“The Decline of Democracies”

In an attempt to not be labeled an alarmist, I wish to posit a juxtaposition: might there be a corollary to the famous concept of “The Decline of Civilizations” entitled “The Decline of Democracies”? Let’s face it: modern democracy hasn’t been around too long, and so cannot be said to have yet passed the test of time (in a meaningful, 500 year-old civilization-historical sense). Three events have sprung to mind just recently bringing this idea to mind in an urgent manner. I’m not saying the three are equally important and perhaps they’re not significant at all (but I suspect they are). I’m sure all three are resultant from many things, but most especially the “War on Terror.”

In sum, these are some initial thoughts on some immediate events that have eroded US democracy, and I’m curious as to 1) what you all think about them specifically (they each deserve their own treatment of course, but we’ll start with this) and 2) if they could be translated into a wider theory of “The Decline of Democracies”?

1) I’ll begin with the one that I’m the most unsure about, but interested in nonetheless: the development of the media, particularly the news media. It would be an amazing irony if the news media, once thought of as one of the protectors and fosterers of modern democracy, was an aspect that led to democracy’s decline. In this grouping I’m thinking more of the expansion of the media’s scope: 24-hour news channels able to hit specific demographics so as to narrow the discourse and the options along with an internet that has seemingly catered to individual preferences and whims rather than expanding horizons (but that’s perhaps my grumpy old man tendency). Fox News is of course el rey supremo—of this, we all know. But, other corporations are similarly large and narrowing. Rhetorically, when news organization can at once say so much while actually saying nothing of consequence (you know, the things that make you think afterwards, “That doesn’t mean anything…”), I wonder if democracy is in trouble. For example, when Fox-supported political candidates can at once scream for “more freedom and liberty” while being controlled by a massive, multi-national corporation owned by one white male who has none of their interests at heart, weird things are going on.

2) Now to more specifics, TSA Photos: a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request led to the release of a large number of photos of the body scans of private citizens which supposedly were not being saved.

Now, this is, I admit, a smaller point than the either two things I’m bringing up (and is thus wedged in here in the forgettable middle). But, it nonetheless speaks the larger points as well. It links to larger notions of double-speak and simple governmental lying to its citizenry whom it is supposed to be representative of. It is supposed to be “for and by the people” as it were, right (to dabble in clichés for just a moment)? In relation to the larger postulate, how many of these “smaller” events (of this general kind, not specifically TSA body-scan photos) can occur before a democracy finds itself in trouble?

3) Guantanamo Bay “Test Case”: so, in case you haven’t had time to check this out, it is ridiculous. On November 18 the first man (or “terrorist” as we apparently call them without them having been tried in court) from the US’s Guantanamo Bay extra-legal prison Ahmed Ghailani was tried in a civilian court in New York in what is being called a “test case.”

The “test” is to see if it “works.” In the twisted rhetoric of the “War on Terror,” success would only be a conviction that, in the phrasing of one official, would prove that these test cases can handle—that is, convict—the “terrorists.” This is absolutely absurd. The very idea of a test case in this rhetoric is inherently oppositional to a rational legal system. Success should not only be achieved if the defendant (i.e. “terrorist”) is convicted and sentenced to death/life in prison. Success in a modern legal system is dictated about the proper functioning of the court for a legal system relies on proper procedure. Without it, it’s not a legal system. It’s just arbitrary. A case is instead a “success” if it follows its procedural rules. Thus, I wonder to what degree modern democracies rest on proper, procedural, neutral legal systems. Once “success” has been twisted to mean its opposite in relation to a democracy’s legal system, a democracy is challenged, no?

3 thoughts on ““The Decline of Democracies”

  1. Well–no. Not to be ornery, but I think the general thrust of your post on freedom is right on: when talking about things like “freedom”, we ought to be very specific. I think that applies to a phrase like “challenge to democracy” as well. The Republic still stands, we continue to vote, politicians continue to act in line (more or less) with the will of the constituents who voted for them–at least to a first approximation. Right?

    That said, slavery was legal for the first 80 years of our democratic experiment, women could not claim the franchise nationally for the first 130, and significant barriers stood in the way of the enfranchisement of African Americans for the first 180. In terms of “challenges to democracy,” these seem to be pretty severe–more severe, I’d say, than the manhandling of people’s privates (as fucked up as that is, and as strongly opposed as I am).

    So, I guess my point is: state your terms, please. What, precisely, are these occurrences evidence of? What is the nature of the threat to democracy? What is its endgame?

    (obviously I don’t want you to address all of this in comments right here. more just food for though.)

  2. Well, the terms would be more definable if A) it wasn’t an overly short post and B) democracy had been around long enough for us to directly compare it to the “decline of civilizations” idea which is the stated goal. Since democracy hasn’t been around as long as the Romans were (from which the civilizations theory arises), the comparison is really just a starting point.

    That said, to say that infringing on privacy is an affront to democracy isn’t too out there. To have a stable democracy the police can’t just be allowed to barge into my household whenever they feel like it. This much more extreme example is simply to point out that democracies rest on protected freedoms; when they begin to not be protected, I wonder.

    But, I do agree about severity, and I think that’s pretty clear in my post. I’m actually more concerned about the government doing one thing while saying they’re doing something else. Number 3 is really the most concerning.

    So, in an attempt to clarify, my secondary question stands as a general, “can smaller anti-democratic actions add up over time to weaken democracy overall?”

    Oh, and no need to pseudo-apologize for orneriness. I’m all about you calling me out if my idea isn’t done well.

  3. I think the cumulative impact is an important distinction. Chiefly because these sorts of things (your three points, and similar) can be presented as evidence of a larger pattern. The larger pattern doesn’t need to be there (and I don’t think it is) but this doesn’t change your point: they are still disconcerting, and they may still have a cumulative impact on “democracy” (which we’ll leave to define until later =).

    It’s a useful clarification, thanks.

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