By Amée Zoutberg
Disclaimer: This article is written from a non-scientific perspective, rather a literary/philosophical one. The point of this article is to demonstrate an idea, which should inspire debate and further thought on the topic. Some of the article’s assumptions and generalisations are based on case examples and the author’s encounters with experienced individuals. This article is the product of further thoughts based on this conversational material. The first paragraphs relativises certain naturalised concepts so as to create more room for this comparison. If you disagree, feel free to write a response of max. 500 words!
‘Democracy’ is often presented as an objective concept. Here are the majority of the people, these are their more or less consolidated opinions, and therefore this leader should be elected. Simple. Global discourse finds this concept to be the most fair, or, in the famous words of Churchill: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (1). Based on this understanding, the ideological imperative of many dominant geopolitical actors is to implement democracy whenever and wherever possible. The tyrannical rule of one is replaced by a governing by the masses. Yet there is one serious issue that comes from idealising democracy as a form of government: it requires a certain type of nation.
Both the idea of democracy and the nation state are of Western origin. They are concepts that have come together based on a heritage of communal thought and specific historical developments. This background is a given with any concept that purports to transcend human imagination and become a practical reality.
For example: if there is no concept of ownership in one society, it is unlikely that the external idea of national borders can be easily adopted and accepted on a wider scale. In the same way, historically, first the idea of the nation-state and later the idea of democracy were forcibly integrated into many non-western societies during the colonial era (2). Suddenly, there was such a thing as borders that surrounded one people, now trapped within these borders. Artificially constructed borders and demarcated peoples do not automatically make a nation-state.
The USA likes to think of itself as one of the world’s prime democracies. Its people are assumed to be equal, one-spirited, “one nation under God, indivisible” (3). Each politician democratically elected is expected to have the best in mind for the whole of the nation and its people, and is to strive for this in an uncorrupted and fair way. Such is the way the USA has functioned ever since its birth in 1776.
On the opposite side, in now-democratic, ex-colonised places such as Burkina Faso and South Africa, society is fractured. People are divided based on tribal associations and socioeconomic status (which are often related). Individuals know where they stand, which group they belong to, and most importantly, which group their next democratically elected leader belongs to. This leader is expected and presumed to look firstly after themselves and their own, followed by the rest of the people (4).
The latter can be seen as terribly un-democratic, from an American perspective. I dare to question this. There are indefinite qualities to be appreciated in any such openly undemocratic system, perhaps even more so that any ‘prime’ democratic system. The tricky point of difference? Honesty. In the two following case examples, the relationship between honesty and democracy will be further explored.
American democratic dishonesty
In the past few weeks, the Parkland school shooting in Florida has been in the global news cycle. Some affected Parkland students, remarkably, have been vocally outspoken in their efforts to change their political environment. They wish for a change in minimum age for gun licenses (from 18 to 21) in order to hopefully put a wrench in the plans of future school shooters (5). Whereas to some this might make sense, that is not the case for Florida senator Dennis Baxley. In an interview with some Parkland students (6), he made clear that he sees no benefit in banning guns, as this is ‘not the problem’, in the same way that spoons would make people fat (7) (although he does recognise that spoons are generally not used for mass murder).
Is this democratic? Does this exemplify the will of the people that chose him, and does his standpoint benefit the good and wellbeing of his constituency? How likely is it that these statements are made based only on political considerations? Most of all, the question that should be asked is: is he being fair and honest when repeating pro-gun propaganda in the faces of those who have recently been shot up – at their own local high school?
African democratic honesty
On the other side of the spectrum would be the following case from South Africa. After nearly a decade of rule, Jacob Zuma, or Msholozi (his clan name), the country’s fourth ever president stepped down on Valentine’s Day. Reuters’ reporters estimated that his rule might have cost his citizens around $50 billion (8). The spending included, amongst other things, “more than $500,000 of improper state spending on security at his private home” (9).
Much reason for celebration that this costly old man has finally stepped down, you might think. Not so much. The president that replaces him, Cyril Ramaphosa, or Matamela (his clan name) has his own extensive record of corruption and prevailing business interests. This information is public. The people know (10). Even though Ramaphosa has long proclaimed his willingness to stamp out corruption, there is little public faith that his career will bring South Africa a much brighter future than Zuma has left it with (11).
What can these two case examples tell us? When we can agree that the people, no matter how fractured, should still be represented by a politician that holds their best interest, it can be argued that honesty surrounding these political figures is the most necessary component. It is unlikely that someone as dishonest as Baxley (spoons? really?) will suffer much backlash for his statements, more so because he pretends to still act in the public’s best interest (‘guns are not the problem’). He does not say anything directly against the people, nor can it be proven that he means to do so – but still there is a lingering taste of a conflict of interest between the constituency and another, unknown factor (the NRA? Who knows?). There are no direct reasons for the public to feel dissatisfied with his performance, only hunches.
The opposite can be said of Zuma and Ramaphosa: the people do not trust them, and they have good reasons not to. This game of trust and distrust is directed by the level of honesty that politicians display: actions speak louder than words. A half-hearted speech is less reason for eviction from office than a $50 billion tab. But in essence, is one a really better politician than the other? Where in general the exemplified African democracies can be seen as more corrupt than American democracy, in another way, this exact organisation of the democracy makes it more democratic. The people are aware and informed, and ready to act in order to find a better representative to carry out their democratic will. The same thing can sadly not be said for American democracy and its more politically correct yet suspectedly similarly corrupt democratic leaders.
In order for democracy to function properly, if it really is the lesser of all evils, it is essential that the people know who exactly they are dealing with. If you are a proponent of the NRA and want every citizen to own a gun, say it. Do not compare mass murder to massive waistlines. If you want to cut out corruption, at least let it be well known that you have been accused of corruption multiple times in the past. When the people are not informed and can only base themselves on suspicions, no real change or improvement can be made to democracy as it stands. Political dishonesty will inherently result in a less democratic democracy. As Jefferson said himself in 1789, then leader of a prime democracy: it is “consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government” (12).
(1) Churchill, W. (2017, March 20). The Worst Form of Government. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotes/the-worst-form-of-government
(2) Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton University Press.
(3) Ushistory.org. (1954). The Pledge of Allegiance. Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/documents/pledge.htm
(4) This generalisation was made by a studied lady from Burkina Faso I had the honour of talking to. It is shared by Mamdani in his book Citizen and Subject (Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton University Press.).
(5) Turkewitz, J., & Hartocollis, A. (2018, February 20). Highlights: Students Call for Action Across Nation; Florida Lawmakers Fail to Take Up Assault Rifle Bill. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/us/gun-control-florida-shooting.html
(6) Vice News (2018, February 20). This Is The Political Aftermath Of The Parkland School Shooting (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikoc7cXBeQE (4:11-6:27).
(7) Vice News (2018, February 20). This Is The Political Aftermath Of The Parkland School Shooting (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikoc7cXBeQE (6:04-6:21)
(8) Cropley, E. (2016, November 03). Jacob Zuma, South Africas $50 billion burden? Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-safrica-zuma-burden/jacob-zuma-south-africas-50-billion-burden-idUSKBN12Y1QW
(9) Cropley, E. (2016, November 03). Jacob Zuma, South Africas $50 billion burden? Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-safrica-zuma-burden/jacob-zuma-south-africas-50-billion-burden-idUSKBN12Y1QW
(10) Vice News. (2018, February 20). South Africa After Zuma & Parkland Shooting Survivors: VICE News Tonight Full Episode (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lhc8532mqCc (11:16-15:24)
(11) Vice News. (2018, February 20). South Africa After Zuma & Parkland Shooting Survivors: VICE News Tonight Full Episode (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lhc8532mqCc (14:05-14:55)
(12) Jefferson, T. (n.d.). Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/60.html
Featured image made by Amée Zoutberg.
Amée Zoutberg, Class of 2018, is a Sociology and Politics Major from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.