“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” -Winston Churchill.
Democracy can be easily described in two ways: A failed experiment or a huge success.
Within the comforts of our North American bubble, we often view democracy as a simple concept that is easy to follow and often times we see our own politicians champion democracy to gain political points which easily translates into votes. However, democracy has not succeeded in many countries; particularly in countries like Russia. Despite the many attempts to convert the former dictatorial Soviet Union into a functioning democracy, the process has been much more difficult than anyone could have anticipated.
Let’s take into account that Russia has had no previous experience with democracy. From a series of Tsars to a communist dictatorship, democracy has proven to be a difficult concept for most Russians to stomach. A fundamental part of democracy includes civic engagement, meaning that citizens, themselves, are required to take the initiative to ensure that the government is not only following the Constitution, but upholding the rights of civilians. However, when it comes to Russia, voter turnout is not an issue. In fact, in previous Russian elections around 60% of the population come out to vote. Rather, the problem is that there are very little public organizations in Russia that fight for issues that concern citizens.
The Russian Federal Security Service have the power to harass, jail or imprison campaigners, journalists and activists. Out of sheer fear, citizens are discouraged from civic participation or speaking up about situations that concern them. As a result, the Russian government is facing little to no opposition from their citizens and as such, they’re not truly taking their citizens concerns to heart, let alone taking action on it.
Democracy goes way beyond voting; Democracy requires citizens to challenge their governments – in either a respectful or disrespectful manner- and having their voices heard by government officials. When you lose that, the power goes to the wealthy and those who have strong connections to the bureaucracy. From there, it becomes more of an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
So not only are citizens being discouraged from civic participation but they are also taught to not be passionate about the further development of their country.
Democracy is difficult because citizens are not encouraged to speak out on issues that concern them and as a result, they easily lose their passion for civic engagement. We often forget that democracy is an institution of the people, not the government. It is the responsibility of ordinary citizens to engage themselves in public life and it is the responsibility of the government to encourage civic engagement. While the idea of the death of democracy is applied to non-western countries, our seemingly perfect North American society could easily fall victim to this as well.
Early in 2017, just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, House Republicans voted to strip independence from the Congressional Ethics Committee. Had this gone through, there would be no independent body in Congress that ensured that all congress members are following the law and being held accountable for their actions. However, the break of this news was followed by outrage, by both liberals and conservatives within the United States. Even Donald Trump took a break from tweeting insults to condemn this vote from the House Republicans. Soon after, House Republicans pulled the plan altogether as this news broke mainstream media. It’s clear that House Republicans were hoping that this decision would never reach the light of news coverage, effectively allowing them to get away from any illegal action. However, since Americans are not only accustomed to the pillars of democracy but are also encouraged to voice their opinions and challenge their elected officials, House Republicans were forced to back down in this decision. But let’s be clear: If Americans were as weary towards democracy as Russians are, this plan would have been executed and chances are, nobody would ever know.
America and Russia are two completely different countries, with competing interests in the land of foreign policy. However, one thing that prevents Russia from having a full democracy, is the fact that Russians prefer to have stability over democracy even if that requires a President that strongman’s the people of his own country and violates civil liberties. With the threat of terrorism and other dangerous beyond North American borders, there has been a rise of Americans valuing stability over democracy as well, hence the rise of Donald Trump.
While Americans stuck to their democratic principles and called out the House Republicans back in January, their own democratic structures are being put to the test along with their values. One thing is clear: The death of democracy isn’t advertised. It’s not something that is plastered with urgency on your Sunday morning newspaper. The death of democracy happens slowly and by the time people notice, it’s much too late.