JUDITH FEBRUARY: Trump and the degradation of democracy: The lessons for SA


It’s 2020 and Barack Obama, usually preternaturally optimistic about America’s future, found himself delivering a very different speech at the Democratic National Convention in late August. It was different for a number of reasons, not least of which was that it was taking place virtually in the midst of a global pandemic.

But it was also different because here was an immediate past president speaking in a place of heavy symbolism, the Museum of the American Revolution. There Obama found himself making the case not only for the constitution, but for democracy itself. The former is being trampled upon, while the latter is under threat.

Obama spoke plainly about the challenge ahead when he said, “So I am also asking you… to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”

WATCH: Barack Obama’s full speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention

There is no doubting that America faces an existential crisis. The traditional checks and balances of that system have failed to restrain Donald Trump’s excesses and the norms and conventions generally adhered to by those in power have fallen by the wayside.

As David Axelrod has said, looking back on past presidencies seems almost like an exercise in sepia-toned memory-making, so far has Trump strayed from what would be deemed ‘normal’ or conventional behaviour for a president.
Trump’s presidency has been venal and cruel, his way of governing a form of constitutional vandalism. It was this that Obama sought to highlight in Philadelphia and every speech since.

Of course, Obama is not the only one drawing such conclusions but coming as it does from the immediate past president, his words matter a bit more, even as America remains so desperately divided.

To be sure, however, democratic degradation does not happen overnight. Trump, like all populists, exploited the complex grievance of his base - mostly white and male - which existed long before he came along and for a variety of complex reasons.

But, populists don’t do complexity. So Trump cloaked it all in the language not only of grievance, but of God, and the result is a toxic mix.

As writer Masha Gessen says in her new book, Surviving autocracy, Trump has also cunningly used a Putin-esque playbook specifically when it comes to weaponising language to create an alternative reality. The distracting and destructive impact is clear when Gessen concludes that, “We can’t do politics if we can’t talk to one another. We can’t talk politics if we don’t inhabit a shared reality. We can’t have politics if we can’t agree on what we’re living through, because then we can’t discuss how we’re going to be living together tomorrow, which is what politics is.”

Gessen goes on to lay down the future challenge when, in an interview with Vox, she says “But we also have some incredible damage done to political culture and political language. There will have to [be] real institutional repair and a total reinvention of how we think American democracy is represented institutionally.”

Gessen’s message is not only for the US, however. As we look on in dismay at what is happening in the US, democrats around the world would do well to heed the lessons the degradation of that democracy provides for us all. If Trump is re-elected, the impact will be felt globally. It matters who is in the Oval Office for all sorts of reasons which are obvious given America’s global power.

America has all but abandoned its ‘soft power’ around the world and, kowtowing to dictators, uses its ‘hard power’ in a haphazard way. China and Russia, in an environment of four more years of Trumpian instability, will seek to use even more of their ‘sharp power’ than before. The implications of that for the world should cause us all to pay attention.

So what lessons are to be drawn specifically in our South African context - so different and yet experiencing democratic degradation of its own kind?

Firstly, it is that democratic progress is not inevitable. All democracies can experience regression. In South Africa we know regression only too well.

During one of President Ramaphosa’s COVID-19 addresses, he invoked Franklin D Roosevelt’s inaugural address of 1933 made during the depths of the Great Depression, when he said: “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy.

We have come to learn after a decade of state capture and a Zuma presidency, awash with corruption and constitutional vandalism of its own kind, that democratic institutions can be hollowed out if we do not take care to protect and defend the Constitution and the institutions themselves.

As we slowly repurpose our institutions, it is an opportune moment to consider afresh our Constitution, the document our founding fathers and mothers intended as our lodestar. It may have faults, but it is in essence aspirational, transformational and provides a broad framework for bringing about socio-economic equality. Our Constitution is clear about the kind of state we are seeking to build, that is, “a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness”.

But, any Constitution can only be as effective as the men and women who are charged with implementing the country’s rules as well as creating the culture of accountability the Constitution demands.

So, even as we continue to face the challenges of COVID-19 and an economic and social crisis, we are called upon to restore our country and also to keep faith with the democracy we wrought. In many aspects we have failed, but in many ways South Africa is a cacophonous, lively democracy.

Ours is a country ill at ease with itself, with its social contract (such as it ever was) straining at the seams. As a result, dialogue and deliberation are often in short supply in our democracy. The noise can be unhelpful and unproductive. Finding constructive ways to mediate public life is the only way in which we will be able to confront our present challenges and deal with our haunting past.

So, if democracy requires responsiveness, then perhaps we would do well to focus too on constitutional education and building a culture of accountability. The latter means that there are consequences for the powerful if their actions violate constitutional conventions and the law. The Constitution demands this and giving life to such accountability is the next frontier in the work of breathing life into our tired democracy.

It is often unfashionable to call for leadership as it can be viewed as citizens abdicating responsibilities to men and women who “know better”, but what we know is that where there is a lack of leadership or there is destructive leadership, it has deep consequences for the future of democracy itself.

When former President Nelson Mandela was called to testify in court on whether he had “applied his mind” when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby, many were outraged that Mandela, so revered, was called to testify. Yet he did so without complaint. That Mandela was prepared to place himself in such a position of scrutiny was a singular act of leadership. It not only showed his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, but was also a visible reminder that no one, not even the president, is above the law.

However, Obama’s words in Philadelphia bear weighing up when he said, “No single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional - you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability - to embrace your own responsibility as citizens - to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.”

South Africa too needs even more active citizens who do the work of democracy wherever they find themselves. John Lewis’s reminder before his death is true as much for the US as it is for South Africa when he wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Those mostly quiet acts go on every day in our country despite the excesses of government and oft-pervasive corruption. They are a response to circumstances and necessity often in the most creative of ways. The building Lewis talks about also requires a thoughtfulness on each of our part – how and when do we respond to what we see around us?

Today as Americans end this election cycle, the choice is clear - democracy is on the ballot. For those of us watching in far-off places where the strengthening of democracy is anything but certain, it will provide an important reminder that democracy is work - and it is the work of every generation to build, not tear down.

In South Africa this has a particular resonance. Let us not squander the everyday opportunities to mend that which has been broken and create a more just society - and above all, as Steve Biko said, to remake a South Africa with “a more human face”.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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