February 10, 2023
Over all the torrent of news these days is a fundamental struggle about the nature of human government. Is democracy still a viable form of government, or is it better for a country to have a strongman in charge?
Democracy stands on the principle of equality for all people, and those who are turning away from democracy, including the right wing in the United States, object to that equality. They worry that equal rights for women and minorities—especially LGBTQ people—will undermine traditional religion and traditional power structures. They believe democracy saps the morals of a country and are eager for a strong leader who will use the power of the government to reinforce their worldview.
But empowering a strongman ends oversight and enables those in power to think of themselves as above the law. In the short term, it permits those in power to use the apparatus of their government to enrich themselves at the expense of the people of their country. Their supporters don’t care: they are willing to accept the cost of corruption so long as the government persecutes those they see as their enemies. But that deal is vulnerable when it becomes clear the government cannot respond to an immediate public crisis.
That equation is painfully clear right now in Turkey and Syria, where more than 380,000 people are homeless after Monday’s devastating earthquakes. The death toll has climbed to more than 23,000, and more than 78,000 are injured. So far. Just a month ago, Turkey’s president President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised that the country had the fastest and most effective system of response to disaster in the world.
But that promise has been exposed as a lie. As Jen Kirby pointed out in Vox yesterday, Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have been moving the country toward autocracy, rose to power thanks to a construction boom in the 2010s that both drove economic growth and permitted Erdoğan to hand out contracts to his supporters. The collapse of more than 6,400 buildings in Monday’s quakes have brought attention to cost cutting and bribery to get around building codes. At the same time, since a big quake in 1999, homeowners have been paying an earthquake tax that should, by now, have been worth tens of billions of dollars, but none of that money seems to be available, and Erdoğan won’t say where it went.
“This is a time for unity, solidarity,” Erdoğan told reporters. “In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.” He has shut down media coverage of the crisis and cracked down on social media as well. Elections in Turkey are scheduled for May 14. Erdoğan was already facing a difficult reelection.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad also has to deal with the horrific scenario. Aid groups are having trouble getting assistance to hard-hit areas controlled by opponents of the regime during the country’s ongoing civil war. Assad has blamed western sanctions, imposed against his regime because of its murder of his opponents, for the slow response to the earthquake, but his government has blocked western aid to areas controlled by his opposition. The U.S. has issued a six-month sanctions exemption for relief in Syria.
Russia is also in trouble as its recent invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a protracted war, but it maintains it will continue to extend its new imperial project. On Tuesday, Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, spoke openly of attacking Poland after conquering Ukraine. It was time, he said, for the West to fall to its knees before Russia, and he predicted Ukraine would be Russia’s before the end of 2023. Poland is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and an attack on it would bring the rest of the NATO countries, including the U.S., to its aid.
Today, Moldova, a former Soviet republic of about 2.6 million people that borders Ukraine and has been under tremendous pressure from Russia, enduring soaring inflation, an inflow of Ukrainian refugees, and power cuts after Russian attacks on Ukraines’ grid, saw its government resign. That government has worked to move closer to European allies and has applied for admission to the European Union. Russia has sought to destabilize that government and has recently appeared to be planning to invade the country. Moldovan president Maia Sandu has nominated a new prime minister, one that intends to continue orienting the country toward Europe.
The U.S. has stood solidly against Russia’s ambitions, but our own right wing is increasingly supportive of Putin, liking his stand against LGBTQ people, his embrace of religion, and his ruthless determination to impose that vision on his country. Yesterday the president and chief executive officer of Elon Musk’s SpaceX admitted the company has blocked the ability of Ukrainian troops to use the Starlink satellite system to advance against Russia. In October, Musk drew fire for proposing a “peace” plan that would give Russia the territory it has claimed from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil met with President Joe Biden at the White House today. (His predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, an ally of former president Trump, staged a coup against Lula and is now hanging out in Florida hoping to score a U.S. tourist visa.) In their meeting, Biden and Lula emphasized democracy.
Biden noted that both democracies had been tested lately and that we stand together, rejecting political violence and putting great value in our democratic institutions: the rule of law, freedom, and equality.
Through an interpreter, Lula expanded on what that means. He noted that Brazil had “self-marginalized” under Bolsonaro, rejecting the world and turning inward. But, he said, “Brazil is a country that people enjoy peace, democracy, work, and Carnival, and samba, and a lot of joy. This is the Brazil that we’re trying to reposition in the world.” He called for making sure no more right-wing insurrections undermine our democracies, as well as fighting racism “so that we can guarantee some dreams for the youth.” He called for protecting the natural world to combat climate change, and creating a world governance to enable us to work together against existential threats.
“This is not a government program,” Lula said. “This is a faith commitment of someone that believes in humanism, someone that believes in solidarity. I don’t want to live in a world where humans become algorithms. I want to live in a world where human beings are human beings. And for that, we have to take care very carefully what God gave us: that is the planet Earth.”
Fabulous how you illuminate so much we don’t see in the news and bring all the current situations together as the challenges to democracy Thanks
Professor, your first three paragraphs are the best encapsulation that I've read about our intensifying struggle and what's at stake. I would also highlight how freedom of expression is increasingly suppressed in right-wing states. I'm not sure we fully grasp the extent, for example, of book bans sweeping the nation.
I read today that Duval County in Florida, where Jacksonville is located, has banned 176 books from public schools. Four jumped out at me for what would seem their tame content — books about famous athletes who happen to have been people of color: Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Jim Thorpe, and Roberto Clemente. I guess local school officials see them as subversive influences, and believe kids would be harmed learning of their success. Or worse, strive to emulate it.