There are many weak signals that prove democracy is in danger everywhere.
In many African countries, the word “democracy” has become synonymous with “colonialism”, and many countries that claim to be democratic, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, are nothing more than corrupt dictatorships. In Asia, very few countries even lay claim to formal democracy, and when they do, as in India, this does not prevent them from maintaining a ruthless caste system, and an increasingly explicit civil war between the main religious communities. In the United States, for the second time since its creation, the country is on the brink of civil war, and, if the polls are to be believed, is preparing to re-elect a former president who openly supported a “coup d’État” to prevent his regularly elected successor from taking office. In Europe, a rogue democracy has led British voters, victims of liars and demagogues, to take the suicidal decision to leave the European Union, Italian voters to appoint an heiress of Mussolini’s ideas as Prime Minister, German voters to swap nuclear power for coal, and French voters to give more and more votes to a far-right party, now favored to win the next presidential and legislative elections. We could add a thousand examples with the dramatic evolution of Hungary and Poland, and the totalitarian and religious drift of an initially exemplary and secular democracy in Israel.
In no country in the world has democracy succeeded in reducing educational inequalities, in setting up an efficient healthcare system for all, and more generally in taking people’s opinions into account for the most part in what concerns them, and in managing in a free and lucid way the collective goods that are supposed to be under its responsibility.
What’s more, with the major issues now global, the threats clearly global and the real powers now planetary, the instruments of democracy in each country have virtually no influence on the essential elements of human life today, and even less on that of future generations.
Does this mean we should give up? Should we accept, without reacting, the multiplication of “coups d’État” in Africa, the proliferation of “illiberal” democracies in Europe, the triumph of dictatorships in Asia and Latin America? Should we allow the few so-called democratic countries of the South to ally themselves with the dictatorships of the South rather than the democracies of the North, without reacting, in all international forums, as we saw recently at the G20 in New Delhi and at the United Nations General Assembly? Should we placidly prepare for a fascist “coup d’État” in Washington, the arrival of Marine Le Pen at the Elysée? And an AfD majority in the Bundestag?
These are the facts: democracy is in great danger, everywhere. And we can only save it, perhaps, if we admit that the danger is very great and make it effective and fair. This requires considerable action, which can be summed up in a few simple principles.
Ideologically: to show that democracy is not a dimension of colonialism, that it is a very ancient form of government based on palaver, debate and the search for consensus, without fear or constraint, which has its roots in Indian and African traditions as much as in Greek practices. What’s more, democracy was practised in Greece for a much shorter time than in India and Africa.
Practical: remember that a regime genuinely based on freedom is far more effective, even when it comes to protecting people from immediate dangers, or from an imaginary invasion by migrants, than a regime based on fear. Just compare the management of Covid in China and Europe, innovation in the USA and Russia, or the level of education in Zimbabwe compared to Kenya.
Concretely: defend and strengthen democratic institutions where they exist, complement them with others that are local, associative and humble, and still others that are broader, capable of taking into account the interests of future generations, as in Denmark; and still others, at continental and planetary levels, to manage global issues (climate, health, education) as exist such global institutions for soccer, rugby or the Olympic Games, effective institutions even if democracy is still very approximate.
This is the price we’ll have to pay to get out of this terrible trap, to save this ideal, and to guarantee human beings what so many of them have died for: freedom.
Image: The oath of the real tennis room, Jacques-Louis David, 1791.