Irish Examiner View: Just as empires come and go, democracy may not last forever

Events in China, Russia, and beyond suggest that we can't take our democratic institutions for granted
Irish Examiner View: Just as empires come and go, democracy may not last forever
Police detain protestors after the imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong. Democracy is being eroded or even crushed in many other countries too, including Russia, Poland, Brazil — and even in the US. Picture: AP/Kin Cheung
Police detain protestors after the imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong. Democracy is being eroded or even crushed in many other countries too, including Russia, Poland, Brazil — and even in the US. Picture: AP/Kin Cheung

In Murphy, Samuel Beckett pointed to a dichotomy of our existence: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Despite constant change little enough changes. This truism colours our world. It applies to individuals and states, it applies to religions, political philosophies, and especially empires.

Power ebbs and flows. The actors change but the drama is well mapped and understood. Timing and the stamina of imperialists of all hues are the variables.

The British empire is a perfect example. Less than a century ago it held uninvited sway over around 460m people and almost a quarter of the world’s land area. Today that empire has been reduced to England’s 56m souls lemming-marching towards a hard Brexit.

A world once cowed by Rule Britannia is now almost embarrassed for Divided, Dysfunctional Britain. This collapse took little more than a lifetime; that which seemed impossible a century ago was, in fact, unstoppable.

The loss of influence, once absolute, of Christianity in the west is another example. That, as referendum results since 1996 show, was transformative in this country.

We may have reached another all-is-change moment. It may seem too dismal to wonder if democracy, that force that sundered the British empire more effectively than any revolutionaries, that credo that makes amendments to our Constitution possible, is as robust as it was. Today’s world makes that question unavoidable.

In recent days, Russia made it possible for

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Critics claim there was industrial-scale interference in the poll, official sources deny that. It is hard to know why Putin even bothers with the veneer of democracy.

Maybe he does it to goad his White House peer who must, later this year, offer himself to a less malleable electorate. Whether America’s voting system is robust enough to celebrate democracy in spirit and deed is, amazingly, an open question. Riven by cultural divisions and simmering civil unrest this seems a particularly dangerous moment to have an amoral agitator indifferent to democracy as president.

Trump, in his private moments, might like to treat BLM protestors as China has, and will, crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators.

He might even like to intern them as China has interned more than a million Uighurs so they might be “reeducated”. Even if he is reelected that seems impossible — just as his 2016 election did. Nevertheless, China’s assertiveness shows how its power has grown in the vacuum left by a more insular, disengaged American empire.

Xi Jinping, Putin and Trump are the figureheads in this shift either away from or against liberal, tolerant democracy but they have mini-me imitators ... Modi, Orban, Bolsanaro, Duterte, Morawiecki, Erdo(g)an and many others.

Could it happen here? Hopefully not but that is what so many others thought. A quote attributed to a Trump predecessors, Thomas Jefferson seems apt: “Eternal vigilance the price of freedom.”

That, as online empires are built all around us, seems undeniable, unignorable advice.

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