With democracy exposed to threats, proponents rely on its resilience

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a dedicated section that examines global politics and affairs and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.


This year’s Athens Democracy Forum was the ninth in the Greek capital, and with each passing year there were more alarms about the power of authoritarian governments, the effects of climate change, growing wealth disparities, the effects of invasive technologies and the displacement of large populations. Recently, concerns about the state of American democracy and a global pandemic have added to the tribulation.

The scariest thing, said Stacey Abrams, an American political activist from Georgia and a speaker at the forum last week, is “when democracy becomes the launch pad of its own demise”.

Ms. Abrams has had experiences in the United States, where former President Donald J. Trump and his supporters are trying to change electoral laws in some states in their favor. But the advice also applied to populists in countries like Russia, Hungary, Turkey or the Philippines who have tried to undermine democratic processes by controlling the news media, manipulating the rules and protections of democratic institutions or conjuring up frightening visions from “foreign agents” . “Terrorists”, drug dealers or “radical socialists” lurk behind the opposition.

Much of the discussion in the Forum, a three-day event in association with the New York Times, centered on the power of the internet and social media. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who as President of Estonia led his small nation into one of the most digitally savvy countries in the world, said his biggest fear now is the rise of deep fakes, the ability of bad actors to create a fake video. let’s say that a politician receives a bribe – that is indistinguishable from reality.

“That hits the empirical basis of democracy,” said Ilves. “You can no longer trust your senses. You don’t believe in anything anymore. “

For the British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, this is the intent of the lies fed by the populists. “It has often been observed that Russian disinformation works, not because we believe in it, but because it creates a more generalized suspicion that any message can be dismissed as ‘fake news’, even the truth,” he said. An even more dangerous tool of dictatorship, according to Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lies in artificial intelligence, or AI, which promises dictators the ability to satisfy their greed, to know and control everything about their subjects .

The value of forums like the one in Athens, however, does not lie solely in identifying crises. These are constantly shouting at people from large and small screens. The value lies in discovering that there are people – like Wai Wai Nu, the 34-year-old founder of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar, who received this year’s Athens Democracy Award; Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the self-exiled Belarusian opposition leader; and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist – who understands that democracy requires incessant attention and sacrifice. You were the face of “Resilience and Renewal”, the slogans of this year’s forum.

The battlefield, as many participants agreed, is trust. The role of trust in politics is not self-evident, said Mr. Appiah, who writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine. American democracy was largely developed by the founding fathers to avoid relying on trust alone by establishing controls and balances through democratic institutions. He quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Then don’t trust people any more when it comes to questions of power, but tie them off from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Still, according to Mr. Appiah, “vertical trust” – citizens’ trust in institutions – is essential when people entrust their government to others. And it is this trust that is being undermined, in part by the “nonsensical paranoid narratives” that are being spread through the new digital media. The answer, Appiah said, could be simple enough: “Elites have to work harder to regain popular trust and tell the truth more often, even if it is inconvenient and complex.”

But what if these elites are determined to undermine trust? Trump has been accused of doing just that, exposing any report that does not serve his interests as “fake news” or adding nicknames to his political enemies that question their credibility, such as “Sleepy Joe” or “Lyin ‘” Hillary “. The “false democracy” proclaimed by Myanmar’s ruling military, said Ms. Nu, a member of the Rohingya minority systematically persecuted by the generals, was tantamount to a “war against one’s own people”.

In these clashes with the strong, trust becomes the weapon of the weak, explained Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who after her husband’s imprisonment took up the banner of the opposition to the former dictator of Belarus Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. The autocrat’s power is in fear, she said, but when the subjugated finally take to the streets, they learn the power of mutual trust. “Who is stronger,” she asked, “people who trust each other or people who work out of fear?”

The answer may not always be obvious, but history, Mr Harari argued, is on the democratic side. Autocratic rule has clear advantages in terms of quick decision-making and the channeling of resources, but when the “demos”, the population, can no longer tolerate the dictatorship, it lacks the resilience to adapt and change. For example, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was smart enough to understand that the Soviet system needed to change, but did not realize that once that fear was overcome, rule based on fear was a chimera.

In contrast, Mr. Harari noted that the 1968 uprisings at the time appeared to be an existential challenge to Western democracies, but in reality turned out to be an outlet for discontent that enabled democracies to emerge stronger and better. “When society changes, democracy changes,” noted Hong Zhou, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

How societies and democracies will emerge from the current crises cannot be foreseen. What is certain is that they will change. The upheavals in the Middle East are far from over; In countries from South America to Asia, authoritarian people are still in control; Ice melts as the planet warms up; and history shows that every pandemic has a lasting impact.

But one hopeful sign, many participants agreed, was that leaders like Ms. Abrams, Ms. Nu and Ms. Tikhanovskaya were still ready to join young people in the struggle for democracy, many of whom went to Athens to help build it to talk about a better world and about civic organizations working on democratic solutions, some of which were also represented at the forum.

Democracy, as she and other participants proclaimed, remains the most likely form of human organization with the resilience to face the ever-changing challenges of human weakness, technological advances and environmental degradation – the “mother of all crises,” as one spokesman put it.

But democracy will not work without help. Mr. Harari, a student of the future whose best-selling books include Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, stated that addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow, including the rise of artificial intelligence with all of its ethical and moral implications, would be Require answers not only from engineers but also from philosophers, poets and artists.

“An artist who is not an activist is a bad artist,” said Mr. Ai, whose creations are a bold commentary on China’s political and social issues. He could have extended this to any citizen who values ​​democracy.

About Scott Bertsch

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