The True Strength of Democracies
I grew up in Canada and my dad used to say I should be grateful that Canada is boring. We didn’t have a revolution like the Americans. We simply legislated ourselves into existence (yawn). No civil wars, no great foundation saga. The story goes that in World War I when the British declared war Canada was automatically included. When the Second World War came along and the Brits declared war, Canada (very politely, naturally) said — hold on, we’ll get back to you — somewhat shocking our former colonial overlords.
As an adult I’ve lived in a few other places, and visited a lot more. I’ve lived in Egypt twice, and the United Arab Emirates. Both are really interesting places to live and visit for lots of really interesting reasons.
Neither of them is a free country.
In both countries it is illegal to be atheist.
In both countries it is illegal to be homosexual.
In both countries it is illegal to publicly criticize the countries’ leaders.
Technically one is allowed to be atheist in Egypt, but to make any public declarations can be construed as anti-Islamist, which is illegal. It is illegal to be an apostate in the UAE. In Egypt, my status as foreigner largely protected me from repercussions, but locals had no such protection. Citizens face at best harassment by law enforcement officials. In the UAE, I could have faced deportation for writing anything in any public fora (including Facebook, or Whatsapp messages if the other party chose to share them) that could be construed as critical of the government, of any of its senior officials, or of Islam. In Morocco once I mentioned I was atheist and several of the meeting participants (all women) refused to speak to me again. In the region, my atheism makes me at best mentally unstable, and at worst evil.
Egypt currently ranks at 161 out of 180 countries for freedom of the press. It is particularly known for arresting and detaining journalists indefinitely without charge or trial. Prison conditions are hardly modern. The UAE ranks at 128. While freedom of speech is protected by the law, it excludes material that may be critical of the government.
I could carry on, but I think my point is made. My personal experiences with these specific places are not extreme. I chose to live quietly, and was careful about what I said in public even on Facebook. I certainly would not have chosen to write this piece while living in one of those places. While the lack of freedom hardly curtailed my life on a day-to-day basis, it hovered over me on like an invisible blanket waiting to drop over my head and suffocate me if I stepped out of line. The UAE censors access to certain types of websites, which included porn and any site that provided information or news on LGTBQ issues. I chose to be extremely careful on social media when posting or re-posting stories about human rights abuses anywhere in the world if they pertained to LGBTQ issues. These are near and dear to my heart and it was a hardship to self-censor.
Here is what I have learned about the power of democracy, and the power of free speech. Western-style democratic governments are far from immune to corruption and abuses of power. However, if we have open and free debate, a free press, and the right to dissent, then we can keep our governments from straying too far from the principles on which they were founded.
A strong and vocal opposition is the true strength of democratic countries and it is on this that our freedom rests. My dad used to make fun of the New Democratic Party of Canada because he said they would never form a government. I realize now as an adult that he was wrong. They may never form a federal government but they have formed governments at the provincial level. So on his first and main point, my dad was wrong. But more importantly, the NDP have been an effective voice of opposition. They have often been few in number but mighty in voice. Tommy Douglas and the NDP introduced the original proposals to create nationalized health care in Canada. Faced with the inevitable, the Liberal party adopted the platform and enacted the needed legislation in 1966. Elizabeth May may be the sole Green party member ever voted to a federal seat in Parliament, but her ability to influence the debates and the discussions is far more important than her one vote on bills that pass through the House of Commons. A “minority” party can have an outsized influence over government decisions in the long run and as such are incredibly important elements of the democratic system.
There is a reason that Donald Trump calls the press the enemy of the people. If he can suppress the press, he can suppress the people. The right wing movement in the United States has spent the last 20 years creating a propaganda machine in Fox News and now they are reaping the benefits with citizens who will only watch Fox News and will only hear one biased and often factually incorrect version of a story — or they will miss out entirely as Fox neglects to cover stories that may damage their “brand.” Any news agencies that doesn’t identify as “right wing” or “conservative” can be dismissed as biased for refusing to follow a partisan line. So the line for what is biased has moved significantly to the right for any regular consumers of these media.
I used to worry about voting strategically to prevent certain candidates from being elected. I didn’t want to “waste” my vote. A ridiculous number of people refuse to vote at all. A whopping 72.2 % of people voted in the Brexit referendum in the UK. In Canada, the most recent federal election saw 68.3 % of eligible voters show up. In 2016, in the United States, just over 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for a hotly contested election. That means almost 28 percent of the people in the UK didn’t bother, and 32 percent of Canadians couldn’t make it to their local school or library to take a few mins to vote even though they are legally allowed to take up to three hours out of their working day to vote. In the US 40 percent of voters couldn’t be bothered despite the stakes in the last election. Why not!? These are folks who believe that their voice is not important because it doesn’t matter who is in charge or because they think that they will vote for a losing candidate anyway so why bother.
I argue here that bothering to show up and vote — especially for a minority candidate — is the strength of democracy. We need these people to run for office. Because the opposition has a unique ability to hold government accountable, to introduce and fight for unpopular policies, and to push and push and push for change to systems that are stagnant and all too often only benefit the rich and powerful. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself if Bernie Sanders had any influence over the outcome of the American election. Did he win? No. Did he change the conversation? Hell yes!
This is why it matters that you vote even if you vote for the “losers.” We NEED the opposition. We need the voices of dissent. We need to support the ones who can hold the leaders to account and prevent abuses of power from becoming endemic.
If you disagree with the Rob Fords or Donald Trumps or Theresa Mays of the world, and you live in a free country, you should be out protesting, writing blog posts expounding your views, or talking politics with your friends in public places. This right to free speech, to freely oppose the powers that be, is the first, last and only thing that makes democracies work for their own people.
And you have the right to vote. Use it or lose it.