The fact that a great swath of anti-global, anti-political correctness people still resort to democracy to articulate their interests, misguided though some may be, means that there is still faith in democracy, writes Nicholas Chan.
Not long ago, I was asked for an opinion about the recent rise of ring-wing populism across the globe, not just in the ‘heart of democracy’ that is the United States but also in the worrying form of religious exclusivist rhetoric that shrouded Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections.
Frantically looking for a phone-call size explanation to this overarching question, I blurted out:
Upon hearing this, you would think I am endorsing the smugness of many authoritarian regimes these days that argue that democracy, by virtue of its fractious nature as seen in Brexit or in America’s recent presidential election, is not the way to keep society together. But bear with me as I explain what I mean by ‘democracy’ being the issue here.
My point is not a debate about semantics. It is not about countries being in trouble for not practising true ‘democracy’, as many foundationalists would argue.
Signifiers signify something
To be sure, concepts like ‘Democracy’, or ‘Islam’, or even ‘Love’, are and will always be subjected to group or individual-level interpretation and reinterpretation.
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But that does not fling us concerned social scientists into a postmodern, nihilistic, hipsterisque universe where anything goes; a baroque marketplace of ideas where signifiers like ‘democracy’ or ‘Islam’ have such atomistic meanings that they cannot possibly mean anything at all.
To the contrary, as historical processes unfold, these signifiers are imbued with certain fundamental, albeit evolving, significance to large groups of people, which render them useful as analytical constructs.
Democracy, vacuous as it is, can mean something to the people.
Emerging victorious out of the Cold War, many people have taken the term to be something positive (which is the tone in Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis), even if many supposedly democratic systems or those that claimed to be the patron of democracy are deeply flawed.
That is why in a world which saw the rise of populism and what is now known as religious fundamentalism in South East Asia, we must also go back to democracy or what the people understand as democracy.
Deconstructing democracy, nationalism, and protectionism
If we look at the term itself, there’s already the word ‘demo’, which is shorthand for demonstration in colloquial Malay. What we saw as in the case of the massive anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta or the pro-RUU 355 rally organised by Pas were people taking to the streets to make visible their group-based interests, solidarity, and affinities.
One may think it is religion that mobilises such vast groups of people. That may be true, but what allows for and even encourages such group formation and interest aggregation is democracy. Because the premise is that you get the numbers, you get your voices heard. And if one don’t have the numbers, then you must make the most noise to look like you have.
In this sense, identity politics comes in handy. It is the easiest (and I would argue the laziest) form of mobilisation technique out there. And that is why even with the rise of non-secular politics, such as Islamism in this part of the world, the ‘democratic’ framework is largely adhered to.
Even President Jokowi lamented that Indonesia’s recent ugly manifestation of sectarian politics was “democracy gone too far”.
To be sure, group formation precedes the institutions of democracy, as seen in the formation of Chinese clans in colonial Malaya. But democracy legitimises such manifestations of articulation of interests, collectivisation and hedging.
In other words, democracy is inherently populistic, and to a certain extent, that is good because it allows the voices of those who can’t echo around the corridors of power to be heeded. The US civil rights movement, for instance, would not have succeeded without the thousands marching from Selma.
Yet, at the same time, we need to come to terms that this idea of popular sovereignty is increasingly coming to clash with the ‘flat earth’ envisioned by savvy globalists and technocrats. But can we shift all the blame to the masses for falling back to protectionism when that’s precisely the thing the language of nationalism and democracy promises?
For many people, and as far as most popular political discourses go, nationalism is a form of protection, conferred only to ‘nationals’ (even zoos charge differently between nationals and non-nationals), and such form of protection is safeguarded by electoral democracy as the mechanism for accountability.
In other words, electorates will vote someone in for their own interest, and such interests are deemed synonymous, if not constituting the greater national interest.
Democracy is still alive
To be clear, this is not an indictment against democracy. It is the best system we have today although consistent fine-tuning is needed. And the fact that a great swath of anti-elite, anti-global, anti-political correctness people still resort to democracy to articulate their interests, misguided some may be, means that there is still faith in democracy.
These actors are rallying against the establishment but not ‘democracy’ itself. They are not challenging the long-held ideal that the voice of the people must be counted in a political system. The vocabulary of democracy is still very much alive, even in an arguably less liberal democratic setting such as Malaysia, where politicians have to buttress their credibility by stressing that they are “listening to the people”.
This makes such movements starkly different from radical groups like Isis, which is in a perverse way, truly ‘revolutionary’ because the concept of ‘we the people’ does not count for them. Even if there’s only one man standing, the caliphate must be implemented.
We should not get carried away at this bleak juncture to think that democracy is not salvageable. But we must find out what is keeping the promises of democracy, which for many years has been viewed positively by a great majority of people around the world, from being realised.
And there certainly are significant challenges the world is currently facing: economic inequality, environmental degradation, and the ambivalent role played by technology as both the equaliser and catalyst for global inequities.
No doubt, it is a complex picture, although what we can be certain is that promises get strained under such challenging circumstances.
In this age of alternative facts and fake news where even fundamental presuppositions of good and evil are contested, we must not lose sight of the goals of having a democracy in the first place.
We must go back to democracy – not to undermine it, but to reaffirm it by making sure the system delivers what it promises from the beginning. The greatest good, for the greatest number of people.