In the 1960s, I toured Makerere University in Uganda. Later, during that visit, I found myself seated at dinner beside one of the African instructors. The country had recently won its independence, and the gentleman was not only ebullient about the future, he was a virulent critic of British rule. I asked why he was so bitter, when the English had fostered education and medical services that had doubled the life span of the average Ugandan. His eyes flared like blowtorches as he turned his head in my direction. “Nothing material compares to freedom.”
His answered stayed with me over the years. As an American, how could I argue against freedom? Nonetheless, around the globe, today, the future of democracy, which I equate with freedom, is in question. In small, impoverished countries, it disappeared almost at the moment of its birth.
People soon learned democracy guaranteed neither political or economic stability. (“The End of the Democratic Century,” by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stephan Foa, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018, pg. 31.) Born from the ashes of their disappointment, a strong leader inevitably emerged. With grandiose promises and through the aegis of the ballot box, over time, he gained enough power to crown himself dictator. We see this pattern in places like Venezuela, Turkey, The Philippines…. Add the already existing autocracies of the Middle East, China and Russia and the global reach of democracy seems flimsy. Some critics have dared to predict the United States is headed in the same direction.
As writers, Yashcha Mount and Roberto Foa explain, the form a government takes is irrelevant to its success. (Ibid pg. 29) What it must provide is political and economic stability. China and Saudi Arabia are autocratic countries that do both and so their authoritarian modes survive.. (Ibid, pg. 34.) Ideals, like democracy, do little to fill a hungry belly.
Despite the misguided belief of my Ugandan acquaintance of old, the “material,” in fact, is what holds a society together. Those who cherish democracy must give credence to that reality. The greatest threat to our way of life isn’t our current leadership, per se, but the spreading chasm between rich and poor. If allowed to grow, ideological ideals from the left or right will hold little value. Worse, without a common ground, all they can achieve is to shut down of our democracy.
But even without discord, dissolution may be inevitable. If Republicans continue to have a free hand, they will whittle away at the government’s safety net and allow money to pool in the hands of a few, creating an instability that will expand until it explodes. After the chaos, only one outcome is foreseeable. The rich will continue to prosper.
The permission I express here may seem to contradict the hope I expressed in a recent blog. (Click) Today’s remarks are meant as a cautionary tale. I do continue to hope. But reason and a cool determination are also necessary. Come November, those of us who cherish our democracy have an opportunity to right the ship of state.