Open Letter to Those Who Live in Western Liberal Democracies & What 2016 Taught UsJulian Rodenbeck
How have we undertaken our democratic duties in 2016? In my opinion, some of our choices are questionable and will continue to be until generations in the future will have the benefit of hindsight to judge our decisions.
I start by noting the Syrian humanitarian crisis where we have been mere bystanders witnessing, in our lifetime, the destruction of a country by an ongoing civil war. As a result of this war, the media releases images of dead and wounded children and in some instances images of children who survive bomb explosions with dust on their faces. Yet none of these images in the media have caused enough pressure to stop the civil war, which is now entering its seventh year. Despite the urgency of this crisis and the need for a thoughtful written piece on the topic; instead I turn to and choose to critically reflect upon the directions some of us chose to follow in the 2016 polls and elections in some European countries and in the USA, respectively.
The majority of us voted for separation instead of social cohesion and growing closer together, both economically and socially. Instead, the majority thought that nationalism is the key to improving the standard of living. Some of us voted for those who promised us simple answers to questions we know do not have simple answers. Even the concept of buying into a promise that somehow we can make someone else pay large sums of money for something that they do not want, “We are going to build a wall, and make the Mexicans pay for it”.
Whereas, on the other side of the Atlantic, the majority voted for a cause, whose own advocators were unwilling to bear the difficulty that came with the cause for which they stood. Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, a Brexit advocate, stepped down as the leader of his pro-Brexit party, the UK Independence Party; whilst Boris Johnson, the other face of the Brexit campaign, following Brexit, announced that he would not run for the office of Prime Minister.
2016 has revealed the political culture of countries, that have been known to be political role models for other nations, being distorted because of the violation of fundamental human principles. The respect for all religions, sexes and races – these are the core values that are the basic tenets of liberal democracies and it is crucial that these values remain undistorted. However, we know now that these values have come under threat. The political choices and decisions of the majority of us have created an atmosphere which has emboldened others among us to openly show racism and its tendencies. It seems there are some among us who have had a temporary case of amnesia with respect to the effects of racism and the conflicts and human suffering racism and stereotyping has caused (and continues to cause) to humankind.
The year 2016 with all its revelations, with regards to where we stand as humanity, is coming to an end and we can therefore start a clean slate in 2017 bearing in mind all that we have learnt in 2016.
Improvements for the future are often based on lessons learnt from history. History has shown us that humankind has the ability to make right past wrongs. One of the best examples, which I choose with intent, is the unification of Europe. When Europe lay in ruin after World War II as a result of the tragedy that was caused by the German fascists, the European people understood the need to put an end to nationalism and rivalry among different European nations. With the 2016 Brexit decision in mind, it may seem a bit ironic that it was a British statesman who set a milestone in the history of the European unification with a speech, followed by urging the formation of a European union. In his speech delivered at the University of Zurich in 1946, Winston Churchill posed the following question: “Is the only lesson of history to be that mankind is unteachable?” With this question, Churchill sought to prove the opposite – he sought to propose that society should learn from the “series of frightful nationalistic quarrels”, and instead “build a kind of United states of Europe”. What followed was indeed the steady growth of the European Union. Rivalries and conflicts that had lasted for centuries reached an end, for example, the nations of France and Germany were arch enemies in two great wars in the 19th century and two world wars in the 20th century. However, in today’s context, the former arch-rival nations (France and Germany) are now close allies and friends. This is a prime example that should not be forgotten, but should rather give hope for our present challenges.
As I reflect upon 2016’s political events, I observe that a major cause of the political decisions taken by the majority was as a result of political frustration. Us, the people, the voters were fatigued with the ‘politics as usual’ kind of flow of events. The majority voters held the view that the political elite were not responding to the needs of their voters. Voters made their decisions based on their dissatisfaction that been years in the making, some voters also made their decisions based on their deeply held fears and biases: the effects of globalization and the digitization of the economy on individual lives as well as the effects of the international refugee crisis and the anxiety relating to security threats emanating from extremist groups’ activities done in the name of religion.
As a result others voted in vengeance against the political establishment of various regions. This explanation cannot apply to all of the voters’ behaviour, others had different reasons for voting for a particularly questionable candidates or causes. However, anger against the political establishment is a dominant factor in the decisions made and the results of the 2016 US election, the UK’s Brexit poll as well as in some surveys in other European countries.
As an electorate we ought to remember that Democracy has a corresponding responsibility, and that responsibility is not only conferred on the politicians; instead, a major part of that responsibility is borne by the citizens as well.
When John F. Kennedy took office, he encouraged the people not to ask what the country can do for them, but what they, too, can do for their country. In other words, we should not ask what our democracies can do for us; but what we can do for our democracies. Democracy is fragile and does not just happen. It must be given breath and filled with life by the active participation of the people. People turning their back to politics in hard times is dangerous. We must do the opposite, when we are dissatisfied with the political status quo, we must become active participants in the political realm. Active participation, however, does not mean participating in a destructive way – we must act reasonably and constructively. What does this mean?
Firstly, if we are frustrated with the political establishment, we have the option to become active participants in politics, as party members or activists. Alternatively, we can even found new parties if existing ones do not reflect our ideals. We can also participate by running for political offices. Voting in vengeance for a particular candidate in protest against the so called ‘establishment’ is, what I argue, non-constructive. Being in silent anger and then emerging to simply criticize is the easy thing to do; instead, we should accept the challenge and make better proposals to those in positions of power.
This leads to the second point, in the event those who are dissatisfied decide not to take an active role in politics, we must at least take the responsibility of participating in the electoral process, by voting. In other words, making use of that democratic privilege, and effecting our choice at the ballot box. When performing our democratic duties by voting, it is our responsibility to vote from an informed position, that means questioning what the candidates are promising, questioning what the media is portraying. We must engage in healthy debate with those with whom we fundamentally disagree. Social media can help to inform us, but there is a risk in that social media delivers one-sided information, which is essentially disinformation. Due to algorithms and cookies, social media reveals news content that we are most likely to appreciate, for example, Facebook is financed by clicks and it analyses our ‘clicking behaviour’ and will show us the news content we are most likely to be in agreement with.
In our political decision-making, we ought to base our decisions on rational thinking; rather than from an emotionally-charged position. Most importantly, we have come along way as people of the human race, and we should not give into humanity’s worst impulse, we ought to uphold basic democratic tenets of non-discrimination.. Such basic tenets cannot be brushed aside, not even by a decision of the majority, in other words, discrimination of a certain race or a certain religion will always be forbidden, no matter how many people vote for it.
Thirdly, if we find that things are going in the wrong direction, it is our collective responsibility to steer them in the right direction. Despite the fact that society seems to disagree on what that “right” direction is. We have to go back to ordinary conversations with one another in our respective environments and have factual conversations not simply arguments based on lies that are told by some candidates running for political offices.
Finally, it is our responsibility not to make the same mistakes of yesteryears, we owe it to our democracies, 2016 gave us a rude awakening.
Hears to progress in 2017.