We have a government that seems in many respects dedicated to exclusion. The president spends a whole lot of time criticizing and denigrating different groups of people—his political opponents, immigrants to the United States, people from Mexico and other Latin countries, Muslims and many others. At the same time groups that demand more attention and power for themselves because they claim to be of a superior kind—for instance white supremacists—are growing and becoming more powerful. Not too long ago white supremacy was thought of as a holdover of slavery and Jim Crow—a movement stuck in an inglorious past that was bound to wither away. Instead white supremacy has become, once again, a serious, resurgent movement.
Nor is this true only in our country. Comparable groups have grown and are in the governments of quite a few European countries. Hysteria in the face of large numbers of immigrants from the near East and Africa dominates politics in Europe. The main desire of large groups of people is to exclude masses of immigrants who are poor and looking for work. In a clearly global economy where many countries profit from trade and where industry is dominated by large multinational corporations, nationalists in many countries resist the global labor market, the free movement across frontiers to where there is work. This resistance to folks who don’t speak the language or don’t speak it well, who may have different religions and certainly bring with them different traditions in food and family structure is a major theme in Brexit, England’s attempt to distance itself from the European Union. The claim to national superiority of Jews over Palestinians is the motivating force in much of Israeli politics.
The right-wing movements in different countries are different but they have some common features. They have no respect for political equality. Democracy does not seem to them to be important, neither are political rights—the right to free speech, to political participation, to form associations and for those associations to meet. Police violence against critics of right-wing governments is readily accepted as legitimate.
The frequent tendency of peoples to move away from democracy raises many interesting questions and gives rise to many controversies. But today I want to pay attention to one specific aspect of these occurrences. Very many of the right wing, ultra right-wing, or fascist movements come to power by democratic means. The persons who end up as fascist dictators are first elected. That was true of Adolf Hitler as well as of the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and many others. The current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, soon after being elected president instituted a regime of violence against alleged drug dealers or users. Thousands of Filipinos have lost their lives, killed by police or vigilantes for alleged drug selling or use, without any judicial process. The policy seems to have proved very popular in the mid-term elections of this past weekend. The thousands of alleged drug dealers and users killed by police in the last 4 years have not made him unacceptable to voters in the Philippines.
Most commonly when we talk about democracy, what we have in mind is a political system of regular and honest elections, civil rights and political rights for all citizens as well as the rule of of law to protect those rights. But it turns out that that is not enough for a lasting democracy. In countries that have regular elections, a functioning legal system and civil and political rights, the electorate has more than once voted and continues to vote for enemies of democracy. People have more than once passed referenda to extend the term of office of the strongman whose rule spells the end of democracy. People have acclaimed these dictators and have gladly followed their commands and have, after the end of their term, been happy to re-elect them in clean and ordinary elections.
A well-functioning and honest electoral system is not what democracy is. A functioning democracy exists only where the people at large not only participate at least by voting but also participate by protesting loudly as soon as the candidates they have elected turn out to be enemies of democracy. If the state legislatures in states like Ohio or North Carolina draw the electoral districts in ways to deprive black voters of any political power to choose black representatives, they show themselves to be enemies of democracy because they exclude black Americans from the democratic system. If voters in Ohio and North Carolina don’t protest vigorously and insist that these electoral districts be redrawn, democracy in Ohio and North Carolina is not functioning. Without an active electorate that will not tolerate exclusions, that will not allow elected officials to violate the rules and spirit of democracy, democracy exists in name only.
Many prestigious political organizations continuously exhort voters to go and cast their ballots. But that is not good advice. They should advise citizens to protest loudly when elected officials pass laws that in effect exclude some citizens from participation or from making use of their rights. An example is any law that requires picture-IDs from voters who have no possible way of procuring such an identification. In the present situation where only half the people vote and very few people are willing to demonstrate their displeasure and the need for change, we can no more claim to be a democracy than the Philippines, or Turkey, or Germany in 1933.