When democracy clashes with politics
By Olukayode Oyeleye
The ‘progressive’ movement that hopes to shape the world for good is speedily and steadily losing its appeal. Without much ado about body of literature on political ideologies, it is sufficient to state that the world political intellectuals, thinkers and their followers on the field of play have sharply divided the world into two, based on political practices and the thoughts that underpin them. The very system promoted as model for governance seems to be losing its shine for many reasons.
The Cold War era was a time of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies when the developed world was sharply divided into the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. This division was not primarily because of their geographies, even though one was in the Western hemisphere and the other in the Eastern hemisphere, it was a clear ideological divide with the invisible Iron Curtain. The Iron Curtain referred to the political boundary that separated the Western Europe from the Eastern Europe between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1991 when the Cold War was presumed to have ended. It was a fashion then to find a neutral group addressed as the non-aligned movement.’ The world did not care well socially and economically as their diplomatic relationships were determined by their affinities. The hardline stance of the pre-Gorbachev USSR to block the Soviet Union and its satellite states from open contact with the West, its allies and neutral states did not hurt the world more than it did to the USSR itself as the era of glasnost and perestroika destroyed many things the Soviet Union had prided itself in since the time of Josef Stalin, which were cumulatively responsible for its retarded growth.
The difficulty faced by the USSR in adjusting to the new paradigm under Gorbachev, the discontent under Boris Yeltsin and the amplified nostalgia of the Soviet era now in full display by Vladimir Putin could very well be understood in historical context. Juxtaposing the economic thoughts espoused by Adam Smith in his seminal work on ‘The Wealth of Nations’ made public in 1776 and the popular liberal economic thoughts that were embraced by the Western democracies on one hand with the socialist and communist ideologies of the East, a lot of big lessons are obvious.
Experimentations on both sides have produced verifiable results, enough to know which one seems better than the other. Under democracy, the United States, an undisputed champion of modern democracies, has prospered like none other country in the history of humanity. China, on the other hand, has gone through serious setback, including hunger, starvation and deaths in the hands of communist leadership. The China that is greatly globally recognised today was in the throes of poverty until the reforms carried out by Deng Xiaoping and his allies gradually led China away from a centrally planned economy and Maoist ideologies that perpetuated that crisis. The Deng era reforms opened China up to foreign investments and technology. Some who praise China from afar are heard saying that China closed itself first, developed and then opened itself to the world economy. Nothing can be more misleading. It was Deng reforms that introduced China’s vast labour force to the global market. The result today is that China has become a global economic powerhouse.
Putin’s Russia, the largest and most influential of all the breakaway republics from the old Soviet Union, still seems stuck in the past while many others are embracing democracy. Russia’s political ideology and policies and their impacts today are very much evidential as could be seen in its territorial expansion bid launched against Ukraine since it first took Crimea in March 2014 and more recently in the renewed invasion it began on February last year.
Unfortunately, however, for the well-known democracies, the leading examples are now struggling in what looks like a backsliding as new issues creep into their ideological mix. Under the new dispensation, the political right and left are now moving to either extremes as they are becoming increasingly intolerant to each other and the rank of moderates seems to be thinning out. In the US, for instance, bipartisan accords and cooperation to achieve common goals are getting more difficult to achieve as the country is getting more sharply divided along extreme ideological and sentimental lines. In the recent times, members of one American political clan are now more preoccupied with critical race theory, LGBTQ rights, defunding the police, unregulated immigration across southern border than homeland security, curbing inflation, keeping interest rates low, reducing unemployment and other socio-economic indices.
Many underdeveloped countries that have been struggling with democracy now seem to be in a greater mess than before. In Latin America, Asia and Africa where democracy has been going through strong headwinds, the governments operating democracy have been having great difficulties in delivering the expected dividends. In a 2018 book titled “Edge of Chaos,” Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born internationally acclaimed economist amplified the crisis around democracy today, while setting out the new political and economic challenges facing the world. She expressed concerns that, around the world, people who are angry at stagnant wages and growing inequality have rebelled against established governments and turned to political extremes.
Moyo made passionate call to jump-start economic growth by aggressively overhauling liberal democracy. It is obvious that those champions of democracy too are caught unawares by the rate of emergence and diversity of problems they have to deal with in government.
Dambisa Moyo didn’t gloss over the fact that, in notable places with historic achievements in the past, democracy is now failing to deliver economic growth, especially as democratic governments tend to focus more on short-term achievements for political capital. She attempted to proffer specific radical solutions needed to resolve or fix the burgeoning crisis. She pointed out that liberal democracy, history’s greatest engine of growth now struggles to overcome unprecedented economic headwinds — from aging populations to scarce resources to unsustainable debt burdens. Her fears are becoming real as short-term thinking and ideological dogma are now pushing democracies towards the risk of falling prey to nationalism and protectionism that will deliver declining living standards. Career politicians who see the use of these sentiments as means of gaining political capital do not fathom the depth of crisis they are stoking, particularly in discrediting a system of governance that has been hailed as better than others over the years, especially when such a system is abused or misused by political actors.
Dambisa Moyo, on why liberal democracies are failing to produce economic growth and global stability today, advised that, rather than turning away from democracy, the practitioners must fundamentally reform it. But the twenty-first century experience of democracy is proving rather more pathetic and damning than inspiring, providing opportunity for those who make no pretence about the system to gloat over those practising it. Sadly, dictatorial tendencies found in Communist regimes are creeping into democracy in some developed countries as well as many developing ones. Some of the cardinal features of democracy, which include freedom of speech, freedom of association, human rights guarantee, free and fair elections, people-oriented participatory government and independent judiciary, are now being threatened by those who arrogate to themselves some democratic credentials. Some forms of those distortion or adulteration, when introduced, tend to muddy the waters and cause the populace to lose faith in the system. Consequentially, practitioners of autocratic dictatorship under communism become teachers with more attractive arguments.
Failure of practitioners of democracy is the trigger for people’s tendency to abandon it. Although enduring internal mechanisms based on strong institutions still help countries such as the US, UK, Germany, France, Canada or Japan on the path of democracy, developing countries are vulnerable and liable to backslide. Failure to hold credible elections has been a bedrock of failures of governments feigning democracy in many developing countries. Recent election-related crises in Peru, Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Libya and — most recently — Nigeria are samplers. Contrast these with the successes in South Korea and Singapore, two countries famed for their quantum leap from Third World to first. A study of their practice of democracy and how it has impacted on their economies, quality of life and development in general will provide a basis for recommending that if Nigeria truly wants to reap the fruits of democracy, it must provide a fertile ground for it to grow, flourish and bear fruit. Failure to do this, the present democracy could best be described as mere jamboree or circus show. Those who subvert those democratic ideals to get the democratic mandates and for power and control are very unlikely to bring any real dividend. Rather, they will only succeed in pushing a country towards dictatorship and ruination.
Dr Oyeleye is a Public Affairs analyst
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