Every day we see more examples of how fragile a plant democracy is, easily trampled on while in some ways sowing the seeds of its own destruction. But crying “wolf” by accusing legitimate governments of dictatorships helps only would-be autocrats.
Somebody has gone too far when a nonagenarian is reduced to tears on seeing a French protester sporting a yellow Star of David on his jacket. The French are famous for their street demonstrations, but the current wave of protests is unusual, having become a regular Saturday fixture. Since the Gilets Jaunes protests began in November 2018 with the genuine grievance of a petrol tax aimed at helping honour France’s commitments under the Paris climate accords, but which disproportionately hurt those with few alternatives to their cars to earn their livelihoods, the headline issue has shifted as new complaints come to hand, including confinements, lack of vaccines, vaccines, at one point even resorting to a protest against climate change inaction. What provoked the Star of David gesture? Ostensibly, “discrimination” on the basis of vaccination status implicit in the health pass, supposedly justifying the claim that the government is a dictatorship. While most French people disagree, as the pass applies only to leisure activities and is seen as the best way to regain regular freedoms while protecting against the virus, a nonagenarian survivor of the Nazi concentration camps is justifiably very hurt by this trivialising of his suffering and that of the millions of other victims of dictatorships, then and since.
A much younger African-French taxi driver, upset by such claims, drummed home the point: How dare they call this a dictatorship, he lambasted: I’ll show them a real dictatorship! I’ll take them to Africa and show them! Yet democracy is indeed under threat, including in some surprising parts of the world The US, for example, showed us how fragile it can be, and may yet show us again in November 2024. Within the EU, the governments of Poland and Hungary seem intent on undermining key democratic institutions, notably the independence of the courts. But in other parts of the world, things have gone much further.
Juan Guaido, elected President of the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2018, but usurped by Nicolas Maduro, who refused to cede as President, recently convened the Alliance for Democracy’s inaugural Summit of Democracy Defenders. The virtual gathering brought together leaders of democracy movements in Hong Kong, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Cuba, Belarus and Uganda. Nine speakers in their turns described the reality of life in their home countries, as legitimate governments are deposed, usually following rigged or annulled elections. In each country, street protests meet with violent repression that leaves many dead or locked up without trial and often tortured. Instead of being reported in national mainstream media, the media themselves are repressed, harassed and worse, while democratic and human rights are trampled on by strong-men usurpers, causing ordinary people to flee in desperation
Contrast this with the Gilets Jaunes which not only are allowed, but given a fair hearing. Wide press coverage of their protests – and especially of instances of police brutality, both are evidence of a robust democracy in action. That many claims of democracy being under threat in the rich world are exaggerated doesn’t mean it isn’t under threat. But declaring democracy to be in danger without good reason risks both stripping the term of its meaning and diverting attention from the real threats. This suits the political fringes we see in many European countries, who typically direct public ire against some segment of the population, such as immigrants, as a smokescreen to obscure their real agenda of weakening democratic institutions and muzzling media that might otherwise expose grabs of power and lucre. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and we are right to hold our governments firmly to account for any encroachment on our democracy, our rights and freedoms and the institutions that protect them and us.
But conflating legitimate government and dictatorship serves only to weaken the former and clear the way for the latter. Crying “wolf” leaves the door open to real wolves.
Featured image by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.