Diversity can rescue democracy–How will America handle it?

March 8, 2019

Diversity can rescue democracy–How will America handle it?

by Dr.Fareed Zakaria

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“In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make the case that diversity helps forge the culture of compromise and tolerance that is crucial to democracy’s success. They argue, for example, that the Republican Party has become so rigid, intolerant and abusive of this norm in part because it has become an ethnically and racially homogeneous party.“—Fareed Zakaria

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, which is expected to be delivered to the Attorney- General Barr soon, will end up being a great test of American democracy. How will we handle it? In a nakedly partisan fashion, or as a way to bolster our constitutional system?

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It has been much noted that we are now in an era of illiberal democracy. Popularly elected governments and leaders — in countries as varied as Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines — are undermining independent institutions, violating important norms and accumulating unbridled power. In most of these nations, checks and balances have buckled as institutions that protect rights have been weakened, political parties have been craven, courts have been compliant, and the press has been subdued.


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In the United States, the story is mixed. The political system has functioned poorly, checking President Trump’s excesses only along partisan lines. This is largely because the Republican Party has capitulated to Trump, even when party leaders have believed that he was undercutting democracy itself. Senators who had spent a lifetime railing against the executive branch’s power grabs have meekly endorsed Trump’s phony national emergency. They have quietly accepted that Congress’s central power, to spend money, can be subverted at will by the White House.

On the other hand, some American institutions have pushed back. The judiciary has maintained its independence. The various branches of investigative authority — the FBI and other organs of the Justice Department — have demonstrated that they serve the country and Constitution above the current occupant of the White House. The press has, by and large, been able to withstand the extraordinary pressure of a president who almost daily attacks and threatens its freedom and independence.

But the greatest check on Trump has surely been the public itself, placing some limits on the president’s behavior by voting in the midterms and expressing itself through opinion polls and protests. And, ultimately, this has to be the hope for the health and strength of any democracy — that in the words often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “You can’t fool all the people all of the time.”

My faith in people power has been strengthened in watching events 7,000 miles away in India. There, too, a democratically elected leader, Narendra Modi, has accumulated power in ways that were at times authoritarian. In this case, the pressure he exerted on the bureaucracy and judiciary often worked. So did his intimidation of the press, which, while once fiery and free, has essentially become a handmaiden of the ruling party. Business executives were coerced into supporting Modi’s party, the BJP, and loading it up with cash.

And yet, the BJP recently received a drubbing at the ballot box. Despite commanding advantages with media coverage, money and local officials, India’s dominant party lost several key state elections a few months ago. Why? In a word, diversity.

In a new book on his quarter-century of observing Indian politics, Ruchir Sharma notes that the dominant reality of Indian politics is its diversity. India is composed of dozens of different linguistic communities, ethnic groups, castes, tribes and classes. And these identities are meaningful, shaping people’s perspectives on everything from daily life to political preferences. Sharma cites the head of a large consumer products company, who explained that his company divides India into 14 sub-regions because of its dizzying diversity — compared with the 20 countries of the Middle East, which get divided by the company into just four groups.

This diversity has proved to be India’s greatest strength as a democracy, ensuring that no one party gets too big for its boots. For 40 years, the single best prediction in Indian elections has been that the incumbent will be tossed out. In the upcoming national election, Modi has immense advantages: money, a large parliamentary majority, a fawning media and a slew of expansive populist spending programs to buy people’s votes. Even then, recent polls indicated his coalition would fall short of a majority.

Things have changed because of India’s military tit-for-tat with Pakistan, which Modi has used to push an aggressively nationalist line. With no evidence, he has labeled all opposition parties as being anti-national and pro-Pakistan. This strategy might work, but still, he will likely return to office with a reduced majority.

Image result for book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make the case that diversity helps forge the culture of compromise and tolerance that is crucial to democracy’s success. They argue, for example, that the Republican Party has become so rigid, intolerant and abusive of this norm in part because it has become an ethnically and racially homogeneous party.

Most Western countries are going to become more diverse. That is simply demographic reality. India demonstrates how that diversity — if embraced and celebrated — could actually help rescue and strengthen democracy.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


2 thoughts on “Diversity can rescue democracy–How will America handle it?

  1. In the past two years of Trump administration, there is a growing sense that the American democracy, and the Western liberal democracy more generally, is faltering. American politics have become increasingly caustic, and norms of civility have eroded. There is less bipartisan compromise, and more attempts at winner-take-all brinksmanship. Partisanship is penetrating deeper into more spheres of life, to the point where even marriages are increasingly well-sorted by political affiliation.

    The white supremacists and right-wing extremists of the Trump administration has given rise to a new left and America is in a culture war. This culture war divides Americans more deeply and more sharply than anything else. Read or listen to most of the mainstream media and you’ll get the distinct impression that those on the conservative side of the conflict are ignorant bigots and theocratic fascists. Read or listen to Fox News and right-wing media, and you’re likely to hear that those on the progressive side favor infanticide and are anti-religious fanatics just steps away from enacting an American version of Mao’s cultural revolution to establish a People’s Republic of America.

    Being an active community organizer and political activist for almost 50 years, a moderate Republican who cares more for social justice than politics, I have reason to think that most Americans are less polarized on these issues than the pronouncements of partisans and activists on each side would lead one to believe. I also have reason to suspect that public opinion on social issues and questions of national identity tilts somewhat to the right – and that this stance, when combined with a pragmatically progressive economic program, could well constitute a new American center.

    For much of the past four decades, the American center has been defined by its broadly libertarian outlook on both economic and social issues. To be a centrist Democrat or Republican or Independent has been to favor keeping taxes relatively low, regulations relatively minimal, international trade relatively free, and government services and benefits intact and in place while not expanding them very far into new areas. It has also meant supporting abortion rights and eventually gay marriage and transgender rights, and favoring, for both moral and economic reasons, high levels of immigration.

    Yet a comprehensive survey of voters in the 2016 election has revealed that very few people actually support this combination of libertarian policies – and that lots of people favor the ideologically opposite position: relatively progressive on the economy and relatively conservative on social issues. That is where the new center of American politics can be found, I believe.

    The commonly held theory among the Trumpians is that it’s the increase in diversity that’s ailing America and the Western countries. This makes some intuitive sense. After all, diversity implies difference  – different wants, different needs, and different interests. The more diverse a society is, the more likely these differences will manifest themselves in ways that put people at odds with each other. There will be different diagnoses of society’s problems, different goals, and different methods for solving problems and achieving social goals. Since many of these goals will be in conflict with each other, we can’t simply try to achieve them all. In that process, some people’s interests will come out on top, and some people will be upset that the country’s priorities were not their priorities.

    But majority of the American people hold a different thought with a respected pedigree in political philosophy  – it includes James Madison, John Stuart Mill and more  – the idea that difference makes a liberal society stronger. When people are different, they argue their point of view. A liberal state provides a structured way to do this, as well as ways to experiment with new ideas and then debate them. However, the liberal ideal of a contest of ideas and values requires actual engagement between their proponents. That is, the ideal of productive contestation relies on the notion of a public square in which all comers can and do engage with others, challenging their ideas and being challenged in turn. It can’t work if representatives of competing ideas don’t show up.

    And that’s exactly what has happened in America. We are growing more diverse, and Trump and his white supremacists and right-wing extremists don’t like it. That’s why they’re so anti-immigration. They want to bring America back to before 1950 when the population was almost 90% white. And their scheme of “Make America White Again”, hiding behind “Make America Great Again”, is facing a great push-back from majority of the American people. The Trumpians are not listening to reasons. Anything they don’t like to hear they call it “fake news”, and anytime you present a fact they counter it with fabricated lie and call it “alternative fact”. The Republican Congress enabled this to go on but the American people persisted to resist.

    Majority of the American people disagree with Trump’s thinking that social cohesion and solidarity are compatible with the nation modeling itself on a closed tribe, clan, or armed camp. The US has never been founded on exclusive claims of belonging. We are and have always been a nation of immigrants and former slaves brought here against their will. We’re a political community that has long specialized in turning outsiders into insiders – a process that presumes the reality and importance of that distinction, but also its mutability.

    Whether Trumpians like it or not, diversity is here to stay and growing. Diversity is not our problem. Our problem is that we don’t regularly interact with the people who are different than us. In other words, segregation. There is less trust of others who are different. We segregate ourselves in geography – racially, ethnically, urban, suburban and rural. When we do that, social trust suffers. The more segregated ethnic groups are, the more trust suffers. It is segregation that lowers social trust and quality of government, not mere diversity. Cross-ethnic friendships in integrated environments will boost social trust, and diversity at the local level helps push the trend the other way.

    Segregation fundamentally rips the social fabric and exacerbates our worst tendencies. While we may be able to take steps to mitigate the damage caused by segregation, at some point we have to deal with segregation itself. Segregation is a problem that disguises itself as a solution. We can be led to think that diversity is the source of our ills, and that we need to find ways to mitigate its effects. Instead, it is segregation that breaks the engine of our democracy. Diversity and disagreement are healthy parts of a dynamic free society. Segregation divides us and encourages our stagnation.

    We need not to worry about the fact of diversity, but rather how we encourage diverse people to interact. We need spaces where different factions can engage with each other seriously – where the marketplace of ideas is allowed to operate. And fight segregation we must.

  2. Diversity is like everything else fine by by itself. Used in small doses, yes, it can help in the building of a nation. The problem begins when we use it as the only tool to fix our problems. The leaders have the task of taking the good from everything else and build the nation. Not an easy job but you like the CEO of a company have all the powers in your hands.

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