On Wednesday afternoon I checked in with a Latin American friend to get his thoughts about the chaos on Capitol Hill. “It looks like home,” he quipped.
It was not a unique reflection. By evening a popular observation making the rounds was that the invasion of Congress was the stuff of banana republics. The bedlam also evoked memories of what happened in many U.S. cities over the summer when the Black Lives Matter marches turned violent.
There was a big difference between Wednesday and the American summer of terror. During the latter it was merely a presidential candidate (
) who refused to condemn the BLM violence—until he realized it was hurting his polls numbers. Last week it was a sitting U.S. president who stirred up the passions of his followers and continued to justify their anger even after it was clear they were breaking the law, endangering lives, damaging property, and attempting to disrupt an independent branch of government. President Trump may have set a new modern-day low.
Yet the main worry is that political violence in the U.S. on both the left and the right seems to be on the rise. It won’t recede as long as mob action is tolerated as a way to do politics.
A first step in reversing the trend is admitting that the slash-and-burn tactics of both sides are similar. Both justify violence under the banner of “participatory democracy.” Storming the Capitol or burning down a
is the people speaking.
Participatory democracy as defined by extreme groups has been put into action in the U.S. before. The leftist upheaval in the streets of Seattle against the World Trade Organization ministerial conference in 1999 is one memorable example. It is no coincidence that elements of Mr. Trump’s base oppose free trade and globalization.
Traditional American democracy is “deliberative democracy,” a process by which elected representatives use reason and debate to shape public policies. Participatory democracy tells the aggrieved: Never mind the legislature. Go to the streets to get what you want.
A 2013 paper by Italian philosopher
traces the origins of participatory democracy to the 1960s in the U.S., “inspired by the great youth movements of that decade.” Mr. Floridia cites the American political scientist
who writes that the term “came into widespread use” after Students for a Democratic Society “gave it a central place in its founding Port Huron Statement.” Ms. Manbridge adds: “What the term meant then was unclear, and it became less clear afterward, as it was applied to virtually every form of organization that brought more people into the decision-making process. In the actual organizations of the New Left, however, the term came to be associated quite quickly with the combination of equality, consensus and face-to-face assembly.”
In practice this approach seems to give way to a mob rule in which passionate believers, though unelected, gain power by organizing. When the other side discovers similar ways to check them, the participants, believing themselves democratic, employ physical intimidation.
In a 2009 essay titled “Farewell to the ‘End of History’: Organization and Vision in Anti-Corporate Movements,” the leftist Canadian author
explained why, in 2001, the antiglobalization World Social Forum chose Porto Alegre, Brazil, for its first annual confab: The Workers’ Party (PT) was in power in both the city and in the state of Rio Grande do Sul and it had “become known world-wide for its innovations in participatory democracy.”
That “innovation” was a clever way to circumvent election results. The PT sought to control the city’s budget but repeatedly failed to win control of the city council at the ballot box. So the party organized political operatives (unions, garbage-collection companies, etc.), labeled them grass-roots groups and used them to apply pressure to the council. This undemocratic end-run became known as “participatory budgeting.”
The strategy was considered a great success—until other parties began to organize their own political operatives. Meanwhile, the PT exported the idea to other parts of Brazil and beyond. Latin America, where
attempted to replicate the Soviets’ Third International with the annual Foro do São Paulo, was fertile ground.
The breakdown of democratic institutions in the region coincides with the use of the term “participatory democracy” as a way of suffocating pluralism and tolerance. Wherever mere political activism by organized pressure groups is not enough (because two can play that game), soviets claiming grass-roots legitimacy take matters into their own hands. Bolivia, where mobs blocked highways to paralyze the country and bring
to power, and Venezuela, where “colectivos” were unleashed to enforce chavismo, are the most extreme cases, but there are many others.
The U.S. is supposed to be different. But it won’t be if the reprehensible use of mob violence is legitimized as participatory democracy.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.
Potomac Watch: A politician has to work hard to destroy a legacy and a future in a single day. President Donald J. Trump managed it. Image: John Minchillo/Associated Press
The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
The empty, performative politics of Marjorie Taylor Greene – CNN
How to make African politics less costly – The Economist
AYISHA OSORI, a Nigerian lawyer and author, has vividly described running for political office in her country. She twists the arms of party elders, flatters their wives and hands over wads of banknotes—the cleaner the better. “Without money”, she concludes, “most aspirations would evaporate like steam.”
Politics costs money everywhere, but the link between cash and power is especially corrosive in Nigeria and across much of Africa. In rich democracies parties choose candidates and subsidise their campaigns. In many African ones aspiring politicians pay vast sums to run on a party ticket and then shell out even more to cover their own costs. They give voters handouts, which serve both as bribes and as hints of future generosity. Once in office, they keep spending: on constituents’ school fees, medical bills, funeral costs and construction projects (see article). Individual politicians, in effect, act as mini welfare states. Some 40% of ambulances in Uganda are owned by MPs. Their spending often dwarfs their official salaries.
This is bad for Africa. When a life in politics costs so much, the impecunious and honest will be excluded. Many MPs will either be rich to begin with, or feel the need to abuse power to recoup their expenses, or both. Even if they are not corrupt, MPs are a poor substitute for a genuine welfare state. Their largesse may go to those who ask loudest, or to a favoured ethnic group.
So long as states are weak, it makes sense for voters to ask their MPs for handouts, rather than for better laws or help to navigate the bureaucracy. It is also rational for MPs to neglect legislative work in favour of gifts and pork, if this is what voters say they want. But as Africa develops, this should change. As voters grow richer, they will be harder to buy. As governments grow more effective, MPs will have fewer gaps to fill. Alas, these shifts could take decades.
Africans need something better, sooner. Outsiders often suggest tougher campaign-finance laws, but these seldom work. They are often ignored. And laws copied from the West tend to miss the point, by regulating spending by parties before elections, rather than by sitting MPs.
Better would be to take a different approach. One aim would be to strengthen institutions that expose and punish corruption. Last year Malawians booted out the graft-ridden regime of Peter Mutharika thanks, in large part, to independent judges. Politicians who see graft punished are more likely to stay clean.
Another aim would be to encourage parties to run on policies, rather than ethnicity or patronage. African NGOs, trade unions and business groups should nudge them in this direction—or help set up alternatives. New parties, such as Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform in Uganda, are gaining popularity partly because they oppose the old rot. Philanthropists could give them money—and ask nothing in return.
The essential thing is to curb MPs’ informal role as sources of welfare. The long-term fix would be to make local governments work properly. A stopgap is to improve Constituency Development Funds. These are pots of public money to be spent largely at the discretion of MPs. More than a dozen African countries have them. They are not as grubby as they sound. Research from Kenya finds that voters judge MPs on how they use these funds, so they offer some accountability. With greater transparency, they would offer more.
Africa has grown more democratic in the past 30 years. Multi-party elections are common, albeit often flawed. Opposition parties are gaining ground. Most leaders leave office peacefully, rather than in coups. Politics is becoming more competitive. The next step is to make it less costly. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Fixing Africa’s pricey politics”
ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog: The grand scheme: power and politics in the climate crisis – World – ReliefWeb
Even in the midst of a pandemic, during a seemingly endless cascade of events, climate change remains a defining issue. Its effects are even more severe for people affected by conflict and violence, who find themselves navigating the collision of war and environmental crises. How can the humanitarian community work with affected people to design policies and practices that have an impact?
In this post, Malvika Verma, a project development officer for ACTED Sri Lanka and India, argues that to strengthen climate action in conflict settings, a solid understanding of people’s vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities must be informed by the bigger picture – an analysis of pre-existing circuits of power and political relationships.
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