America’s democracy and its deficits of substance
By Charles Onunaiju
NEXT month, between December 10 and 11, the United States presidency intends to convene what it called “leader’s summit for democracy.” According to a statement on the summit, which will hold virtually, President Joe Biden will use the platform “to rebuild our alliances with our democratic partners and allies, rallying the world to stand up against human rights abuses…”
It is only hoped that the platform would be one of mutual learning and experience-sharing and not of hectoring, lecturing and posturing. However, the narrow framework of the meeting, down to “our democratic partners and allies”, already foreclosed an inclusive and broadly participatory process, and which by itself, is an indictment on the democratic credentials of the organisers.
However, the following brief discourse is an uninvited memo to the platform. Broad human aspirations for peace, security, sustainable development, and even prosperity is absolutely no doubt, universal and pointedly connects to the enduring collective human yearnings for happiness and better life.
However, the mechanisms, organisations and processes to attain them must give due diligence and context to specific circumstances, historical conditions, and other factors that shape the social outlook of a given people and also give proper effect to the conditions of their developmental stage.
Without adequate understanding of the historical process which poses the question of the existential reality and its challenges in the way, it actually exists and unfolds, gaining substantive leverage over the process and drive transformative agenda that opens the path of sustainable and inclusive development would be deprived of the refreshing tonic of historical far sight and foresight.
In the real and practical sense, democracy which is the broad spectrum of people-centered political organisation and process, must find context out of its generalised concept to the specific nature of the different challenges, circumstances, and reality in which a given people find nurture their respective experiences.
Without this concrete expression in a particular context, democracy in the developing nations and Africa in particular would function as mere rhetorical flourish or at best, a philosophical abstraction, irrelevant to the routine strivings of the majority of the people.
A well-known anti-colonial fighter and one of Africa’s foremost thinker and theoretician Amilcar Cabral said that the mass of the people do not fight and make sacrifices in anti-colonial struggles and national construction efforts for the ideas that exist in any one’s head, no matter how lofty but rather to bring concrete material improvements in the quality of their lives.
Democracy is served best when it engages and resolves practical questions regarding the improvement in the quality of lives of the people. It is even consolidated on a firmer ground if it delivers the human security and guarantees better life which poverty and extreme material deprivations are the greatest threats.
In contemporary times, the debate about democracy, especially in the West focuses on procedures and rules, with very little about the people, which is the real substance of democracy. In the new context of re-emerging cold war thinking and outlook in the West, democracy has fallen victim again as mere ideological tool to further the purpose of hegemonic and power politics.
Democracy which should serve to attend to human’s existential needs in a specific historical context and national condition is being abstractly generalised as a set of rules to be imposed by Western powers superintended and by a self-select few who ascribed to themselves the monopoly of wisdom to define its templates and enforce complaints on others by the tumultuous and dangerous mechanism of regime change.”
It is no gain saying that while the high tempo of human aspirations is universal, the democratic temperament of procuring and processing its feasibility is local and it is in the local application of the democratic process that its results are best maximised and its effects on people made more tangible and practical.
However, it is not difficult to understand that America would hardly see the platform of this type as mutual learning and experience sharing process which will feed into various efforts by different nations to nurture and consolidate their democratic practices against the background of their respective unique national conditions and histories.
Already designed as framework for rebuilding alliances, the Washington’s organised summit on democracy will be little more than regurgitation of cold war political alliances that defined the world between “US and them”.
Democracy and its implications for mutual learning and experience-sharing cannot be discriminatory but would rather integrate the experiences of all countries with different outlooks as a totality of collective human heritage and put them on offer for objective and honest interrogations. Designating some values as democratic and others as authoritarian can hardly fit into any serious definition of democratic temperament and ethos.
The United States, whose democratic practices are hardly measurable to its professed democratic values nonetheless deliberately, weaponises its ideals as foreign policy instrument to project and secure its national interest. From what the U.S preaches to the world about the sanctity of “one person, one vote,” its electoral college system, by which the votes of few electoral college delegates trumps over the majority votes of electors is nothing short of abrasive and rude affront to majoritarian electoral democracy that the American establishment unabashedly dictates to the rest of the world.
Because, America’s democracy is basically, a transactional system, in which majority of Americans have very little leverage over legislation and policy outcomes, crucial issues including such life and death issues as gun violence, are left to the antics of vicious special interest groups who mobilise and pay for huge campaign expenses and dictate policy choices according to their special interests with ordinary American watching helplessly.
Despite the surge in gun violence and the usual national grief and outcry that follow each incident of deadly gun violence, politicians and government can hardly reach a consensus on modest gun control measures that can address the perennial and vicious circle of gun violence. If any democracy does not address issues that are of concerns to the majority of its people, how then does it conform to the practice of democracy and in tandem with its values and ideals?
Despite the glamour that has been politically festered on America’s democratic ideals, the substantive practice of democracy in the U.S has revealed not only inbuilt exclusion of minorities, especially of blacks, Latinos and Asians but outright hostility to them. With the economic conditions of white middle-class Americans becoming more precarious, race, its conflicts and hostilities are re-emerging as the new frontier of America’s political battles. Broad and inclusive democratic practice can narrow the gap and blunt the sharp edges of racial tensions, but since American democracy is not broadly inclusive enough, it is yet to be enriched by the beauty of the different colours of its own people.
The U.S democracy remained fundamentally challenged by inclusive social process in which the fruits of its high scientific and technological achievements can translate to broadly shared prosperity. Like the presidential aspirant of the Democratic Party, Senator Bernie Sanders always said, the situation where the national wealth is owned by less than one percent of the American population is not acceptable.
From the outlines of U.S summit on democracy, which Africa is expected to participate, issues most critical to the region especially building the necessary framework for sustainable and inclusive development would be conspicuously missing. No meaningful construction of democracy in Africa would be possible without taking issues of extreme poverty into account and how best to raise people from extreme material deprivations.
The way to enable millions of Africans overcome poverty through massive investment in infrastructures like efficient transportation network featuring sea and air ports, railways and highways. Additionally, power and low carbon or clean energy is a basis on which Africa social stability and democracy can thrive and survive. Unfortunately such key issues that are strategic to securing in democracy in Africa does not feature in U.S engagement with the continent.
China, however, mainstreams these core and fundamental issues in her cooperation with Africa and both in the two main mechanism of engagement with Africa, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC, and Belt and Road framework of International Cooperation, BRI.
These critical and enabling infrastructure needs for Africa’s sustainable and inclusive development has been the driving force. China’s support for democracy and social stability in Africa is practical, tangible and solution-driven while Washington pays lip service to the challenge of consolidating and enhancing democracy in Africa.
Democracy beyond abstractions needs tangible and practical measures to establish and consequently internalise and diffuse its values to the broadest section of the population.
Without establishing the existential material basis for it to survive and thrive, democracy would not only remain hollow but would be divorced from the real challenges and concerns of the broadcast section of the human community. A democracy must resolve the great question of social equity and inclusion.
America’s democracy despite its political glamour, struggles to contend with numerous substantive issues, germane to Americans and obviously need to improve itself. Despite this, the American establishment does very little at home to renovate and innovate its democratic practice but rather engages in worldwide political subterfuge, plying democratic rhetoric as mere weapon of foreign policy.
The existential reminder that America’s democracy needs urgent structural reinvention and reforms, was the fascist’s audacity to grab power last January by the daring invasion of the capitol, that houses the U.S legislative chambers and this shows that colourful rhetoric is no substitute to profound soul search.