to experts, or algorithms.’ But, of course, technocrats are people with political opinions and algorithms seem to support prejudices and inequalities.
A survey in early 2020 found that ‘discontent with the way democracy is working’ was common in 34 countries. But this may not be as negative as it sounds. Our system of democracy, with elections every four or five years, encourages very limited people participation.
Today we need more active and effective people participation with the many difficult challenges - the global pandemic and its big economic and social effects, growing inequality, a truth and information crisis, and the climate emergency.
The drama of the US election focused on high power, on the person with the top job in the richest country in the world. But we must remember that it was door-to-door, old-style canvassing that got the Democrat vote in swing states like Georgia.
There are also the groups that have started across the world to do what the State is not doing, often supplying food and disinfectant. Many have no hierarchy and are bright lights of independent organisations in a world dark with disease.
In his book Twenty-first Century Socialism, British academic Jeremy Gilbert writes about a form of socialism gives priority to the environment. It’s about people controlling the economy and not the economy controlling people, giving power to workers, citizens, and communities.
Astra Taylor writes that democracy can be more than things like just periodic elections, civil liberties, and legal equality. It can move into work places and schools and housing free from the pressures of speculation. She writes, ‘More and more people seem to think that democracy is dying.’ But the participatory democrats of Rojava in Northern Syria know all about egalitarian self-rule, and so do Zapatista communities still going strong in Chiapas, Mexico. Also there is the movement for citizens’ assemblies.
‘Citizens’ assemblies are starting to have an effect,’ says Laura Sullivan of We Move Europe. In Ireland they have had big success in opening debates on abortion, gay marriage, and climate change, leading to changes of opinions, referendums, and changes in the law. With citizens’ assemblies perhaps the UK debate on leaving the EU might have been very different.
Citizens’ assemblies are used across the world. The most ambitious so far will be the Global Citizens’ Assembly that will take place before the COP26 Climate Summit in November 2021.
Democracy may be in crisis – but it’s also the beginning of possibilities.
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)