When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a member of the public, supposedly Elizabeth Willing Powel, queried him anxiously: “What have we got? A monarchy or a republic?” Franklin’s reply has been immortalised in history: “A republic, if you can keep it.” This story was referenced in modern politics as recently as the beginning of Trump’s impeachment, by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. It is a poignant moment to remember, not just for Americans, but for the world. Democracy has not proved to be the stable political system of government that its founders envisioned, and political turmoil is not difficult to find. Latin America has seen the failure of constitutional guarantees, Europe is seeing the rise of extremism, and even the United States, touted as proof of democracy’s success, is more divided than ever by partisan pressures and fear.
Freedom House marked 2018 as the 13th consecutive year that global freedoms were in decline, and pointed to authoritarian governments that shed their facade of democracy and tightened regulations on opposition groups and independent media. But there seems to be a little commentary on the role of civil society and the population, especially when discussing the duties of people to their governments, authoritarian or otherwise. The lone reference in Freedom House’s report was simply: “Many countries have struggled to accommodate the political swings and contentious debates intrinsic to democracy.”
However, hidden in this line is the entire key to democracy and its survival.
Democracy requires an active civil society and an informed citizenry in order to function, and yet citizens, in democracies or otherwise, are less informed than ever before. The creation of fake news laws in several countries has drawn criticisms from various organisations, including Amnesty International. It is undeniable that such laws enable governments to control what people are able to see and the opinions that they are exposed to, and provide a case that such laws inhibit freedom. But when news outlets do not report what is factual or report half-truths, there exists a real danger to democracy.
When one person’s news does not necessarily resemble their neighbour’s, there is a significant threat to democracy. Citizens now interpret reality differently, often in isolationist bubbles. And when citizens are unaware of this threat, or even to the idea that they may be consuming news that is false or presented in a biased manner, it falls naturally to governments to protect their citizens from such dangers. And yet, the governments that do so come under threat from people who fail to understand the danger at hand. If the government banned propaganda from the Islamic State, should the masses praise the government for its protection, or criticise it for limiting freedom of speech? It is generally understood that propaganda constitutes a danger to society. But is there really any difference between fake news and propaganda? Both are simply pieces of biased or incomplete information, intended to sway its audience towards certain viewpoints, which are oftentimes extremist and outside the realm of legitimate controversy. Yet, we treat one as a potential danger, while protecting the other as part of a natural discourse that has a partisan nature. Why should we criticise one and praise the other?
Governments may only do so much to combat this threat before they become authoritarian, and perhaps, Orwellian, twisting words and manipulating the truth. But the alternative is one that few seem to realise is necessary: an informed citizenry. If governments must show restraint in their control of society and information, then citizens must have an equal duty to filter through information themselves, decide what is truth, and actively debate issues in public discourse.
Law and political order are not natural; Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and many others argued that men put themselves under the rule of a sovereign for the express purpose of guaranteeing some form of rights. These thinkers argued that the contracts are only valid as long as both the rulers and the ruled fulfil their roles. This brings us to the central contention of modern society: Are democracy and liberal republicanism a right, or should it be a right, if people fail to understand their roles in society? Democratic procedures have become so ingrained in many states that its citizens take them for granted, without understanding the liberal republican values that provide the other half of the formula. Under such circumstances, would it not be appropriate for governments to take charge and guarantee what rights they can, while dispensing with what they cannot? If the main duty of government is the protection of its citizens and the rights of those citizens, should it be encumbered by those who fail to understand the purposes of its existence? A government may promote education, provide economic benefits and ensure social stability, all for the benefit of creating an environment conducive to the conduct of republican democracy, but how much is the responsibility of the government, and how much is it obligated to do before its citizens must meet them halfway?
The answers to these questions are difficult, as with most political questions. That does not mean that no answers have been found, however. Several countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America seem to have chosen to limit political rights and political influence only to the elite, who wield such privileges within a limited scope, albeit with greater depth. On the other hand, North American and European democracies seem to have simply ignored these problems, allowing the political process to continue as an exuvia. While there is no perfect or objectively correct answer, the differences should be noted and examined properly. Governments exist to protect freedoms, and each political culture is unique. But simply because one system provides freedom from false information, and the other holds freedom of speech as more important, should not be the basis for denouncing one as less free and praising the other as freer.
Twenty-three years ago, Fareed Zakaria, in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” in the Foreign Affairs magazine, noted that for all its democratic shoehorning abroad, the United States possessed a remarkably undemocratic system, and for good reason. Its system of governance is built on deliberations, consensus and the resolution of tensions, not through majoritarianism. The power of the unelected courts is an established feature of dispute resolution, and the will of the people is something meant to be restrained, not given absolute sovereignty. And if republics are to endure, they must indeed find ways to mitigate democracy, unless the people prove themselves capable and deserving of democracy.