21st Century Challenges to Democracy. Part I: The role of changing demographics, racism, the economy and education

(Photo: Courtesy Twitter_@SPARTANICUSZ)

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part I, we speak to Paul Wolfowitz, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Ana Maria Gomes, former Euro MP and recently candidate for President of Portugal and Marzuki Darusman former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission.

IO – On the 6th of January 2021 like most of the world Indonesians were shocked to awaken to news of an attack on Capitol Hill, the site of America’s Congress and one of the world’s preeminent symbols of democracy. What added to the shock was that the attack came from within the Unites States by America’s own citizens. And perhaps most disquieting of all, they appeared to have been incited by the American president, himself.

With news coming in not only from the mainstream media but also from dozens of videos posted on social media it soon became clear that what was at first referred to as a riot was in fact an insurrection. The forcible breaking and entry despite determined police resistance into the buildings of one of the arms of the United States federal government, the erection of a gallows outside the buildings and a mob searching for Vice President Pence, Speaker of the House Pelosi as well as other members of Congress chanting, “Hang Mike Pence” and “Kill Nancy,” were all clear indications of an insurrection. Rioting aimed at buildings of the federal legislature is not the same as rioting in non-governmental buildings. Threatening to kill the vice president and speaker of the house add to the gravity of the situation, as did the murder of one policeman, the shooting of a rioter followed by the suicide of two policemen involved in protecting the buildings from the insurrectionists. The onus increased with the gravity of the timing of the attack: just as the American Congress was preparing for a peaceful transfer of power.

For several years now international observers have watched with concern American democracy facing increasingly worrying challenges culminating in the events of January 6th on Capitol Hill when democracy was attacked by internal forces. Merrick Garland, President Biden’s pick for attorney general has said that dealing with domestic terrorism will be at the top of his agenda. However, it is not only the United States but also democracies in Europe and Asia that are facing 21st century challenges. What happens to the leader of the free world will be of interest to all democracies and provide valuable lessons in the evolution of democracy for all.

In this series of articles, the Independent Observer will be discussing the causes behind the challenges to 21st century democracy as well as possible resolutions in America and compare this with situations in Indonesia and other democracies. For this we have spoken with a number of international figures representing various political outlooks in democracies around the world. Former Indian Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Shyam Saran for example, is a moderate. Meanwhile, former United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is a moderate conservative whereas former Euro MP and candidate for the Portuguese Presidency, Ana Gomes is an avowed socialist. Nevertheless, their opinions and conclusions about the causes underlying the challenges democracies are now facing and the way forward are as a whole remarkably similar.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has said that while the assault on Capitol Hill was a shock in a sense it could have been foreseen as a consequence of an extended period of polarization, both political as well as societal in America. The attack on Capitol Hill was due to that polarization becoming more and more acute. He cites the racism in American society as part of the existing social divide. “The Black Lives Matter movement resulted because despite legal equality for all U.S. citizens this equality was not to be found in a social sense. Beside this there is also a divide between the original citizens and immigrants.”

In America today whites especially, feel besieged by waves of immigrants who are not only racially disparate but also frequently bring cultural and religious differences to the table. Added to this, the fertility rate of whites is the lowest among all groups in the US. By 2044 there will be more non-whites than whites in America. The United States used to celebrate itself as an immigrant nation but that attitude appears to be diminishing. Whereas many Americans did not support such immigration policies of former President Trump as building a wall between the US and Mexico or separating minors from their parents, many do want the United States to be firmer in dealing with illegal immigrants. Most countries take a very strict attitude towards illegal immigrants and are supported in this by their people. In Indonesia for example both the press as well as parliament are extremely watchful of illegal immigration from China during infra- structure projects using a Chinese labour force.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz however, does not see racism as the greatest challenge facing America. Given the enormous progress he has observed, just in his own life time since joining the 1963 march on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his historic, “I have a Dream” speech he is optimistic about the country’s ability to continue to make progress. He notes President Obama’s election in 2008 was welcomed by enormous numbers of Americans, even among those who voted for Obama’s opponent John McCain. “Of course, there is still racism in America but people forget the willingness of Americans to accept change. So, I am optimistic about our ability to continue to make progress on that issue.”

Clearly immigration policies which bring about large shifts in demographics bring social tensions which can polarize society. Immigration policies need to be well prepared and if shifts in demographics are expected then education and law, the twin instruments of social engineering must be well planned to prepare society for peaceful transitions in demographics. Countries with differing races also need to be aware that despite education and legal efforts to eradicate racism the issues of racism are often more complex and deeply rooted than apparent and need to be continually dealt with. In Indonesia for example, this would mean openly facing and addressing racism against Papuans, an issue if left unattended will create future challenges for Indonesian democracy.

To this, former Head of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, Marzuki Darusman however warns, “During the last ten to fifteen years – perhaps even longer – the Democrats in America have allowed identity politics to emerge; a manifestation of issues in terms of recognition of abortion, LGBT and other minority rights. Identity politics have worsened the readiness of parties to reach compromise on national issues. On the other side for example, you find the drive for populism among the evangelical religious right. So, there is a big challenge driving both sides apart which leaves no middle ground. In Indonesia such populism is dormant at present but you see it every now and then raise its head in the form of populism with religious overtones.”

In America a populist religious right has played an important role in ensuring former President Trump’s rise to power and in his continued popularity amongst a large segment of the American populace. Although Mr Trump personally exhibits many of the traits abhorred by religious people he is prepared to deliver certain things that they believe in which no other president has been able to deliver. At times religion has been weaponized driving further polarization of American society.

Marzuki Darusman observes that in Indonesia during the last election the Gerindra party tried to create a coalition with a religious populist segment of society but did not succeed in winning the presidency. Now that Gerindra is in coalition with the government, a problem has emerged as to who will take over the leadership of this populist religious segment. Marzuki says that so far the only clear leader who has emerged is Habib Rizieq but that like the PKS, Habib Rizieq cannot provide them with a national platform to emerge as a respectable political force. The danger is however, that this populist religious segment could go underground and take on a life of its own.

Under several presidents the Indonesian ministers of education have been affiliated with religious organizations and consequently public schools became less religiously tolerant. In a swing back to the Pancasila the current Minister of Education and Culture together with the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Minister of Home Affairs have recently issued a decree providing pupils with freedom of religious attire in public schools. It is a small move towards the centre and more moderation. Clearly an intrinsic part of the nature of democracy which views all citizens as equal is that it thrives best under a moderate political system that does not polarize a country too much to the left and to the right.

In India there are also warning signs of a polarization taking place in society due to the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims which was not so apparent in the past. Now Shyam Saran remarks, “Tensions are being created because of politics.”

Marzuki Darusman warns of the dangers of this. He says that former President Suharto’s policies helped fan extremism by denying Islam a substantial representation because of his approach of viewing the political landscape from the perspective of extreme right (religious fundamentalists intent on creating a religious state) and extreme left (the communist intent on creating a communist state). It was only later as he began to lose the support of the armed forces that he started to court the Muslim right. A democracy it appears must provide the opportunity for representation and freedom of speech to all sides while itself striving for moderation in order to survive.

Shyam Saran further comments, “In India there has also been a hardening of inequality and income, likewise due to political policies and economic strategies. While there has been private sector growth the scale and quality of the kind of services the state provides such as education and health care have diminished. This makes it difficult for the poor to access health care and education. So, that it seems that only the privileged have a future.”

One thing that all those interviewed did agree upon was that growing economic problems is a major driver in the polarization now apparent in America and that it poses one of the main democratic challenges there. Shyam Saran holds that the cohesion of United States’ society after World War II has slowly broken down due to economic factors. He notes that many whites felt their dominant position eroded because of increasing economic inequality. “In the 1970s an American CEO’s compensation package would not be more than 15 times the salary of an average worker. Today a CEO’s compensation is 300 times that of an average worker. Before a factory job would provide a comfortable middle class life but now workers see an increasingly widening economic gap.”

Marzuki Darusman asserts, “A UBS study shows that up to 65% of national wealth in Indonesia is in the hands of 10% of the population but in the U.S. it’s even worse. (According to Federal Reserve statistics the top 10% of U.S. households own 69% of the nation’s wealth). So, the policy to raise the minimum wage from $7.50 per hour to $15 shows how the other America is fairing.”

Paul Wolfowitz believes, “The technological revolution accentuates the problem. It is not only the rise of the internet and social media but also the fact that so many tasks critical to the economy are dependent on technical skills and a large portion of the population still do not yet possess these skills. For example, to be employable most professions require people to have computer skills.”

Meanwhile, former Euro MP Ana Gomes who is a socialist places responsibility for the increasingly large economic gap on the neoliberal myth that the market regulates itself and so there is no need for a strong state. She laments, “This facilitates corruption and the abandonment of the idea of ethics in politics so democracy does not deliver to the people and the extreme right parties take advantage of the disillusionment and resentment of the people as the economic gap widens. Democracy is not possible without a strong middle class and a well-functioning societal elevator making it possible for upward mobility. This has been exacerbated by the neoliberal austerity programs.”

An economy that fails to provide sufficient jobs and that has created an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots is perhaps the strongest driving factor in the challenges to democracy that America is facing today. But this does not just apply to America. Any government anywhere must be able to deliver economically to its people or irrespective of what system that government is based on its people will reject it.

Another challenge to 21st century democracy in America that those interviewed agreed with is education. Paul Wolfowitz mentioned a lack of higher education as well as enough good quality education in parts of the country as part of the problem. “There are large numbers of people in the United States who possess only a few years of high school or have not finished high school and there is a large gap in income between them and those with higher education.

The average quality of education also appears to have gone down in America since I was young. Too often today, our K-12 public schools offer a fairly mediocre level of education. However, the quality of higher education in American universities is very high. Overall, too many youngsters in public schools are reading below grade level.”

Emerald Starr, a long time American resident of Bali agrees. His mother Dr. June Charry an educational psychologist and one of the first to identify dyslexia in a psychology assisted program with Columbia University spoke of the decreasing quality of education starting with the defunding of schools and social education programs in the 1980s which resulted in a disempowering of the education system leaving people less well informed and easier to control or deceive. He says, “We see the results now, if people are not well educated and informed it’s easier to have them believe untruths which is what is happening now through social media.”

Shyam Saran comments on how expensive education has also become in America, leaving thousands of students beginning their careers settled with enormous student debts. “It is very important that even if a society is poor it is able to offer its people the opportunity of an education and to thereby better their lives and economic standing.”

On addressing racial and immigration issues it is important that America is able to project to all segments of society the idea of what it is to be American. Shyam Saran notes, “America has always been an immigrant country and that has contributed greatly to American progress and development. So many of America’s most talented scientists and CEOs come from all over the world. The leadership must be able to get people to understand that inclusiveness is the strength of countries such as the United States, Indonesia and India; that we embrace diversity and do not view it as a threat. And education provides one of the most important means of doing so.”  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

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Part II of this series discusses the internet, fake news and extremism and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-ii-the-role-of-the-internet-fake-news-and-extremism/

Part III of this series discusses the role of political structures and systems in preventing polarization and extremism, Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-iii-the-role-of-political-structures-and-systems-in-preventing-polarization-and-extremism/

Part IV of this series discusses the roles of China and Russia and their challenges to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-iv-the-influence-of-non-democratic-states/

Part V of this series discusses Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-v-lessons-and-conclusions-for-indonesia/

Part VI of this series discusses lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia re China. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-vi-lessons-and-conclusions-for-indonesia-re-china/