The Summit for Democracy: Joe Biden carries a burden. He has inflicted upon himself the impossible task of explaining to us what democracy means. But it is exciting that the very premise on which this task is based is noble in its recognition that we need to not only defend democracy, but also ‘renew’ it.
Those are Biden’s words in a statement about the upcoming Summit for Democracy, scheduled for December 9-10. One of the first announcements by Joe Biden when he was elected US President was that he would hold a global summit to defend and strengthen democracy. Foreign policy experts are busy suggesting new agendas to set in a world where democratic values are being flouted more openly than ever before. The media is abuzz with debate on the question: who got invited to the first global Summit for Democracy?
The question is defining because both an invitation and its absence have telling statements to make about what statement the summit is making. Only 111 countries are invited, which means nearly half the world is not. China and Russia are the least surprising exclusions. Surprising inclusions include the Philippines, while surprising exclusions include Bhutan. Some observers believe countries like Pakistan whose freedom index is dismally low are dubious inclusions. Perhaps freedom and democracy now stand decoupled.
Summit for Democracy: New dilemmas
The Summit for Democracy is a huddle to figure out how much damage has been done over the past decade and why as many as four countries have faced coups in the previous year alone. In Biden’s home country and around the world, there are new debates around the very definition of what it is to be democratic, especially in a global environment. Should rich countries share vaccines with poorer countries? Is cancel culture democratic or undemocratic? Is a vaccine mandate a pro-life concept, over choice?
In the US, “anti-vaxxers” are demanding the right not be be vaccinated. This is not vaccine hesitancy, remember: The reluctance is a confrontation to the Biden’s administration that is increasingly—yet gently—tightening the screws of vaccine mandate, starting with government employees. In contrast, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no such problems. Indians never thought they could confront the government on it since the narrative since last year has been government-controlled.
Free speech (and expression) is expected to be big on the agenda, because a big debate on whether banning speech that doesn’t find consensus is democratic or not is ongoing both in and out of courts. Social media amplification of a variety of voices includes that of Donald Trump, who peddled fake news for political profit, gets away with it even as it proclaims to halt hate speech.
We saw plenty of that this year, beginning with the bizarre invasion of the Capitol Hill in Washington. Was that free speech? Meanwhile, back home in India, legitimate prayer meetings, inconvenient cartoons and stand-up satire shows are eliminated. It is as good as a ban: Recently, stand-up comedy show organisers in Bengaluru were given a friendly warning by the police that right-wingers might disrupt the show, potentially resulting in a law-and-order problem, so it would be best if the shows were cancelled. Aage aap dekh lo.
By next summer, America may see the reversal of a landmark judgement, Roe vs Wade, through which the Supreme Court made abortion legal 50 years ago. Six of the nine US Supreme Court judges seem inclined to bring new restrictions on abortion. Would that kind of majoritarian justice on individual rights be regressive or progressive for democracy?
Meanwhile in India, courts are taking suo motu cognizance of so many incidents that are going awry. State governments hire “squads” to roam the streets looking for couples to punish them into social order, and yet we claim to live in a democracy because seemingly, individual rights do not matter to a society to which collective duty towards itself is instructed as paramount.
The democracy opportunists
Other governments have conveniently taken advantage of these gaping holes that Covid-19 and Donald Trump have exposed to sell their nationalistic and authoritarian agenda. It is no longer a hush-hush conversation in India to talk about the need to suppress voices for some greater nationalistic good. The calls to monolithic cultural values are no longer sly — they are serious, open and mainstream. It is therefore a clever political strategy to deem any dissenting voice a needless pain in the neck—a minority that deserves to be rooted out.
Even China’s ruling Communist Party condemned the concept on American television, saying that their country has its own form of democracy. Many nations in the world place a veneer — two or more political parties, elections, constitutionally granted free speech, and so forth — to show themselves as practising democracies. But political control and social order define those democracies as those countries put out communication that essentially implies that “this is the kind of democracy that works for our culture”.
Covid-19 and Donald Trump have merely blown the lid off democracy, and those exposed holes will make it convenient for governments to sell fascism by ridiculing the new problems with democracy. No longer may quasi-fascist governments hide behind a veneer of democracy. But, it seems, democracy is everybody’s baby.
A democracy summit is not a new idea. The Alliance of Democracies has been conducting the Summit of Democracies since 2018. The Summit of Democracies is much broader, bringing on the same platform political and business leaders alongside journalists, activists, researchers, and academics. It focuses on how businesses and politics can form “a positive symbiosis” and that the best ideas emerge when they clash in a free marketplace. Between division and consensus, which one is the democratic hallmark and which is the black mark?
The world is divided on questions like these now where there seemed to be no question before. If you are a communitarian, a free marketplace sounds as ludicrous as welfare sounds to a libertarian. Yet the biggest debate between the economics stays within the realm of democracy. As Biden tries to put the genie back into the bottle, that is the significance of the Summit for Democracy.
(Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is a media researcher and has headed private schools of journalism and media. The views expressed in this article are personal.)