• Democracy Under Threat

    My wife and I are at an age when we have begun to think (and worry) about the kind of world we will leave behind for our children and, particularly, our grandchildren.

    We have experienced during our own lives, like others of our generation, our fair share of hard times and unpleasant experiences – a world war, a polio epidemic, today’s covid pandemic, a holocaust, massacres and other acts of violence fuelled by extremism – so we are not strangers to a world that is somewhat less than ideal. But we fear that there may be worse to come.

    We think of global warming and climate change, the degradation of our environment, the bushfires and floods and rising sea levels, the loss of fresh air and clean water and of whole species – but, serious as they are, these are not the main cause of our concern; they are natural (or, rather, unnatural) events and environmental changes. Our real concern is with unwelcome changes in our society and the way we treat each other and conduct ourselves.

    One obvious cause for concern arises when we observe the USA, a country that claims to lead the world, engaged in an election that might return to the presidency someone who is surely unfit for leadership and who – not just as a leader, but as a human being – exhibits some of the worst characteristics one can imagine. Whatever the outcome of the U.S. election (and we can but hope), how is it that, having had a four-year-long opportunity to judge their leader, the American people can place so little value on their democracy that they can even contemplate re-electing Donald Trump – a President who admire dictators and wants to be one himself?

    It is the answer to that question that really troubles us. American democracy seems to have been undermined and to be now threatened by a toxic combination of wild conspiracy theories, irresponsible social media, ignorance about what constitutes a democracy, a distrust of one’s fellow citizens, a rising tide of prejudice, the lies of a perennial liar, and a fear and hatred of anyone different and of anyone who thinks differently. It is that climate of opinion that explains what is best described as the American disease.

    It is bad enough that the country that may have been seen once as democracy’s standard-bearer should have been afflicted in this way. It is not just the Americans but the world as a whole who are likely to pay the price if the flame of democracy is snuffed out in the U.S.

    Even more worrying are signs that the disease might be contagious. Even here in New Zealand, there is the whiff of Trumpism in the air. Our own election has seen the arrival of new political parties, inspired (if that is the right word) it seems by the same mad conspiracy theories, by the same contempt for democracy and the rule of law, by the same aggressive me-first attitude and lack of social concern, by the same appeal to ignorance, prejudice and suspicion.

    My wife and I have grown accustomed, since returning to our home country, to viewing New Zealand as a haven of good sense and good practice, even while the rest of the world goes mad. What a tragedy if the country we bequeath to our descendants falls victim to the same malaise that has afflicted others.

    The antidote, fortunately, is always available, if we choose to use it. It is that we should stay vigilant and use our common sense and learn to trust each other. And we should seek accurate information, on which we can rely, from trusted sources with reliable track records, rather than from chancers, and self-styled psychics and prophets on social media and in so-called “town hall” meetings.

    By comparison with the rest of the world, we have it made. We have a working democracy. Let’s not un-make it.

    Bryan Gould
    30 September 2020