Democracy reasserted, democracy on the ropes

Syed Badrul Ahsan | Tuesday, 18 January 2022

These days democracy is the issue to watch and indeed ponder in two countries where it has mattered more than anywhere else in the world. In one, it is being reasserted with a degree of firmness which encourages people into believing that it is in fine shape. In the other, it has been going through sniper attacks, to a point where it is increasingly becoming imperilled.

We speak of the United Kingdom and the United States. Prime Minister Boris Johnson could well be fighting for his political life in light of all those reports which have been making their way into the public domain of parties organized at 10 Downing Street in contravention of Covid-related restrictions. Johnson today feels the weight of the condemnation heaped on him, owing fundamentally to his repeated attempts to deflect public attention away from these reports. And yet on Wednesday, during Prime Minister's Question (PMQs) in the House of Commons, he was unusually subdued, with that unbridled energy which has all along been a mark of his performance in parliament and especially in responding to Labour criticism of his government conspicuously absent. On Wednesday he apologized in the Commons and looked perfectly contrite.

But that expression of apology was not enough. Demands have been growing in Britain, some from among his own Tories, for him to quit office. While the Prime Minister will wait, for now, for the results of the investigation being carried out by a senior civil servant into all those Downing Street goings-on, one cannot be quite certain that he will survive in office. The inescapable truth is that Boris Johnson's moral authority has been badly undermined by all this drip-drip-drip of reports of Covid parties at his official residence. And in a democracy, when moral authority is dented, political authority swiftly slides, forcing a leader to call it a day. Of course, Johnson has always had the reputation of being a fighter, despite all the criticism coming his way over the years about his political behavior. Whether or not he can come through this present crisis is a big question. Even if he does manage to weather the storm, he will be a weakened leader.

And that is where the democracy question assumes renewed importance in the United Kingdom today. Everyone, from common citizens to journalists to academics to politicians, is today focused on a reassertion of the basic principles on which democracy functions, which is that those who hold power are expected to hold that power in trust for the people. When that principle goes missing or is undermined, it is only proper that those who forfeit that trust find their way out of power. Johnson may soon have to realise that his authority to govern has been irretrievably lost. It will be in his interest and in the interest of his party, which has of late been trailing the opposition Labour in the polls, to resign. Perhaps someone like Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, could pick up the pieces and have the government carry on, until the next general election.

That is democracy at work today in Britain, a power that has also seen Prince Andrew stripped of all his royal titles and duties against a background of the sex-related case which has had his reputation in tatters. Andrew has been a disappointment to the royal family and to the country. But a redeeming feature out of all this embarrassing saga has been the swift move by Queen Elizabeth II to have her second son fight his own personal battles without having those battles taint Buckingham Palace. The democratic spirit is at work. On two fronts --- Johnson's parties and Andrew's legal problems --- democracy remains strong.

Now look behind your shoulder at the horrible manner in which the democratic way of government is being systematically undermined in the United States. A year after his inauguration, President Joe Biden is low in the opinion polls and so is Vice President Kamala Harris. The responsibility for such a dire situation is certainly not of their making but of those Republicans who have been sniping at politics since January 6, 2021 when Donald Trump gave the green light to the insurrectionists to go and overturn the results of the presidential election of November 2020. In this past year, Trump has continued to lob political grenades from Mar-a-Lago and his timid supporters in the Republican Party have gone along with propagating the Big Lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Men like Kevin McCarthy have been a disgrace to Republican principles. Mitch McConnell, having condemned Trump on the floor of the Senate on January 6, 2021 for encouraging the mob assault on Congress, has walked back to his earlier position of blocking all attempts at bipartisan cooperation. Liz Cheney is among the few Republicans whose political sanity has not deserted them.

And worse have been the moves by Republicans in the states they control to limit voting rights for certain sections of the population, all in the interest of ensuring that Republican officials are on hand to count votes (and overturn results) at future elections. Such behavior is odious, for it is a repudiation of every advancement that has been made over many years and decades in guaranteeing voting rights for Americans. Beginning with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Americans and especially African-Americans have gradually and systematically asserted their voting rights. Those rights are today under assault, which has the Biden administration and decent people in America and around the world properly worried. Biden's move to do away with the filibuster has made no headway. And exasperating too has been the infighting over Covid-related economic measures in the Democratic Party. Senator Joe Manchin is doing to the President precisely what the Republicans have been trying to do to him. With such allies, who needs opponents?

Democracy in America is in a perilous state today. With political observers and historians concerned about a country split right down the middle (and the chasm widening), with the terrible likelihood of Republicans retaking the Senate and gaining control of the House of Representatives at the mid-term elections in November this year, the diminishing of democratic governance is a fearsome possibility.

The bottom line: Britons have made themselves clear on where they stand on the democracy question, which is that they feel Boris Johnson has a lot of explaining to do about those 'bring your booze' parties at 10 Downing Street; and Americans are witnessing two and a half centuries of democratic politics sliding into crude tribalism, of the kind which holds the potential for extremism to seize the country. In London, Conservatives and Labour alike are together defending the ramparts of democracy. In Washington, Republicans are angrily tearing down the edifice of political pluralism.


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