Welcome to 2018 Summer Hybrid – LS 657: Challenges of Democracy

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Final Week:  Democracy and The World – Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Welcome to our final week. You’ve written great papers and shared them with the class; now, one final review.  You decide whether it is U.S.-based or not.

Ben Moses, A Whisper to a Roar (2012)

– five interlaced documentaries rooted in Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy


Watch the whole thing, or 000-25.00; 41-47; 1.02-1.30 – links below

What are the primary themes here? What happens next?

Egypt – 2011 “Arab Spring”: Mubarak out in Feb 2011;
presidential elections in 2012, June 2012 inauguration of Muhamed Morsi;
2013 July – military ouster of Morsi. And then…

Zimbabwe – 2009 Tsangvarai becomes PM; month later in car accident that kills his wife; 2013 Mugabe abolishes position of PM.  And then…

Ukraine – 2004 – Orange Revolution then Timoshenko and Yushchenko oppose each other.  2010, Yanukovich elected.  2013-2014 protests against Yanukovich; Feb 2014 Yanukovich flees; interim “democratic” leader; Russia invades and takes Crimea. And then…

Malaysia – March 2014 – Anwar Ibrahim ‘s acquittal is reversed, faces return to prison.  (Days later, MH370 disappears.)  And then…

Venezuela – 2013 Chavez dies;  replaced by Maduro, who  lacks the narrative, charisma, of Chavez; mass protests 2014. And then…

FINAL WEEK:  follow up on one of these cases, and talk about the Why? of whatever happened next OR
FINAL WEEK:  You’ve seen five countries in trouble.  With reference to one or more of the five cases in Whisper, talk about two strengths of Western democracy (including or not including the United States) and talk about two challenges or weaknesses of Western democracy (including or not including the United States – whatever you decided in the strengths section).

It’s 90 minutes.  The first few minutes (and the last couple) are a kind  of weird Game of Thrones anime thing… let it go.

Watch for $2-$3 or so…


Amazon Prime Video
Google Play Movies & TV


You can put your responses in the box below, as usual.  You are welcome but not required to comment on each others essays.  You might be able to do a good job in 300-400 words; definite 600 word cap.  Great if you can submit by Tuesday night, but definitely by Wednesday night, please.  Enjoy! And thanks for a great semester

7 Replies to “loy-657-dem-2018-aug22”

  1. Watching Whisper to a Roar and seeing the path of these countries traveled to further take away the rights of their citizens, I have come to the conclusion that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are two of the most important and necessary strengths of Western democracy. In particular, the reporting on Ukraine and Venezuela were impactful regarding the need for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Chavez and Yankovich controlled the press and ensured only pro-government messages were deployed to the public. Any effort to speak out against the regimes was punished or condemned. The ability for the press and the individual to share events and ideas, although sometimes not entirely based on fact, is a necessary pillar and current strength of Western democracy as these abilities work to maintain a critically thinking public that is working to form their own opinions about current events and actively deciding whether to support or oppose a government or an individual. Democracy relies on the public being able to judge and vote politicians in or out, and a free press and access to free speech allow that basic characteristic of democracy to exist.

    Two of the weakest characteristics of Western democracy are that we allow politicians to change the electoral territories to maintain control and we allow citizens to be considered unable to vote during the registration process. Gerrymandering (I’m basically an expert on that now) allows politicians to redraw their districts to ensure elections end in their favor regardless of whether or not they won the majority vote. Chavez in particular was noted to have changed voting territories to make sure he continued to “win” elections, further solidifying his authoritarian rule over Venezuela. Whether the United States is preventing a citizen from voting based on their past criminal history or the insecurity of their current housing situation, legally preventing an entire group of people from voting is a threat to Western democracy because it silences an entire population. Just as Egypt required voters to write their name before being determined eligible to vote (basically, it’s a literacy test) preventing individuals from voting is a direct way to undermine the power of the minority voice and vote and ensure those who are currently in power remain in power.

  2. Democracy is hard. When at its best, a democracy functions as a self-policing system of checks and balances, however the moment a single of one of those checks fails, the entire system quickly becomes threatened. People are easily swayed by the cult of personality of an individual and then power inevitably corrupts. Without the proper limits to power a leader may attempt to remain in power for as long as possible. The story goes, George Washington famously turned down a third presidential term and setting a prescient of peaceful transition of power along the way, but this goes against our human nature and the reality for most of the countries that have hoped to form their own democracies in the mold of the United States.

    Elected or appointed leaders of newly dubbed democratic states find themselves becoming frustrated at the slow and steady pace of progress under a democratic-style government. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe entered into his leadership role as Prime Minister supporting and upholding the ideals of democracy, however as he remained in power his frustration with the rate of change while working within the frameworks of a democratic socialist state reached an inflection point and increasingly he his actions as a leader were that of a dictator rather than democratic.

    Increasingly, as these leaders act more and more like dictators, protests, demonstrations and ultimately revolutions occur as occurred in Venezuela and Egypt. The response is almost always to limit the speech and to disperse the protestors as soon as possible—too often violently. The ideals that a leader once held are too easily replaced by the sole desire to stay in power for as long as possible.

    The biggest struggle of democracy is the ego of individuals. Leaders want changes to be their legacy. For big civic projects to be completed under the tenure as leader. For democracies to function properly there must be checks and balances in place, with open and transparent elections. Democracies biggest flaw is that it relies on an always tenuous trust among the people and the various political parties. Violations of that trust, even small ones, can be hugely damaging.

  3. When watching Whisper, it was difficult to come up with strengths of western democracy as opposed to weaknesses/challenges, which appeared easier. Considering the United States, the two weaknesses I saw in the countries featured, but also see within our own system, are control of the electoral system, such as gerrymandering, and presidential influence over the legislature and judiciary, in particular judicial appointments.

    The problems within the electoral process were obvious in the film. Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe, in particular, were terrible cases of manipulating districts or entire elections to win races; even Ukraine’s election was rigged when Yushchenko originally lost, only to be overturned by their highest court. Mubarak in Egypt was never really elected but magically, every six years was selected and nominated by parliament while the opposition, Nour, was thrown in prison. Names on voter rolls in Egypt of those who opposed just happened to not be there—voter suppression has long be an issue in the United States, and Trump has spoken on stepping up these restrictions. In Venezuela, the pro-Chavez districts had fine, working equipment but elsewhere it was either broken or took hours upon hours to complete. Chavez was said to be “brutally efficient” at changing the country’s electoral territories which brought me to the problem of gerrymandering. Allowing politicians to simply draw lines like it’s third grade art class just isn’t democratic and something that needs to change.

    The second weakness focused on presidential influence over the legislature and judiciary, and that working down to judicial appointments. If the president has control of all basic forms of government, it’s not a democracy. A gentleman in the film, when speaking about Venezuela, said that the country will “give appearances that [they] are [democratic] but in fact [they] are repressing the tools of democracy.” Yes, you have a legislature and a judiciary, but if you control who gets seats in parliament or who gets appointed as judges, your agenda is the one getting pushed. Many of these leaders—Kuchma, Chavez, Mubarak, Mugabe—controlled elections in order to control the legislature, which in turn most often leads to control of the judiciary. Chavez, as recently as 2012, had power to enact laws without the legislature; a power given to him by…the legislature. In Malaysia, Anwar had several trials that appeared to be complete shams because of their allegiance to Mahathir. Connecting this to the United States, with a majority in the House and Senate, presidential power becomes almost limitless. Judicial appointments—which happen to be lifetime appointments at the levels of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and District Courts—become political agendas and handshake agreements. These are federal judges who set very important precedents. Controlling how districts are drawn can lead to control over the majority, if not all, of the supposed democratic process, including the legislature and judiciary. Where, then, does the power and control stop?

    The two strengths that I see are term limits, in particular for U.S. presidents, and the lack of an ability to use military force when he or she pleases. U.S. presidents get two terms and then they’re done. They don’t have free reign for several, what seems like endless, years like Chavez, Mugabe, Mubarak etc. Once they taste absolute power, why give it up unless forced? In the United States, they are forced to leave office. The commander in chief also cannot use the military as his or her personal police force like we saw in the other countries; in order to do that, he or she needs Congress’ approval on both foreign and domestic grounds.

  4. This article (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/malaysia-democracy-najib/560534/) from The Atlantic was extremely promising! Watching “A Whisper to a Roar,” I felt especially unsettled by the Malaysia case. So much of the political drama being centered on sodomy charges just felt ridiculous and offensive, and made me want to seek out more information on what has happened in Malaysia since then, especially between Anwar Ibrahim and Mahatir Mohamad. To essentially summarize this article, Malaysia has successfully used the democratic process of voting to create change. As of May 2018, for the very first time, the opposition party, called the Alliance of Hope, defeated the coalition that ruled since the country gained independence in 1957. This is a stunning victory, considering that the ruling party used its power to manipulate the system in its favor by using political strategies such as gerrymandering. Perhaps even more encouraging than the proven power of the vote despite political obstacles is the possibility that even the most hardened of human hearts can be moved. As the article from The Atlantic reports, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was responsible for imprisoning Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges, abandoned the ruling party and aligned himself with Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition. He won, and the king of Malaysia issued a full pardon for Anwar Ibrahim. Now, he and Mahathir are working together to reform the country’s democracy. While this article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/world/asia/anwar-ibrahim-malaysia-pardon.html) from The New York Times points out that it is doubtful that the two men actually have healed their relationship, and likely put aside their differences in the face of a greater corrupting force, I think there is still hope in their ability to even put aside their differences if even partly for some greater good to affect positive change with what power they have. For the sake of human rights and freedom I personally hope they use that power to advance a society in which no man can go to jail on sodomy charges. In the meantime, it is at least encouraging that it is possible that people can use their agency to work towards whatever society it is that they wish to create.

  5. We’ve discussed many of the challenges that western democracy faces today and it’s easy to see how many Americans are pessimistic about the state of our democracy. “A Whisper to Roar” is a reminder of just how important democratic values and institutions are and why they’re worth fighting for.

    Democracy has a long list of strengths but two of its most important are the freedom to vote and its ability to ensure openness which facilitates peaceful transitions of power. The right to vote is fundamental – it allows citizens to choose the leaders that will represent their interests and gives them a voice in deciding government policy. Voting promotes equality among citizens and accountability of its leaders. In a democracy, everyone’s vote counts equally regardless of race, gender, or religion (if they’re allowed to vote). The openness and freedom to speak and assemble is also a strength of democracy, complimented by the right to vote. If citizens aren’t happy with their leaders, they can protest and speak out against them. Voting gives people the ultimate power to remove corrupt or ineffective officials in the next election. Democracy allows for expressions of dissatisfaction and the opposition to be heard, which safeguards a peaceful transition of power between elections – citizens in a democracy with the right to vote and freedom to speak out don’t have to voice their frustrations through violence or extreme means. Political dissent from the people or the press wasn’t tolerated by any of the authoritarian regimes in the five countries profiled. Protesting citizens and opposition parties and leaders were suppressed, attacked, and killed to maintain control, prompting violent riots and ongoing instability.

    Democracy has a lot of flaws and shortsightedness is one of those weaknesses, both on the part of the officials and the citizens. Due to term limits and the frequency of elections (ironically one of democracy’s strengths preventing dictatorships and monopolized power), democratic leaders often focus on policies that yield short-term results to gain the favor of their constituents, at the expense of long-term interests. Solutions to complex political, social, and economic issues require long-term investment and the benefits may not be immediately apparent to voters. And citizens want results – they vote in favor of a politician who will support their interests and they expect change, fast. We saw this in Ukraine after Yushchenko was elected following the Orange Revolution. The voters who supported him in 2005 turned on him in 2010 because they expected to see society change overnight but lasting, structural change takes time.

    The greatest weakness of democracy is that it’s never complete – it’s always a work in progress. As hard as it is for governments to transition to democracy, it’s arguably harder to maintain democracy. Yushchenko talked about this after he lost the 2010 election, cautioning that the fight for freedom needs to be a daily struggle – and that’s true for established democracies and countries trying to establish democracy. Citizens must continue to demand accountability from the governments that serve them, however great the sacrifice.

  6. A Whisper to a Roar was an interesting “moment in time” look at these cases – so much has changed since it was made, only a few years ago! Zimbabwe has struggled to find its footing, even beyond what we saw. Under Mugabe’s rule, from its independence in 1980, there was a great deal of political conflict and bargaining around both domestic and international actors’ hopes of establishing a power-sharing government. In 2009, we saw Mugabe as President, and Tsvangirai become Prime Minister, having run against Mugabe in sham elections unsuccessfully before. The 2013 national election brought Mugabe’s stranglehold on power back to the forefront, though, as the results were declared in his favor and his party quickly moved to consolidate power. Similar conditions to those in the documentary around 2008-2009 returned – an economic depression, marked by health crises, starvation, unemployment, and extraordinary levels of poverty – and a familiar cycle began again. People took to the streets in protest in light of the economic conditions, and Mugabe was deposed in a military coup in 2017. He was replaced by a political ally, not by the constitutional successor.

    So, why did we see Zimbabwe fall even further into democratic and economic crisis? I am struck by the parallels to the Arab Spring – the people felt compelled to reject the regime in the face of desperate economic hardships that threatened their lives. These governments, which aspired to be democracies and seem to have the practical political structure for them (i.e. organized elections, clear lines of power and succession, international actors including watchdogs and states with great economic power), seem to fall into similar traps.

    Building a young democracy that allows for a single party to quickly and effectively consolidate its political power seems to be common among vulnerable states. In Zimbabwe, elections were run – which should be an indicator of democracy – but they were easily controlled from the very beginning of its independence from the UK. Mugabe was able to win its first election, and every one after for decades. A parliamentary system with a balanced power structure, such as in Canada, could be beneficial if installed in new democracies and protected. Independent election administration should be an obvious first step to democracy, though evidently one not executed upon often.

    Conor mentioned term limits as a strength of democracy – I agree that they should be built into the design of a democracy, for a number of reasons. For the sake of accurate representation of the people, and protection against corruption, new, diverse government officials should be installed on a regular basis. The more easily career politicians can be embedded into political parties and structures, the more difficult it is to extract them 20, 30 years later.

    I also wonder if Zimbabwe’s democratization process, as well as others’, would be different in the context of a world order that was somehow different – either exclusively democratic with strong, international structures that wielded true power to build and maintain democracies; or if there was a greater diversity of successful types of governments, from which new states could draw inspiration for more than one type of rule. I wonder if the “waves” of democracy work against the newest ones, because there are always some left behind the wave – struggling to ever be part of it, simply because they did not get picked up by it at the right time.

  7. The path to democracy is long but the path away from democracy is short. This really resounded with me as I watched Whisper to a Roar. Throughout the semester we have seen various examples of democracy around the world. It has become increasingly evident that democracy, particularly western democracy, has both strengths and weaknesses as a viable form of government. A strength of this structure is the freedom associated with democracy. Everyone under a democracy (in theory) should have equal and immutable rights and freedoms insofar as those rights do not impede or hinder the rights and freedoms of others. One such right is the freedom of speech and the right to share ideas without risk or fear of prosecution. In Whisper to a Roar we see this right infringed upon as an innocent Egyptian civilian sitting in a coffee shop was abducted by police and beaten to death simply for posting a video on the internet of police incited violence. Another strength of democracy is the power and voice of the people to hold free and fair elections. This in a right that all citizens in a democracy must have as a democracy, even a representative democracy or democratic republic, places the power to elect officials and make decisions in the hands of the people. As Whisper to a Roar depicted in Venezuela, it is important for citizens to participate in their democracy and exercise their right to vote. The youths in the video rallied to encourage people to vote, regardless of the candidate they supported, to protect the health of the democracy in their country.

    Clearly, we see prominent strengths of democracy to be the freedom it permits as well as the power and voice it gives the people. With these strengths, however, also come several weaknesses. As we saw in the video, the illusion of democracy and the abuse of power become a challenge to western democracy. Hugo Chavez was a prime example of this. He was elected into a role democratically but through charisma and manipulation, abused his authority to remain in office well beyond the tenure desired by the people of the country. Additionally, we see the manipulation and limitation of free speech and interference of free elections. If appropriate check and balances of power and authority are not in place, these weaknesses in western democracy can be exploited and compromise the integrity of democratic ideals. Democracy may not be perfect and may not work for all nations, but it does offer the potential for greatness through freedom and equality.

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