In Search of a More Perfect Democracy

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By: Nivan Dhamija

The idea of democracy as a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln 1863) no longer holds the certitude that it once did. Young people around the world are becoming increasingly disillusioned with systems of power that are controlled by and function for the elite. Political outcomes no longer represent the will of the electorate and inequality is rising in ‘liberal’ democracies across the world. Under these circumstances, populist ideologies have become especially appealing. They promise to deviate from standard practices and institutions by offering a radically different alternative. Usually, it is reliant on misinformation as a means of cultivating conviction in flawed narratives. Narratives that lay the blame on a group of people (immigrants, minority racial groups, minority religions, etc.) and that are critical of ‘liberal’ society. 

         LKiS recently held a public discussion on democracy to encourage youth engagement and political participation. I spoke about American politics while others discussed Indonesian democracy and identifying hoaxes. It was challenging as my Bahasa Indonesian was not fluent and the audience was not fluent in English.  But, even amidst translation and communication difficulties there was a visceral spirit for change and understanding. I learned about the many parallels of how the youth perceives the government in Indonesia and the US. A question I received framed the United States as the epitome of democracy and asked how Indonesia could catch up. In my perspective, democracy in the United States is deeply flawed and far from an ideal. Especially considering the age of western democracy, security is in fact quite illusory and the problems facing the ‘global south’ are similar to those in the ‘global north’. The idea of western democracies as consolidated and liberal creates an illusory sense of stability in an especially insecure time. In some ways, the lack of concrete democratic foundations in Indonesia gives it more room to be truly representative of the people. In the US, the tendency to cling on to vestiges of how democracy was framed centuries ago, needs to be abandoned in pursuit of a more inclusive politics. It has always been in the nature of democracy to evolve and diverge from standard practices. 

         Throughout the history of both Indonesia and the United States, democracy has been reworked and reconceptualized many times. For instance, early Indonesian government ruled by Suharto was referred to as “Pancasila democracy” but was evidently more authoritarian than modern democratic governance. The journey to democracy in its current form was plagued by injustice, resistance, and civil unrest. The most prominent example of resistance to a new social order were the Indonesian mass killings of 1965. Orchestrated by the Suharto regime and receiving aid from the US and Great Britain, it crushed the very possibility of a radically deviant social structure. Extermination in large numbers of all people seen as ‘communist’ (essentially a threat to the neoliberal world order) was a means of quelling resistance. It was a deeply troubling time and has been largely forgotten in the collective memory. In 1998, Indonesians revolted and were successful in overthrowing Suharto but the ideological diversity of the pre-1965 era is seemingly lost. While the history of democracy is tormented with violence and injustice, it resulted in institutions and structures that are generally accountable to the masses. Indonesia now has a multi-party system, an amended constitution, and free and fair elections. The spirit of reform persists to this day as there is still an active effort to strengthen election integrity and decrease corruption. 

From the advent of American democracy, there were blatant contradictions that threatened the fabric of its legitimacy. Contradictions such as reserving the right to vote for white men only and an electoral college that continues to elect presidents who lose the popular vote. A long and bloody civil war was required to abolish slavery, but it was miles away from resolving central contractions. African Americans, Native Americans, and Women were still not recognized as worthy subjects of democracy. A women’s rights movement, civil rights protests, and Native American resistance persisted in the hope of a more egalitarian system. Strides were made in extending the right to vote and creating a more just social order, but they were still short of ideal. Today, the US criminal justice system incarcerates at a higher rate than any other nation. Native Americans struggle to preserve their customs with the implementation of federal policies such as blood quantum land displacement. Minority communities are left underdeveloped and receive the brunt of fossil fuel emissions. These issues, amongst others, are challenging to overcome and require the commitment of a people that are dedicated to making change. Following the LKiS event, I started thinking about politics more inclusively and as an interconnected system rather than one that is contained within arbitrary borders. A more global perspective has a lot to offer as there are unique lessons to be learned from the emergence of governments everywhere. Support for democracy has never been universal. In Indonesia, the FPI (Islam Defender Fronts) are an example of a group that does not abide by constitutional measures. In the United States, right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys and the KKK have historically operated on the fringes of a society that generally values inclusion and diversity. But recently, they have gained more traction alongside the rise of populism. Under these precarious conditions, it has become imperative to resist pervasive undemocratic tendencies. But more importantly, to actively encourage the transformation of unjust systems. It is the commitment of the people that will determine the fate of democracy.

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