Democracy is a trust to constantly work on, or lose

April 27, 2024

A man stands in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.

Jeff Widener, Associated Press


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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 27, 2024)

It was one of those inviting spring days and I said, “Welcome to another day in paradise,” to a carpenter friend who was working out front while the sun shone and while we both knew full-well that paradise will be something else entirely. But, you know, on Earth we take what we can get.

This includes our governments. Because freedom is never a sure thing. Democracy is a trust to constantly work on, or lose. The ancient Greeks would tell you as much. So would people who long for the house of freedom that you and I live in. Don’t take it for granted.

Tank Man, who stopped that Chinese army tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, would say this. It was 35 years ago this June when that wild scene unfolded, when this unnamed man, a common Chinese citizen carrying what looked like a couple of shopping bags, stopped a tank by simply standing in front.

In that brief minute he also held up an entire column of tanks and armoured vehicles following behind. Gosh. One day before that spring day in 1989, on June 4, at least several hundred Chinese people in the square were mowed down by tanks and machine guns. So Tank Man, standing his ground on the ironically-named Avenue of Eternal Peace, became an iconic image.

Several weeks prior, tens of thousands of university students across China had started walking peacefully towards Tiananmen. Thousands of workers and intellectuals eventually joined the massive public march for democratic reform. It had started on April 27.

So today is a good day to consider our freedoms, even as this year is good. In 2024 half of the world’s 8.1 billion people, 76 nations, are involved in elections. It’s a bonanza year for voting.

What this means or doesn’t mean for democracy remains to be seen. Democracies vary. I explained this to my boy one day in Uganda some years ago. “Thank God for whoever invented democracy,” he’d said. “The Greeks did,” I responded. Then I added, “In our family we have a limited democracy. Kind of like in Africa.”

Just saying. Democracies do differ. But they always thrive in competition. I’ve personally lived in places where such competition is routinely discouraged. For opposition leaders this might involve a good beating, or jail time, or maybe a bullet. But even mature democracies with fair and free elections can languish without enough competition. Voters get cynical. And lazy.

For every 100 people on Earth, 46 now live in some sort of democracy. But just eight of those live in a “full democracy,” like Canada. Thirty-eight are in a so-called “flawed democracy.” U.S. democracy became formally “flawed” in 2016 upon Donald Trump’s presidential win. Another 39 in 100 people live under an “authoritative” regime. Think Russia. And 15 per cent have a so-called “hybrid” government, common in regions like Central America.

This is from the Economist Democracy Index rankings. It looks closely at elections, political participation, government workings, civil liberties, pluralism and political culture.

Of 167 nations, Canada ranked 13th in 2023. Our American cousins were 29th. Several Scandinavian countries, and Australia, ranked highest. Interestingly, Greece, democracy’s birthplace, was bumped back to “full democracy” because its political participation improved.

Worldwide, desire for democracy seems strong. Freedom seems somehow written into our DNA. But liars and spreaders of misinformation who like to push confusion are pushing the global trend toward authoritarianism. So ample opportunity remains for brave people to stand in front of one tank or another, and for cowardly people to build their political nests inside such tanks.

No political system is perfect. People are so human, you know? It’s no wonder that so many houses, so to speak, sit so strangely slanted. So we keep working at it by building what’s a little more strong, and straight, and true, a home that’s a little more like our real home.

This is it. We work with what we have. No, we’re not living in paradise.

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April 27, 2024 • Posted in ,
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2 thoughts on “Democracy is a trust to constantly work on, or lose”

  1. Sadly, today, 35 years after Tiananmen Square, China is still the same. No democracy. That’s why I am very grateful I can vote and have freedom speech in Canada. When people have it given to them too easily, they never know how to care for it.

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