Democracy Is The Only Path to Social Progress and Harmony
Changes in the world towards the minorities
The conscientious and persevering activist and politician, Atishi, has a profound quote on her Twitter handle from the cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’.
The incorrigible Winston Churchill, who had a tumultuous and roller-coaster ride with Democracy himself, once said, ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’ explaining his own frustrations with its processes.
But the devotee of action with an inexhaustible passion to change things around, also concluded rather wisely, if grudgingly, ‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.
Befittingly, the world’s most socially progressive countries (mainly from Scandinavian arc), also rank amongst the highest, on the global Democracy Index – the link between the governance model and the societal outcomes, is undeniable.
One intrinsic component of these socially progressive countries is the increasing co-option and inclusion of ‘minority rights’ that cuts across the realms of racial, ethnic, class, linguistic, gender, sexuality, religious or any other type of ‘minority’ grouping. Herein, denialism owing to majoritarian preferences, is not the definitive norm.
Conversely, Democracies that increasingly pander to majoritarian instincts and norms, struggle to evolve socially and they could beget revisionist tendencies – the sliding scores of such Democracies on various Global socio-economic indexes, is inevitable and apparent.
Interestingly, last year’s Social Progress Index noted that six of the top 10 performing nations were led by female leaders. Again, the conflation of empowerment, education, ‘inclusion’ and consequential outcome of progress, was obvious.
Whereas a country like the United States of America which routinely ranked amongst the top-10 ‘progressive’ nations, suffered intensely and especially in the Trump years when ‘inclusion’ was replaced by ‘division’, ‘empowerment’ was replaced by ‘centralisation’, and ‘education’ was seconded to whimsical decisions that were borne out of personal fancies of the POTUSA . Unsurprisingly, the USA hit a new low of falling to the 28th position in 2020.
Donald Trump was actively layering his majoritarian politics on different tiers of implied citizenship, in a multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious country. Donald Trump nearly succeeded in the 2020 Presidential Election with his dangerously reckless ‘us-versus-them’ spiel, as he still banked over 74 million votes (47% of the total to Joe Biden’s winning 51%).
Oddly enough, Trump’s unconventional braggadocio, disdain for democratic processes and adversarial-muscularity had won him public imagination over the seemingly dour, predictable and ‘unaggressive’ Hillary Clinton in 2016. Churchill’s ignored forewarning notwithstanding, the optics of the Capitol Hill ‘insurrection’ and the literal forcing out of Donald Trump from the White House, has left America wounded, polarised and bitter, like never before.
Trump disdained any opinion contrary to his own, let alone ‘minority opinion’ – ultimately, American society was left poorer for those four years.
Competitive urgencies and ambitions within a Democracy’s functioning, frequently debar and militate against political leaders positing any ‘minority positions’. This often leads to the majoritarian electoral/parliament concept to he lazily and wrongly equated to ‘majoritarism’, which is predicated on the entitlement of the ‘majority’ to roughshod the fundamental and constitutional rights afforded to the ‘minority’.
Such a trend, appealing as it is to masses at times (certainly in the short run), who may not be able to comprehend the moral and intellectual shortcomings of such an intolerant path, can debilitatingly stunt social-progress in society. It is also wholly dependent on the ability to postulate ‘minority positions’, freely without attributions, punitive actions or fear.
Such an extreme scenario can lead to the diminishment of morality, conscience and rationality as feared by Tocqueville, who warned of such decisions, ‘which bases its claims to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence’.
Importantly, the only alternative to the same is not a binary choice of ‘minoritism’ or ‘appeasement’ as is frequently suggested, as that too is an undesirable and extremist position, that needs nuance, correction and recalibration.
Only a rare statesman like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or more recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel, could find that sweet spot where empathy-meets-rationality-meets-professionalism, which can drive society towards social progress and enlightenment.
Inherently ‘minority’ is a vulnerable situation that seeks protection from both, discrimination and assimilation, and not privileges – the aspiration is for accommodation and acceptance as an equal, as may or may not still be guaranteed by the constitution or the prevailing laws.
Scandinavian societies have developed a societal climate for tolerance and dialogue as a means of potential enrichment, much more than in continental Europe, and are therefore more conducive, sensitive and responsive to next-generation issues like sustainability, climate change, human rights etc.
The political leadership plays an invaluable role in the directional course of the society and its accompanying discourse. If political leadership can occasionally assume and champion certain ‘minority positions’ that may not necessarily be electorally gratifying, then such politics can contribute immensely to informed harmony, participative integration and societal progress.
Various forward movements like the civil rights movement in America, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or gender equality globally are all borne out of what was once, minority influence and concern.
The determined ‘minority’ in each of these cases had challenged established societal perceptions and norms, and ultimately converted the then legislative and societal elements towards the thinking of the minority groups – that is the only way society evolved and progressed.
One such societal evolution is the public attitude and opinion towards the LGBTQ community in the US, where multiple surveys have confirmed the doubling of support in the last three decades with the younger generation leading the inclusive path of cultural shift.
Kamala Harris made history as the only sitting Vice President to attend a ‘Pride’ march, where she addressed the crowds with a speech advocating the US Senate to pass the Equality Act.
President Joe Biden issued a separate statement where he reassuringly urged, ‘Let us continue the work to be a nation at our best – one that recognises and protects the dignitry and safety of every American’.
This was in stark contrast to the conservative silence, often-contradictory (usually transactional) and divisive actions of President Trump who had dismantled protections initiated by the earlier Obama administration, especially for transgenders.
All other policy and governance imperatives of the Joe Biden administration notwithstanding, as the same are yet to play out - ‘inclusive decency’ is perhaps the most apt word for his domestic politics, so far.
Perhaps the personal contrast is best captured by the titles of their respective books; Donald Trump’s ‘The Art of the Deal’ vis-à-vis Biden’s gut-wrenchingly moving memoir ‘Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose’!
Biden is a unifier who reaches out to assuage, reconnect and is low on political rhetoric and histrionics – this augurs well for American society towards the path of healing and bonding.
The fundamental difference it that unlike the previous POTUSA for whom the concept of citizenship was based on supremacism and ‘negation’ (e.g. birtherism, amongst many other factors), is that presumably Joe Biden will go beyond ‘identity’ politics, or at least, much more than the previous POTUSA.
Because ‘othering’ is expected to lessen, hope for ‘minority’ denominations and the overall social progress of the American society is poised – ultimately, as Churchill rightfully predicted, only the free and fair functioning of liberal Democracy can save the day from other possibilities, howsoever attractive, they may be imagined, initially.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.
Cover Photograph sourced to (1896-1916) from the Library of the US Congress