Getting Clear About Democracy

Eighty years ago today, to put it gently, Japan invited us into WW II. We accepted the invitation.

It seems incredible now, but it took the United States only 40 months to defeat Hitler and only another four months to bring down Japan. Then, for those of you (well, that’s pretty much all of you) who are down on nation building, we rebuilt those nations in our own image and they only became some of the most prosperous and stable democracies in the world. It’s not incorrect to say that it was a victory of liberal democracy over totalitarianism.

It’s not incorrect, but it’s not entirely accurate either. It’s often left unsaid that we could not have won the war, at least certainly not as quickly as we did, without Russia on our side. And Russia, under Stalin, was no liberal democracy.

And, of course, the Cold War that ensued pitted Western liberal democracy against authoritarian communism. And in that struggle we found ourselves bedded down with some characters who bore an astonishing resemblance to Stalin. The Shah of Iran comes to mind, but there were too many others.

Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

All of which is to say that it’s complicated. And it only gets more so now. Pres. Joe Biden is hosting a Democracy Summit this week, but some of the invitees — Poland and India, for example — are not exactly poster children for the cause. Meanwhile, China, which did not get an invite, is taking the opportunity to claim that it is a democracy, after a fashion. It claims that anybody can join the Communist Party and have input, at least at the local level. And it claims, without providing evidence, that the national government and its system are popular with the people. It’s hard to know since anyone with a contrary opinion is not encouraged to express it.

It gets still more complicated when you take into account the power of international tech companies, which can rival that of governments, and the interrelated nature of commerce. We rely on China to make a lot of our stuff and they relay on us to buy it.

So, while the world is much different than in was in the 1950’s, not to mention 1941, it feels like we’ve entered a new Cold War. Russia is massing troops on the border with Ukraine in moves that look eerily like WW II, if not the Great War. There are trenches. China is threatening Taiwan with military maneuvers and Beijing has already pretty much snuffed out free speech and democracy in Hong Kong.

But we’re not going to mount any kind of defense for freedom if we don’t believe in ourselves first. We need to remind ourselves of the value of the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and free speech. These are things worth fighting for. If we lose that fundamental belief then it’s all over.

We’re not getting any help from the hard right and left in American politics. Republicans are doing all they can to undermine our faith in free elections, the very foundation of our democracy. And that’s just the start of it. I don’t write this lightly, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Republicans are becoming essentially a fascist party in America.

Meanwhile, on the hard-left there are those who see the very institutions of liberal democracy as just speed bumps in their road to social justice. They do not explain what the road would look like without the tedium of due process or nagging contrary opinions expressed by those terrible oppresors.

We face increasing external challenges to our freedoms, some in the form of cyber threats and some in the form of real shooting wars. We won’t be able to respond effectively until we overcome the internal threats to our freedoms from extremists on right and left.

Welcome to the 292nd day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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