What we need today are leaders who can think independently and prevent their countries from following an established ruinous path
By Arvind Saxena
“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” — Albert Einstein
American historian and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ann Elizabeth Applebaum in her recent book ‘Twilight of Democracy and the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’ raises the alarming prospect of all societies eventually turning away from democracy. So, is the author using her journalistic license to catch attention? Remember she is also a historian and even if there is a bit of hyperbole, she draws attention to a spectre whose stealthy march is already being seen in many countries.
Why do people ‘willingly’ choose to give up their democratic rights? I use the word willingly, because these authoritarian regimes are, in the first instance, handed over power through a democratic exercise. The question we must ask is: why are democratic leaders failing? Since the ‘eventual end of democracy’ is still not here, can we identify what needs to be done to keep the political power in the hands of the people? Let us start by looking at some contemporary democratic leaders who are popular in their countries and remain steadfast in their commitment to empower their people. Their value systems should hold a lesson for everyone.
A recent poll in six countries by the UK based ‘YouGov’ pollster showed that Angela Merkel enjoyed higher approval ratings than any other world leader in Spain, France, Italy, US and UK, besides her own country
Germans stood up and clapped for six minutes, so the media reported, for outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. This one event makes you wonder what kind of a leader she was. It cannot be just about popularity, which waxes and wanes. Eventually, the CDU/CSU narrowly lost the Bundestag elections to the SPD by a margin of 1.6% votes. Yet, this does not take away from the fact that Germans were proud of Merkel who remained their Chancellor for almost sixteen years. A recent poll in six countries by the UK based ‘YouGov’ pollster showed that she enjoyed higher approval ratings than any other world leader in Spain, France, Italy, US and UK, besides her own country. US President Joe Biden was in a distant second position and the only other leader who scored positively was Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Most other leaders recorded net negative ratings.
A spectacular example of leadership, Merkel was identified with competence, skill, dedication, honesty and sincerity. She made no rash statements, never claimed glories, never misused her office and did not run down her predecessors. Her critics blamed her for holding back on digitisation and allowing too many immigrants into the country, but she stood her ground and carried the people with her decisions. With a doctorate in quantum chemistry, the lady understood the perils of Information Technology and the value of universal human rights.
Then we have President Joe Biden who decided to end the 20-year long US engagement in Afghanistan against heavy opposition by his own establishment, European allies, families of war veterans and other groups. Part of the endless global war on terror conceived by ultra-right neo-conservatives of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the Afghan project has cost the US over a couple of trillion dollars and loss of over 7000 American lives. This was a failing project, yet no President had the mettle to bite the bullet.
A Pew Research Centre survey towards the end of August found 54% of US adults supporting President Biden’s decision, even as 42% disagreed. Interestingly, this figure of 54% is very close to the 52% popular votes that Biden polled in the Presidential elections. In another survey 69% of Americans were of the view that the US mission in Afghanistan had failed. Since the events are still unfolding, let us leave it to history to judge the wisdom of Biden’s decision. His leadership imprint is, however, becoming clear in other ways too. His own party is not supporting him fully over infusion of money for domestic investment in social development and climate concerns. ‘Centrists’ within his party instead want to clear investment in infrastructure development projects and are opposed to any increase in taxes for corporations. The man, however, can be expected to stand his ground with his ‘progressive’ supporters.
Why do the Prime Minister of Netherlands and his officials ride to important meetings on their bicycles? The Dutch, it is said, do not like overachievers and show-offs, they look upon talent as a ‘gift’ and ‘peacocking’ is frowned upon. Differences in income are much smaller in Netherlands than in most other countries and discrimination on grounds of religion, beliefs, political opinion, race, gender or on any other ground is not tolerated.
The newly elected Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who contested on an anti-corruption platform, believes that the President is not an icon or an idol and advises his officials that, instead of his portraits, they should hang pictures of their children in their offices and look at them each time they make a decision.
We also have the example of New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern, who after the 2019 terror attacks in mosques in Christchurch, or the recent Auckland supermarket attack, stayed firm in not linking the attacks to any religious group. She openly expressed solidarity with the victims of the mosque attacks, asserting that they were an inclusive nation, proud of their diversity. Her Christian majority nation stood by her side, respecting her conviction in doing the right thing.
From the 78 years old Biden to the 41 years old Ardern, all of them have exhibited some of the finest qualities of a leader, albeit different ones. They can be counted upon to preserve and reinforce democracy. Yet the world today is facing unprecedented ecological damage, climate change, poverty, disease and catastrophic economic disparity. The last one is truly a volcano waiting to erupt and show up the utter failure of the socio-economic models pursued by the democratic world over the last forty plus years. When people failed to reject the false narratives of economic liberalisation and globalisation, they unwittingly created space for autocratic leaders.
Let us look at the oldest democracy in the world some more. For about three decades after the Second World War, the US marched ahead to build a robust economy, with the working classes shaping the social security networks and creating foundations of equal opportunity, education, universal health, rights of labour and universal human rights. This was a period when the US taxed its richest at about 90% and the salary ratio between the top executives and their staff was no more than twenty-five times, today it is over 400 times. This was the time when every working American could lead a stable life and dream that their children will be better off than them.
Gradually things changed and, even as education levels rose, personal achievements came to be glorified over commitment to the family and the community. From a society moving towards equality, Americans saw their social security networks being taken down because someone wanted to make money out of providing these services at a price. Trade unions were demonised and stable jobs were replaced with contractual workers. Untrammelled and unregulated capitalism started destroying regulatory institutions.
What were once considered as basic rights came to be dismissed as socialist indulgences and American politicians looked down upon the welfare state model as creeping socialism. The highest tax rate in some European and Nordic countries is twice as much as in the US, even as their poverty ratio and infant mortality rates are half. Influential educational institutions and media were co-opted to create an aura of scientific knowledge around these false models.
America started losing its industry and production base as corporate leaders started shipping out jobs to third world countries to boost their profits, which they diverted to tax havens. The US economy lost and the social contract between the leaders and the people was broken. Today, the top 1% of Americans control $30 trillion worth of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets. Is it any wonder that Applebaum sees something rotting away?
Some world-renowned economists who have occupied the highest positions of leadership in our politics and bureaucracy have pushed their countries on the same perilous path of failure. They were placed on high pedestals of knowledge and nobody questioned them, even as those who benefitted from liberalisation and opening up of the economy cornered the nation’s wealth.
What we need today are leaders who can think independently and prevent their countries from following an established ruinous path. The peoples’ will have to prevail, not the will of the ravenous corporate interests, who invariably will back an autocratic leadership capable of riding roughshod over the interests of the masses. It is time for asking some very tough questions.
Arvind Saxena is a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in India.
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