Where Democracy Is Greener



The Haitians at Del Rio

Over one weekend, some 15,000 people, mainly Haitians, suddenly appeared at the Mexican border of the US, wanting to come in.  They fled Haiti because Haiti is broken down.  Its resources are meager and mismanaged.  Its political culture is corrupt; its government, dysfunctional.  Its last democratically elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was mysteriously assassinated, possibly by a clique of private outside adventurers.  He left Haitian government in a precarious position, for he had been hollowing out and disabling its already puny civic institutions.  Haiti is a Somalia in the making, where utter lawlessness could follow a decline in stable control.

Extreme weather plagues Haiti.  A colossal earthquake recently shook the country, which has long been the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  Nothing relieves the people there, despite perennial international efforts, including the infusion of massive amounts of cash, food, and other forms of humanitarian aid.  Haiti is a nation state that doesn’t deliver what its people need.  To an alarming extent, Haiti’s problems are representative of many of the world’s nations, where poor governance, corruption, chronic violence, and extreme weather threaten the safety and survival of citizenry.

In olden times, misery made Haiti a pressure cooker of change.  Its history is as heartbreaking as any country’s.  In the 17th century, the French colonized Haiti.  French masters sent enslaved Africans to work sugar plantations there under pestilential conditions, knowing that the majority would have brief lives.  The terrifying violence and brutality of the slaves’ captivity is poignantly captured in their spiritual art.  Eventually, their misery bore fruit, for, in 1804, the slaves revolted and became self-governing.  They fomented a remarkable revolution, rebuking France and casting off oppression for the sake of personal freedom and political autonomy.  Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 11.26 million inhabitants today descend from those once-captive slaves.

Now, however, the Haitians can flee rather than remake the oppression and misery besetting them again.  Modern communications and the ease of movement have led to swelling migration around the globe.  It’s hard to create a healthy democracy and the rule of law where they’ve ceased to exist, harder still to build a prosperous economy where the necessary cultural capital has always been wanting.  So, though Haitians already live in a democracy, some are flooding toward where its blessings are in fuller flower, leaving Haiti itself even more hopeless than before.  Because, why flee overland to the US?  Failing as citizens, Haitians want to live in a polity where the living is good.

So they have undertaken a harrowing, roundabout journey across Mexico, over water and mountains, leaving everything familiar to huddle together under the Del Rio International Bridge, which normally admits travelers into the US via south Texas.  Given the abnormal flood of migrants, most of whom have no hope of legal entry, the border crossing at Del Rio has been completely closed.  Journalists report that the Haitians will be flown back to their country at US government expense.

I feel for the Haitians who made this journey.  If I were in their place, I might consider leaving Haiti, too.  The fact that they are from a democratic country, though, and that people all over the world are now fleeing pseudo-democracies where repression, exploitation, and corruption are flourishing, gives me pause.  The tendency of many journalists to depict these hapless citizens as childlike and powerless victims is dangerously patronizing and retrograde.  When should the people of Haiti be regarded as accountable for the terribly low outcomes from their country’s “democratic experiment?”  When will the US get its act together, put aside its vanity, and restore order at the border by promulgating a set of new, Congressionally approved immigration laws?

To be in a reactive position with respect to immigration and border control exposes the “both ways” dithering that is impairing the prestige of the democratic form.  Common sense and realism must temper compassion in crafting a rationale for augmenting the current population mix of the US.  Global instability is increasing, requiring the US to temper boundlessness with a regard for its own political vulnerability.

Human migration is destined to swell, particularly as extreme weather events make barely habitable places like Haiti even more uninhabitable.  The US must meet the new forces driving human migration with something more than ad hoc executive orders, fuzzy feelings, vice-presidential sound-bites, and so-called media “campaigns.”  The circumstances under which non-citizens may enter the US and the procedures they must follow should be clear, universally broadcast, and incontrovertible.  Paradoxically, the firmness with which such boundaries are drawn may redound to the long-term health of other democracies.

Image: A Port-au-Prince neighborhood,
courtesy Alsandro via Wikimedia 
Commons.

 


w-c-osborn

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The rude power of the vote: Brexit

morning-after-brexit

A popular vote to decide the UK’s place in the world: In retrospect, David Cameron’s idea of putting the question to the people appears more and more extraordinary.  This is not how countries (at least representative democracies) are normally led.  Normally, populations delegate power to political leaders, trusting in their competence and relying on their superior agency and expertise.

The US has never held a national referendum.  Here, referenda are technical measures.  They are used at the state and local level, to amend constitutions or see if a policy innovation is agreeable to the people.  Our national votes are reserved solely for filling the presidency.  The Brexit vote represents a high-water mark of democracy that one hopes the US will never reach.

Presidential elections are often described as referenda, but this is usually hyperbole.  The motives that determine the citizens’ choice between two candidates can seldom be reduced to a vote for or against a single policy.  One exception is the election of 1860, when the ensuing breakdown of the Union justifies our concluding that voters saw Abraham Lincoln’s victory as determining the future of slavery.  They were so sure his election spelled the end of it that they didn’t even wait for him to take power: secession conventions formed and slave-holding states began to leave.  Then, as with Brexit, the losers doubted the outcome’s legitimacy.  A minority with a lot to lose discovered a majority it couldn’t bear.

Inspiration in a deep-dish pizza

Writing in Slate, Osita Nwanevu argues convincingly that Cameron came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating a Chicago deep-dish pizza at O’Hare.  He was heading back to London from the 2012 NATO summit, which Chicago hosted that year.  While waiting for his flight, he and British foreign secretary William Hague reportedly went into a classic Chicago eatery and came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating local food and rubbing elbows with a bunch of ‘nobodies.’

The summit itself crystallized globalism’s discontents.  Its massing of elite power drew thousands of ‘pro-democracy’ protesters to Chicago, along with a few would-be terrorist bombers.  While the leaders of the western world met to chart the future of democracy, massive crowds clogged the streets, charging NATO leaders with betrayal and insisting that their governance ignored the people’s urgent needs.  Did Cameron metaphorically ingest some of the democratic forces assailing him from all sides?  Certainly, his belief that the UK’s internal divisions could be reconciled through a popular vote represented a conversion to democratic faith.  He expected, however, that the people would ultimately strengthen the leading class’s hand.

The transcendent power of a multi-national economy

In the 1990s, I attended a forward-looking talk given by the late Harold Perkin, a historian who studied long-term class developments in England society.  His subject was the powerlessness of nation-states relative to multinational corporations.  Already, he argued, capital flows and the far-flung operations of such businesses were eroding and transcending the bonds that had previously constrained and united inhabitants of geographically defined countries.  Whereas previously the upper, middle, and lower classes in a country like Britain had been bound together legally and economically, those interdependent ties were weakening.  Increasingly, the economic elite were creating a world with rules that they, as capitalists and corporate titans, were entitled to define.  Since then, the trend that Perkins so presciently defined has grown more pronounced.  Now the professional classes are used to this world, and they don’t think the lower classes should be allowed to curb it, certainly not with the rude club that the right to vote furnishes.

The problem afflicts the US as much as the UK.  In the States, growing economic inequality has gone hand-in-hand with geographic and social changes whose tendency is to limit ordinary connections between Americans of different classes.  Increasingly, well-educated and well-off Americans raise their children within ‘bubble-worlds’ populated with others of their type.  This is very different from the earlier hierarchical class structure of American communities, where the right of an elite to exercise leadership was still connected to their position within a locality.  This vanishing social structure promoted empathy and upward mobility, while rooting elite influence in something like popular sanction.  Whether in religion, neighborhoods, or the economy, there are few traces of these old face-to-face relationships, which fed a spirit of interdependence and reciprocal obligation.

Meanwhile political leaders cede their power to ‘the people.’

Paradoxically, American politics has at the same time become increasingly democratized, with leaders instigating changes designed to give ‘the people’ more sway.   It’s a trend that’s been underway for at least a century, since the Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of US Senators, giving citizens a power previously seated in state legislatures.   Candidates for national office make their appeals directly to the people, for, with enough popular support, they can thumb their noses at the other pols whose help they once needed.  Likewise, the nominating conventions, where delegates were empowered to attain consensus authentically, are increasingly lifeless affairs, determined solely by rules and by votes the people cast in the primaries.

As the people’s rage rattles the laissez-faire globalism that an elite indifferent to their sufferings universally favors, the elite may well begin to ask, Too much democracy?

Excitement Is General

Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration, 1921 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Excitement is general as we head into the final weeks of the long campaign.  With the presidential race in a dead heat, it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be.  The candidates receive ever closer scrutiny, waves of analysis rolling in over airwaves and Internet incessantly.  Stalwarts gear up for the final push.

The uncertainty of the race is drawing huge audiences to the presidential debates.  Last night’s debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney is estimated to have drawn some 65 million viewers.  According to Bloomberg, the viewership for the debates has been roughly double what it was for the nominating conventions this summer.

The spontaneity of the response to the debates is unprecedented, too.  Last night during the debate, Twitter recorded over 7 million new tweets, with more than 109,000 recorded during a single minute when the candidates were discussing immigration.  Romney’s peculiar remark about ‘binders full of women’ prompted an immediate outpouring and a new hashtag.  Within minutes, satirical takes on his remarks were available for view on this Tumblr page.

Every age has its own political customs.  The ones we’re using today are making history, too.

Image: Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration in 1921, from this source.
Click image to enlarge.