Rosalea Hamilton | Some lessons in building a democracy
“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard.” – Robert Kennedy, Jr.
After more than 200 years, the American journey “to form a more perfect Union” continues, with important lessons for other countries pursuing a democratic path. According to Harry Rubenstein, of the American History Museum, America’s journey in building a democracy started, not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, but rather on September 19, 1796, when George Washington published his farewell address. Rubenstein cites this moment as “crucial for creating the in-and-out system of government” as it was the first peaceful transfer of power in American history. He described it as a “powerful statement about Washington and American democracy”, which cemented America as a “stable, democratic state”, noting that, back then, “politicians would gain power, or kings would stay in office until they die”. This perspective of America as a “stable, democratic state” has been on trial, especially during the Trump presidency.
With evidence of declining support for democracy in Latin American and the Caribbean, according to AmericasBarometer (LAPOP) 2017, what lessons can these countries learn from the messy democratic journey unfolding in the US today? I suggest the following:
1 Democracy is not an achievable state of being, but rather the pursuit of a set of ideals. The process of striving towards these ideals is a process of continuous improvement in governance as well as social and economic relationships. The core democratic ideals include, inter alia: Rule of law, freedom of speech and the press, protection of human rights, free and fair elections, and, most important, the active participation of the people in a system of government in which supreme authority lies with the people.
2 The trajectory of the path towards democratic ideals is not a straight line. It involves ups and downs, wins and losses, progress and setbacks, as individuals pursue competing (sometimes contradictory) ideals and interests. Perhaps the best examples of this are the contradictions inherent in the ideal to protect human rights and the overt (and covert) expressions of institutional racism. It is neither credible nor sustainable to promote the narrative of democratic rights and freedoms while perpetuating systemic racism.
3 The democratic path is more difficult in a polarised society where party political rhetoric demonises and undermines the legitimacy of the press and opponents, especially with lies and distortions of the facts. Political opponents and the press are not enemies engaged in perpetual warfare. Washington’s foundation-setting farewell address in 1796 was a call for national unity in recognition that, after contentious electioneering, a country must come together through an appeal to something bigger than narrow partisan interests.
4 Democratic ideals can be undermined by big spending, especially during an economic downturn. Wealthy individuals pursuing competing interests have a disproportionate capacity to influence those without comparable wealth in pursuing and accepting non-democratic values. Perhaps the best example of this is the disproportionate spending by the wealthy on elections and buying political favours. Increasingly, vote-buying, voter suppression and financing lobbyists to pursue anti-democratic political agendas are becoming acceptable behaviours.
5 There is an awesome responsibility for citizens to be active in building a democratic society. This requires citizens to be informed and committed to constructive engagement, to achieve the democratic ideals and the associated desired social, economic and political outcomes. This is particularly difficult today in a world of social media engagement where the capacity to discern the truth and to be informed by evidence in making judgments is increasingly challenging. Discrediting and dismissing academics as “too theoretical” or “not practical” is not helpful in the search for credible information and analysis. Neither is discrediting and dismissing those with experience, social/cultural insights and no formal education as “dunce”.
6 Judicial independence should be preserved. Many American states use partisan elections to select judges. By funding election campaigns, partisan judicial elections give special-interest groups an opportunity to manipulate the judiciary. A 2013 study by the American Constitution Society found, inter alia, a significant relationship between business contributions to state supreme court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters. Judicial independence is also in doubt with the partisan selection of supreme court judges.
7 The Legislature (the Congress & Senate) should provide effective oversight of the Executive (the White House). This oversight is necessary as a check on the presidential/ administrative decisions of the White House and a balance against presidential rule-making discretion. In practice, this has proven difficult in the context of competing political parties that neglect the responsibility to ensure effective legislative oversight. This is a key lesson for fledgling democracies that perpetuate the dominance of the Executive over the Legislature, even with constitutional provisions asserting legislative oversight.
Jamaica, like our Caribbean partners, has been on a messy democratic path for about 50 years. We are still young, but old enough to learn some key lessons from the oldest democracy in our backyard.