2017 was a very bad year for the democracy brand

18 Dec 2017

Around the time that the ancient Greek were debating democracy at public squares, Plato, a rock star-philosopher who founded the first university in the western world, was hugely skeptical of this form of government. It rankled with him that judicial mechanisms within this system could be used to execute people easily. This particular viewpoint has been attributed to Plato’s lifelong grievance over the manner in which his mentor, Socrates, had been executed. However, even when he was not conflicted, Plato could use the sharpest tools from social sciences to whittle democracy down to its bare essence.

The genius of Plato was that centuries before democracy evolved into its various iterations, before a Robert Mugabe, Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni or Donald Trump could happen by, he accurately predicted that this form of government would lead to nations being governed by bullies and brutes. In the particular case of the US and hewing very closely to Plato’s theory, Noam Chomsky, an intellectual giant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicted the rise of Trump. “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers,” Chomsky told left-leaning web site Truthdig in 2010. “If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’?

There [in Hitler’s Germany] it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks.” He added that that charismatic character will tell the nation that white males are a persecuted minority, that the nation has to defend itself and its honour, that military force will be exalted and that people will be beaten up. “This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens, it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate, it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.” The next election would be won by President Barack Obama but Chomsky was more than right in every other dimension of his analysis.

A charismatic man whom his Secretary of State (Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation in the Botswana context) has described as a “fucking moron” is now US president. Trump has a racist past and led a campaign to discredit Obama as a true American. Launching his candidacy with a campaign promise to “make America great again”, he made the most abhorrent statements about Muslims and illegal immigrants, especially Mexicans. He blatantly encouraged the use of violence at his rallies and some people did get beat up. His subsequent electoral victory has been largely attributed to uneducated white men voting for him in large numbers. The latter demographic group is said to have been frustrated, disillusioned, and justifiably angry at the absence of any coherent response to their problems from previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic.

Trump has always revered military people and appointed six retired army generals to serve in his administration on assuming the reins of power. As a person, Trump is deeply flawed. He has expressed incestuous lust towards his own daughter (“If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her”), has been caught on tape confessing to sexually assaulting women and could literally end the world because he has access to nuclear weapons. Alongside Chomsky’s crazed right-wing Republicans, Trump has taken control of the Republican Party. This is how crazed some of those right-wing Republicans are: until she was stopped via legal action, one who was an executive at a right-wing TV channel (Fox News) was in the habit of having black employees arm-wrestle their white colleagues; and another owns nightclubs where there is an employee cadre whose sole responsibility is to start fight with black patrons so they get kicked out and banned for life.

And yet, Trump is president of a nation that people around the world view as the cradle of democracy. The monarchy is far from a perfect system but at least under it not everybody can become a leader. The promise and peril of democracy is that everybody qualifies to be president and on bad days – like January 20 this year – it can be someone who as, the editorial board of a US publication said on Wednesday, “doesn’t qualify to be a toilet cleaner in Obama’s presidential library or shine George Bush’s shoes.” Trump’s presidency is a disaster for not just America but the entire world. However, it is important to realise that the problem is not Trump himself but the vehicle that he used to get to get to the White House – electoral democracy. His election will forever be used as an example of how deeply imperfect democracy is.

This system of government accords the vote everyone but the reality is that not everyone qualifies to vote. Never mind the location but if you vote for a political candidate solely because s/he gave you a made-in-China blanket, you certainly don’t qualify to participate in a process that confers a lot of power (including power over life and death) on someone. In the west, some people have expressed grave concern about the manner in which low-information voters degrade electoral democracy. A significant number of these voted for Trump. There are confidence tricksters who hustle the myth that democracy benefits everyone but facts say otherwise. Democracy works for the rich. In his book, “Magic of Perseverance”, former cabinet minister, David Magang illustrates how the De Beers chairman, Nicky Oppenheimer, has more political power in his little finger than all Botswana voters combined.

According to Freedom House, dictators around the world have learnt how to master the electoral democracy game while not letting up on the oppression of citizens. Despite what is happening in the US, deficit gaps that have been identified in Botswana’s democracy are being incrementally filled with “best practices” from Trumpland. If nothing else, this will ensure that Botswana’s democracy evolves to a point where it produces its own Trump. As a matter of fact, some people in Botswana already see Trumpian traits in politicians in both the ruling Botswana Democratic Party and opposition parties.