This April, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed a joint session of Congress. He spoke of democracy. Mainly he spoke about its decline. “If we do not act with urgency,” he said, “we will then inevitably and severely undermine the liberal world order.”
Democracy has been at risk for some time, and now it’s being brought to our attention by one of our closest allies. Democracy is under attack “through the rise of illiberalism and the destabilization of our international community,” Macron said. “It is a critical moment.” And he is right. We have all benefitted from these democratic systems and “with that comes the responsibility to continue [our] mission and to preserve the perennial values handed to us.” The president’s speech was a warning of democracy in retreat but it was also a rallying cry. “I believe in democracy,” he said. And you should too.
The rise of fake news is perhaps the most terrifying phenomenon. Truth is the bedrock of democracy – without it there is no basis for challenging authority. The erosion of truth is the erosion of any power you hold as a citizen. In 2016, 78 percent of Donald Trump’s claims were false. We need to hold people, especially our elected officials, more accountable for what they say in order to keep democracy intact. As Macron said himself last month, “without proof there is no real democracy.”
Nationalism has also found a home again in the west. “This has been a year that has seen increasing divisiveness and bigotry, particularly in the mainstream of American life,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project, said.
We live in a time where white supremacists have ditched their cargo pants and shaved heads for khakis and a professional cut, but the message is still the same. “Just because we don’t have Nazis soldiers marching in the streets doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem,” said former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.
We also see this in Europe. Italy’s far-right party garnered 18 percent of the vote this year. That’s one-fifth of the country. Macron won his election against an opponent from a similar far-right faction. Unfortunately we may also see the dissolution of the United Nations. If we do not act on these warning signs, says Macron, then “the United Nations and NATO will no longer be able to stabilize influence.”
The only way to counter this kind of nationalism is by setting a good example of patriotism for later generations. It’s important not to confuse the two. A nationalist encourages people to be their worst (example, “my country right or wrong”). They hold no ethical universal values. A patriot wants his or her country to live up to its ideals, to be its best. If you protest, bring an American flag. Show that you’re acting on behalf of your country. Remember to vote as well and to always support a multi-party system.
Obviously the most alarming development of democratic disillusionment is the actions of our own president, the supposed leader of the free world, who is one of the poster boys for this political change. A democratically elected leader does not cozy up to dictators. They do not praise those who desecrate our voting system, our most sacred and cherished institution. These are the actions of someone with authoritarian tendencies.
For us of the younger generations that have not seen many elections, what we are experiencing now is not normal and it’s not acceptable. We cannot allow this to become normal and do not assume things will inevitably get better. There are some things that are above party politics. This is one of them.
Democracy is the basis for all of our beliefs. It should be nurtured and protected over any person or policy. We have inherited this “unfinished business of democracy.” We bear the responsibility of that collective history. Democracy may be withdrawing but retreat is not surrender. “This is a time of determination and courage,” Macron said in his address. “What we cherish is at stake. What we love is in danger. We have no choice but to prevail, and together we shall prevail.” We must all hear that call.
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