In his 1960 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy famously asked the American people to consider what they could do for their country, as opposed to demanding what their country would do for them. Kennedy’s speech was motivated by the belief that in a democratic system of government, meaningful change must come not from the top, but from a citizenry committed to the national good. ‘‘The final success or failure of our course,’’ he claimed, was not in the presidents hands, but in the hands of the American people.
This May marked what would have been JFK’s 100th birthday, but today it is hard to imagine any Western politician making a similar demand of the people. For better or worse, JFK’s inaugural address appealed to a sense of national duty that no longer exists. ‘‘Not as a call to bear arms,’’ as he would say, but ‘‘a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle’’ to ensure the success of our democracies. Of course, JFK was speaking at the height of the Cold War when East and West were in the midst of an ideological battle. After the Soviet Union collapsed, however, it was widely acknowledged that the worldwide spread of democracy was not only inevitable, but irreversible. This assertion seemed to be affirmed as countries around the world, including some Eastern European nations formally behind the Iron Curtain, took steps to becoming fully fledged democracies. But recently this trend has been in decline. Many are concerned about the state of democracy in Poland and Hungary, whilst others fear that Turkey is on its way to becoming an autocracy. Most worrying, however, is the health of democracy in the old Western powers.
The hubristic assertion following the Cold-War that the consolidation of democracy was inevitable has now proved fatal. Here in Britain, as elsewhere, it is hard not to wonder whether our self-assured attitudes towards democracy have allowed us to neglect our responsibilities in safe-guarding it. After all, democracy is like anything else, if it isn’t looked after it will wither and rot, leaving populists and demagogues to feed off its corpse. For too long we have enjoyed the benefits of democracy, whilst taking for granted our democratic institutions.
‘That every one of us is able to vote in a general election is one of the great achievements of human civilisation- and something we should all celebrate.’
Today democracy in the West is facing its greatest peril since the dark days of the Cold-War, though the threats are rather different. No longer are our democracies under siege from external threats, but democracy is eating itself away from within. It is disheartening and bitterly ironic to hear the American president pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border. In his famous ‘‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’’ speech at the Berlin Wall, Kennedy claimed that ‘‘democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.’’ Trump’s promise to build a wall to keep people out is symptomatic of how much we have fallen back on ourselves.
Yet Kennedy isn’t the only one to have noted that democracy isn’t perfect. Winston Churchill famously quipped that the ‘‘best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.’’ But besides his characteristic wit, here Churchill also made an important point; namely, that the success of democracy is dependent on the average citizen. If the average citizen is not engaged and informed, or simply doesn’t care, then democracy will suffer as a result. Yes, democracy may endow the citizen with certain rights, but it also requires certain commitments and responsibilities. The word democracy itself originates from the Greek demos, meaning the people, and –kratia, meaning power or rule; that is, democracy is ‘‘rule by the people,’’ or, as Abraham Lincoln might say, ‘‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’’
It follows, then, that the people must uphold responsibility for this system of government. We are often eager to complain that politicians are all liars and crooks, but in truth we get the politicians we deserve. Whilst we rightly demand much of those in government, many of us nevertheless fail to engage in our own active duty as citizens. Let us not forgot that democracy is a wonderful thing. That every one of us is able to vote in a general election is one of the great achievements of human civilisation- and something we should all celebrate.
Over the years we have seen a steady decline of faith in the ability of the democratic system to make a change. A New York Times article last November highlighted research that revealed a sharp decline in the amount of people who believed it was ‘‘essential’’ to live in a democracy in numerous countries including Britain, Australia and the USA. This view was strongest amongst young people, and is supported by earlier research by the Lowry Institute for International Policy in Sydney that found only a mere 42% of Australian 18- to -29- year olds thought democracy was ‘‘the most preferable form of government,’’ according to a 2016 Guardian report. But perhaps the biggest indicator of peoples’ political apathy is on polling day itself. Data from UK Political Info suggests that following the Cold-War, voter turn-out declined dramatically in the UK, and although it has been back on the rise, it is still far below its pre-1990 level. This tells us that political apathy took hold long before Trump or Brexit. On the other hand, one consequence of recent political shocks might be the reawakening of the citizen’s political conscience. This year’s UK general election, for instance, saw a surge in the youth vote when the young felt they had someone to vote for.
Yet a loss of faith in the system is symbiotic with a distrust of those who govern. This is why perceived outsiders such as Trump, Corbyn and Farage have such appeal, regardless of their politics. More than anything, it is a loss of trust that has led to an attitude of apathy and cynicism amongst the masses. How often do we hear complaints that all politicians are liars and crooks? This is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but when compounded by other issues such as terrorism and wealth disparity, this cynicism feeds anger. The astute genius of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US election was the way in which it preyed off existing antagonisms within the country. The hack itself may have been substantial, but not to a degree as to truly cause damage to America’s strong democracy. Russian interference did just enough to reaffirm existing cynicism and distrust, whilst sowing doubt about who actually committed the hack. All Putin had to do was sit back and watch as the country folded into internal strife and division, already accentuated by the role of social media.
‘The move to rebuilding trust is the first step to strengthening democracy. But this demands action from us all.’
For all the good that social media has brought, it is clear now that it has a darker side, and we still don’t fully understand the damage it could cause to democracy. After all, the online world is changing a fundamental characteristic of our nature- the way we communicate and interact. In the ‘‘Post-Truth’’ era it is important for us all to be shrewd consumers of news and information, but as well as the dangers of so-called fake news, it is our own unwillingness to engage with views contrary to our own that are splitting us asunder. On both the left and right we are becoming increasingly insular in our views, and more disparaging towards the views of others. Social media accentuates these tendencies by encouraging us to engage only with those opinions that appeal to our tastes. Because most of our online friends are also likely to share our view-points, this in turn reinforces the idea that the positions we hold are indisputably the right ones, whilst failing to engage in open discussion with others. In this sense, social media, rather than being an outlet for individual expression, contributes to a foul conformism. As it corrodes the private sphere, so it has a negative effect on free and independent thinking. Furthermore, recent evidence to have emerged suggests that the data gathered on individuals online can now be used to target personalised political messages to voters. If such is the case, as appears likely, then this will represent one of democracies greatest challenges in the digital age. Ultimately, social media is adding fuel to the populist fire.
The move to rebuilding trust is the first step to strengthening democracy. But this demands action from us all. At least since the end of the Cold-War democracy in the west has been both neglected and abused. Neglected by the average citizen who has made the choice to be apathetic; abused by the politician who has ignored the concerns of the people. Both of these represent a cause and symptom of a fault in our democracies; that is, the citizen who chooses to be apolitical encourages the politician to take advantage, whilst on the other hand the politician who is aloof inspires hostility in the citizen. Whilst the politician has not been trusted to act out of the best interests of the general population, neither has the citizen been trusted to partake in democracy.
Life post-9/11 and the financial crash has been defined by an anxiety over our struggle to adapt to a new and changing world. But at such historical junctures as this surely is, it is important to remember that history does not follow its own course, but is the result of our own agency. Democracy is never set in stone, but it is a continuing and unending struggle. As one American president once told the world: ‘‘here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’’