Worrying About The Weakness of Democracy
When I was born, both Hungary and Venezuela had healthy democracies. One was climbing out of the darkest of communism. The other was celebrating forty odd years of strong democracy, but cracks were beginning to appear. Today, when I look at both, I wonder how they ended up in their current situations — Hungary now being an ‘illiberal’ democracy and Venezuela in the midst of an oppressive authoritarian dictatorship under the guise of democracy.
When we look back in history, there are tendencies in both countries to strongman rule with brief moments of healthy democracy. So, does this mean that both countries were predisposed to Orbán and chavistas? Whatever the answer may be, the answer will be crucial to knowing how to bolster democracy around the world.
For nearly two hundred years, the Catholic Church was an opponent of democracy and the democratic revolutions that unfurled across the Western world because it meant that it was losing its grip on power. Eventually, saner heads prevailed during Second Vatican Council, and the Church endorsed democracy.
As a political scientist, I am very happy that my Church supports democracy and pluralism. I am also happy when I hear Pope Francis discuss his concerns about the state of democracy today. He has firsthand experience with undemocratic régimes and knows the value of democracy. His sentiments and concerns about the weakness of democracy are also shared by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father General Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ.
At the end of May, I had the privilege of receiving an invitation to a Mass celebrated by Father General Sosa as well as the reception that followed Mass. In preparation for the Mass and meeting the Superior General, I looked him up and discovered that he is Venezuelan.
Father General Sosa seemingly underscored this fact during his remarks at the reception when he told us about his concerns about the weakness of democracy today. I learned after his visit that he is by academic training a political scientist, which is why I believe it important that we heed what he says. The question now is how do we implement to curb the weakness in democracy that both Father General Sosa and Pope Francis see?
In light of the weakness of democracy in Venezuela and Hungary, and lest we forget the United States and to an extent our own country, Father General Sosa wants to see the Jesuit schools forming political and civic leaders to combat the weaknesses in democracy he sees.
This desire to recommit Jesuit schools to forming political and civic leaders can hopefully be an antidote to the weaknesses we are witnessing around us, but there is a small window of opportunity to achieve this goal. As someone who remembers high school, it can be difficult to motivate young people to get interested in the political and civic realms of society.
For millennials, this is an interesting line to walk because we see that millennials are engaging but in non-traditional forms and fora. Therefore, to achieve the goal of forming these leaders, the curricula, or more specifically the pedagogy, must reflect the intended audience.
This means that the focus of the formation ought to revolve around social movements and the third sector of the economy since most young people are not engaging in traditional political vehicle, ie political parties.
To bolster democracy, we need to inspire young people and make them want democracy. One of the problems we are seeing with weakening democracies is that young people, people my age, are becoming more apathetic because they have not had to live through a serious, deadly fight for democracy like the World Wars.
So, because I am opposed to war and causing one, we need to find a way to inspire young people to believe in democracy and to show them that the system is working well. One thing that we as young people need to be reminded of is patience — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ’s poem ‘Patient Trust’ could potentially help. Patience is key when dealing with the system; progress takes time.
Returning to the first question I posed, I think that the answer is yes and no. This sounds potentially harsh, but there is a truth in both answers. Let us start with the ‘no’. Strongmen history does not necessarily mean that a country will devolve into political chaos and more strongmen leadership like Venezuela and Hungary.
Look at Germany. Here we see that Germany has succeeded where Hungary and Venezuela are failing because it was surrounded by strong democracies and had immense pressure placed upon it by the global community. Countries can overcome dark pasts if they accept them and teach the truth to their children; Germany has undergone this process and is continuing to undergo it by teaching their youth about the horrors of the Nazi régime.
Therefore, it is possible to establish a healthy, strong democracy with built-in antidotes to fight off weaknesses.
Conversely, it is also possible that the democratic project is stunted from the outset and/or an air of complacency sets into the mold of democracy. If we look at Hungary, we can see during the process of democratisation that the major European countries helped set Hungary up and allow it to enter NATO and the EU but then seemingly let Hungary handle its own affairs and not help it like it had helped Germany.
The countries that surround Venezuela were not democracies for a long time; dictatorships have been rampant throughout South America and therefore, no checks from neighbours were placed on Venezuela. Today, we can see that both of these countries, both with potentially bright futures, are marred by ‘strongmen’ who have grabbed onto power for dear life and are not likely to let go of it for a very long time.
Photos courtesy of Luke Gilmore.