By Dr. Sam Amadi
America’s President-Elect, Joe Biden plans a “Summit for Democracy” when he takes office. The Guardian of London argues that it is a wrong idea. He should focus on repairing democracy in the US. Democracy in the US is clearly threatened. Scholars of how democracy fails identify when elected leaders utilize democratic institutions to achieve contra-democratic ends and through non-democratic means as one source of democratic failure. A sort of authoritarian creep. Many will believe that recent events in the US raise that prospect. But a more subtle source of failure or erosion of democracy arises when a polity is so denuded of common values and practices that we cannot say it is a common community.
The institutionalization of democracy in the form of representative democracy makes many to forget its real nature. Democracy is a relationship more than a structure or institution or process. Greek (and Igbo) political institutions show the defining character of democracy: people are bound together into a collaborative practice based on significant core values and beliefs before they can become a democracy in the cultural sense. That is why a democracy requires a polity. And a polity is a relationship between people. A polity is a deliberative and ideologic community.
At the heart of ‘democracy as a deliberative and ideologic community’ is a fact of informational certainty. Democracy requires certain informational universe defined by commonly accepted factual and normative truths. It requires that everyone, nearly everyone, accepts the narrative of who we are and our political goals. It requires mostly that there are no widespread and compelling alternative facts and realities.
Reliability and trustworthiness in informational universe are critical to democracy. The US is no longer such a universe. We are familiar with Trump’s many reported lies and exaggerations. But it is not only Trump who is lying and misinforming. The entire US communication landscape is unreliable and breeding persons who cannot engage in the deliberations and corporation required for democracy. The media – left and right – is gripped by the demons of lies and fabrication. Caricatures and generalizations replace accuracy and nuances in public media.
For example, CNN states that the allegations of electoral frauds have been denied by the Supreme Court. Well, the Supreme Court never did that. The Court denied Texas and the rest hearing because they don’t have sufficient interest to trigger judicial review. That is not denying there was no fraud (although we can rightly argue that no convincing evidence has been presented to the public or the courts so far). There is a difference between “fraud” and “widespread fraud” to change the outcome of an election. The Nigerian Supreme Court follows the same logic. As long as fraud is not widespread it should never be a reason to deny electoral outcomes. Take another example. Some leading mainstream media in the US wrongly report that the Republican leaders, especially Trump, deny Science or do not believe in Science on account of their statements or policies in managing the COVID19 pandemic. That’s misinformation that has the capacity to destroy the sort of deliberation required for democracy.
Yes, these leaders refused to mandate mask-wearing and even social distancing. In my view, this is one of the most foolish things Trump and his allies did in mismanaging the pandemic. But they did not deny or disbelieve Science. They simply promoted an ideological choice: the freedom not to wear mask. Or they promoted a political message: the left want to control you. Mask is a form of dominance and control by the left. We can throw up on such nonsense. But Trump believed in Science so much that he touted a magical vaccine in months or at least before the end of the month. He was right and cannot on this evidence be said to be a denier of science. This is lie. It was CNN and their analysts who never believed that a vaccine will be ready that early. All these people made different predictions based partly on facts and also on political interests. If vaccines came out before elections it may have changed outcomes. If after elections, no impact. Caricature and masquerading have replaced rigorous analysis and good faith review in US mainstream media – left and right. This is dangerous for democracy. Fake analysis is as bad as fake news.
So, the US has to first cure its communication problem before it embarks on missionary work for democracy elsewhere. It has to manage to become a country where majority of its citizens can engage in real debate without creating the other sizes as scarecrows. It has to regain an informational universe that re-establishes consensus on citizenship and humanity of its citizens of diverse political stripes. The star and stripe has become mangled. There has to be common ground and common habits of the habit before you can be a real democracy.
Many years of hostile and now violent identity politics have damaged the prospect of democracy in the US. As US increasingly diversifies, the erstwhile majority cultural and social groups are threatened. As they look at the emerging horizon they see an unmitigated loss of the cultural world they know. Their hearts skip and they clutch at their guns. The rest is a frightful prophesy.
…Dr. Sam Amadi, Law Lecturer, former Chairman NERC and governorship aspirant 2019 in Imo State, writes from Abuja.