It was a rainy, warm spring day in Hong Kong, and I was whiling away the afternoon with a Punjabi friend who I’ll call Rakesh. He told me he preferred the stability and order of China – both Hong Kong and the Mainland – to the chronic chaos of his own country.
I’d never been to India, but based on what I’d heard and read, I was inclined to agree. Still, it’s unsettling to hear someone so resolutely give up on his own country in favor of another.
India was in the midst of its 2019 national elections as we spoke, complete with the sort of chaos Rakesh had been hoping to escape when he emigrated.
“At least India’s a democracy, though,” I said. “Doesn’t that give you some hope things will change for the better?”
“Democracy is overrated.”
Rakesh was no budding tyrant or autocrat. I’d never seen him be anything but kind, helpful, and considerate, whether with friends or strangers. His abiding interests in life were family, business, and education, each of which he felt he could best pursue in distinctly undemocratic China.
That raised another question that had been intriguing me. “Regardless of how you feel about their governmental systems,” I asked, “why has China has made so much more progress than India? They’re both large countries with similar-sized populations, they both emerged from foreign domination at the same time, yet China seems to be leaving India in the dust…”
The question hung in mid-air for about 30 seconds before, in a sudden burst of synchronicity, we turned to each other and simultaneously mouthed the word, “Religion.”
According to an article I had just read, one of the burning issues in India’s election campaign was not poverty, not housing, not environmental concerns or desperately inadequate infrastructure, but – wait for it: “cow welfare.” The ruling BJP Party, dominated by Hindu fundamentalists, had seized the high ground by appointing a special minister to safeguard the rights of millions of “holy” cows that roam wild across India, often wreaking great havoc on farms, homes, and people.
Sounds crazy, right? But before we get carried away sneering at other people’s strange religious beliefs, we should bear in mind that they would no doubt find our own Christian and Jewish fundamentalists equally bizarre and dangerous, especially since religious extremism plays every bit as big a role in our politics as it does in India’s.
It’s a problem that in recent years has gotten worse, not better in both countries. It’s hard enough finding common ground with someone whose political views differ from our own; it’s next to impossible when those views are dictated by a deity only he can see.
Although America has long prided itself on offering its citizens “freedom of religion,” it has failed spectacularly when it comes to providing them freedom from religion. Contrary to what you may have heard, China actually does a better job of this than we do. Their constitution (yes, they have one) guarantees that “no state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or not believe in, any religion.” But it follows this up with the bit that’s missing from the American constitution: “No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the state.”
Such a clause would never fly in America, because our government, from the local to the national level, is shot through with fanatics who use their religion as an excuse for damaging people’s mental and physical health, disrupting people’s ability to live according to own beliefs and consciences, and to poison the educational system with prejudice and superstition. Whether or not you want to believe China lives up to its constitution (for what it’s worth, I’ve personally witnessed Chinese Muslims and Christians attending religious services without the slightest bit of harassment), it’s hard to argue that our own freedoms aren’t at risk from the religious extremists who wield power in the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court.
If Donald Trump succeeds in his current coup attempt – a possibility I wouldn’t rule out – his perverse partnership with the fundamentalists will have attained near-dictatorial power, and the bitter irony is that it will have been done so by (more or less) legal means, using the institutions of democracy to destroy democracy.
I’m not a nostalgic or romantic. I know our democracy has never lived up to its own hype. But for a long time, we were at least headed in the right direction. My parents were already alive when women gained the right to vote. As a child and teenager, I saw the franchise extended to millions of African-Americans. We’ve witnessed the first black president and, were it not for that vestige of slavery and aristocracy known as the Electoral College, would have seen the first woman president as well.
But progress hasn’t just ceased; with the country now predominantly ruled by a far-right political and religious coalition that enjoys the support of no more than a third of our citizenry, it’s clearly headed backward, and fast. The problem goes deeper than religion or racial injustice, and it’s at least in part a product of our modern age. Two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans, despite their rough-hewn ways and limited education, were remarkably sophisticated and responsible when it came to civic engagement. If Americans ever lost that quality, he warned, their democracy would probably vanish with it.
We’ve lost that quality. Although on paper the general population is more educated than ever, the high school and college diplomas that most people hold stand for less and less. Rampant grade inflation, combined with the proliferation of crackpot political theories, and wild-eyed flat earth-type conspiracies should make that clear.
What’s more, the world we inhabit today is infinitely more complex than in de Tocqueville’s time. An American choosing a president today is making life-and-death decisions about countries they might never have heard of, scientific processes they have no comprehension of, multi-trillion dollar budgets when they can’t even balance their own checkbook.
As a country and a culture we’ve always cherished the common man or woman, the simple soul who – perhaps simply by virtue of being American – supposedly possesses a higher wisdom that transcends boring old “book-learnin.’” But maybe it’s time we considered the possibility that, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, not knowing anything is no longer enough.
For a couple of centuries the USA has taken a chest-thumping pride in being “the world’s greatest democracy.” If that were ever true, it isn’t now. To be a democracy means to be governed by the will of the people. “How can that be,” I’ve been asked by more than one curious foreigner, “when you allow the person who got fewer votes to be president?”
We risk getting confused when we assume there’s only one way of determining “the will of the people,” and that it has to be done the way we always have, dating back to when the US was a frontier nation with a population barely large enough to fill one of New York City’s boroughs. The chances of that system changing, though, are slim. The Electoral College is not going away, at least not as long as it enables a minority party to run roughshod over what the majority wants. Ditto for the senatorial system that gives vastly more power to empty fields and forests than to the cities where most Americans live.
Our biggest drawback, though, is not the clinging to outmoded traditions, nor the failure to understand how those traditions work against the interests of those they are meant to serve. Even the fact that the average citizen simply doesn’t know enough to weigh in on many vital political and economic choices, while regrettable, could be remedied by more and better education.
The most dangerous thing is that we don’t know – and here I include all of us – what we don’t know. Getting a grasp on the scope of our ignorance is the foundation of all learning, something any decent professor quickly inculcates into his or her first-term freshmen. But in the era of an all-pervasive internet, where Youtube videos and Twitter one-liners qualify as “research,” everyone’s already an expert. You can tell them, but you can’t tell them much. Even when you do, they’ll assume you’ve been brainwashed by the wrong Youtube and Twitter posts.
You might infer – and you’d be correct – that I’m not overly optimistic. We might be able to wriggle out of the existential dilemma facing American democracy, but I’m not sure how. A new Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt might inspire a transformative burst of energy and creativity among the people, but I see no such character on the horizon. Even if such a person were to emerge, you can be certain they’d be turned into a supervillain by half the internet, and crucified for being too moderate and “reformist” by the other.
What would I do if I were younger? Move, probably, even though I’d feel guilty about deserting the field. And it’s not like American democracy is alone in facing these challenges. We rose higher and have further to fall, but much of the western world is in a similar pickle. Several European democracies have already deteriorated into borderline autocracies, and several more teeter on the brink.
As an older person, I can see the appeal of living somewhere else, too, but unfortunately the USA casts a long shadow. When Great Britain lost its position as the planet’s dominant superpower, it at least had the decency to genteelly fade away. I have a hard time envisioning the USA making such a graceful exit; the current government has all but formally announced that if we can’t rule the world, we’ll take the world down with us before we let anyone else take over.
Interesting times, no? Not what I asked or bargained for. Or voted for, but I guess that’s yet another intrinsic flaw of democracy. You can’t always get what you want, and sometimes you don’t get what you need, either. If you’re someone who believes in prayer, I’d recommend making use of it. If you think your political party or movement will save the day, get cracking. And if you believe that knowledge is the key to everything and the truth shall set you free, better fire up the old internet. Those Youtube videos aren’t going to watch themselves.