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Nisar Ahmed
8 articles

My Democracy Delusion

Writer: Nisar Ahmed Category: প্রবন্ধ (Essay) Edition: Dhaboman - Eid 2017

President Abraham Lincoln was confident about the survival of the American form of representative government when he famously said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," in his Gettysburg Address. In fact, if the government is truly of, by, and for the people, then no other form of government that we are aware of can be better. Hence, such government should never die until something better can be found. Many forms of government including democracy, monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorship, and communism have been tried. Nothing seems to work better, or have wider acceptance, than representative democracy.

Though not widely accepted, the evidence of the earliest democracy was found in some parts of ancient India dating back to 6th century BC. The word ‘democracy’ – meaning ‘rule by the people’ - was first introduced by the Athenians in the 4th century BC to define their new form of government that rested decisively more power to the poorest of the society. In a modern democracy, government is meant to be established by the people through free and fair elections, for the protection and promotion of their rights, interests, and welfare. If the tenets of modern democracy require representative government, free and fair elections, and protection and promotion of people’s rights, interests, and welfare, it is worth pondering and asking how well democracy is working in a country like America where the political system is intertwined with the free market economy. Questions that are worth a look include:

  • Is the election - most fundamental requirement of a democratic system – free and fair?
  • Is the elected government representative of the population it governs?
  • Is there really an unremitting balance of power between three branches of the government – executive, legislative, and judiciary?
  • Who’s rights, interests, and welfare the US government is supposed to protect and promote?

These unremarkable questions have been discussed and debated over and over again with many points of views, though they remain unsettled. So, there is no harm in presenting another point of view. So, here it goes….

American Democracy in a Truly Free-Market Economy

As I understand it, in a free market economy, sellers and buyers of a commodity or service should be left alone to negotiate and settle on a price. Sellers are driven by profit and buyers and driven by the best value for their buck. These opposing interests are supposed to result in an equilibrium that maximizes the benefit for both sides. Let’s apply that concept to a different kind of commodity – the election. Candidates are selling their candidacy and the voting public is trying to decide the best candidate to represent them. That’s fine and dandy. But, how do candidates sell themselves? With money that helps them buy media spots, employ people who are working day and night to promote their own candidate and smear other candidates, etc. Where does the money come from? From groups who have vested interest to see a candidate win so that they can rip benefit once the candidate is in office. So, what winning chance a candidate who doesn’t want to be beholden to any interest group has? Virtually, zero, because no one wants to give him money. What about those voters at the bottom of the economic totem pole? How are they going to get represented in the election process? I guess they are out of luck because candidates who might be championing their causes have no money to win. So, who is best represented in the election process? Those with the most money will always have disproportionate influence in election campaigns. General public has no way to compete with the big corporations and wealthy businessmen. Efforts to minimize the influence of soft money from corporations and labor unions in the US election process through a bipartisan law was enacted in 2002, but was overturned in 2010 by the US supreme court. Whether we like it or not, money is the most important driver of an election process. Given that, can we seriously argue that the election process is free and fair? I beg to differ with those who say, yes. The election process is US is neither free of influence nor fair for all. When the election is not free of undue influence, the elected government cannot be truly representative for the population it serves.

How about the checks and balances of power? It is expected that the three branches of the government (executive, legislative, and judiciary) are supposed to watch over each other and maintain a balance of power in order to ensure that the people they govern are always served well. When all three branches of the government are controlled by the same party or ideology, can we expect the system to have equilibrium? Possibly not, but in the absence of anything better, occasional imbalance of ideologies is better than other forms of governments that concentrate power to a single person or group. Yet, for the public to have the most benefit from a healthy struggle between ideologies, the playing field needs to be devoid of unfair advantage for rich or powerful and it must provide equal participation opportunity for all without any bias.

American Democracy Abroad

Democratic government is supposed to protect and promote the rights, interests, and welfare of the people it governs. Who are those people that a democratic government has jurisdiction over? Are those the citizens of the country, all people living and visiting the country – citizen and non-citizens alike? How about people of other countries? Time and again we have seen the US government getting involved in the governing of other countries – sometimes overtly through wars or economic sanctions and other times through covert operations to depose or destabilize a foreign government we don’t like. Our argument has always been that those foreign governments are autocratic and harmful for its own citizen. So, we intervene to establish a democratic government that will better represent the people. If establishing democracy and free people from the grip of autocratic governments are our prime objectives, how do we support the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf? Why is the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians not a problem? Maybe because we are not serious about democracy, maybe we are too powerful and arrogant, and do not hesitate to impose our will onto others as and when it is convenient for us.

American experiment with democracy has been going on for a long time as it continues to mature. We have gone through civil war to abolish slavery and a lengthy civil rights movement to end segregation, but the democracy experiment in US is far from being over. America as a society is still struggling to protect and promote equal democratic and social rights for all living within its boundary, to offer the equal opportunity for women, to respect other’s ideologies and cultures. Until we can settle on these issues and come out on the right side, we don’t have the license to lecture others on democracy. If we believe in democracy, we must let citizens of other countries struggle for their own democracy without us getting involved covertly or overtly. Only then we can persuade other powers of the world to not get involved in other’s conflicts. Otherwise, we will continue to create enormous sufferings for people like Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, Palestinians, North Koreans, and will continue to create deadly terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and ISIS. Selling $110B worth of arms that is guaranteed to be used on innocent Yemeni civilians and to prop up terrorists who are hell bent on establishing their dogmatic form of Islam is no way to spread democracy around the world. Even though they didn’t have democracy, religious minorities were better protected in Iraq, Libya, and Syria under autocratic governments than many large democracies around the world. Could it be that democracy is not the right prescription for every country – certainly not the kind of democracy that is imported or imposed?

Though I don’t have answers for a better democracy, I continue to think and search for one that will provide the platform for truly free and fair elections, will represent all its citizens, residents, and visitors equally, and treat all countries, cultures, and religions of the world with equal respect. It will certainly happen because humankind continues to make progress. I just hope my wish comes true during my lifetime.