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Shoring up our democracy

by Barbados Today
6 min read

We are thankful for the divine favour once again shown to Barbados with the relatively uneventful passage of Hurricane Beryl. As part of our collective thanksgiving, let’s rally around our fisherfolk. However, we must remain vigilant not only with regard to hurricanes but, equally important, our democracy.

The world teeters on a cliff edge. The fundamentals of peace, freedom, rule of law, and multilateral cooperation are imperilled due to cumulative failures of political leadership. The failure to learn from COVID-19 or act to secure the world’s climate and biodiversity, coupled with the war in Ukraine and crises in the Middle East and elsewhere present the most perilous period since World War II.

There is a widespread sense that representative democracy is not doing well. As France and Europe lurches to the political right, the UK general election is compared to a ‘choice between dumb and dumber’, while the US presidential election is like a scene from Grumpy Old Men, as the prospective leaders of the ‘Free World’ gripe over golf handicaps.

Representative democracy seems to have lost the capacity for reinvigoration. As the 20th century dawned, democracy grew by extensions to the franchise and burgeoning of welfare states. WWII demonstrated the benefits of democracy compared to Nazism as the Cold War juxtaposed liberal democracy against totalitarian communism, the results clear to all notwithstanding the phenomenon of China.

However, the 2016 US presidential elections followed by Brexit transformed a complacent optimism into a mounting pessimism. History provides the uncomfortable lessons that governance systems are not everlasting.

It is easy to point to hubris as the cause of our political woes; with the corollary that humility, principled leadership, and unwavering faith in the Creator, the constitution, and the people will move us forward. However, the problem is more complex as is the solution.

Notwithstanding the January 6 attempted coup d’etat in Washington DC, democratic institutions are being undermined from within. Corruption, cronyism, and ideological polarisation distort political decision-making processes.

This has been compounded by the fact that social forces that mobilised people in the past, whether the threat of war, post-colonial and other political alignments, or global movements such as women’s and other human rights, are experienced differently now. In an increasing atomised world, linked to technology, the prospect of catastrophe leads to passivity rather than collective action. Today, people seem paralysed in the face of systemic global economic risk, climate change, or the rise of artificial intelligence. Self-interest has displaced the collective good.

Much of this can be linked to the information age and technological revolution. The Internet, digital communications and social media, rather than being the elixir of democratic accountability and engagement that idealists once imagined, have poisoned the well. The modes of communication undermine democratic foundations, encouraging instant gratification when democracy presupposes a capacity for dissatisfaction and patience, and highlight a pretence of authenticity, making politicians seem even more contrived.

The politicians who flourish tend to be the ones who play along. Populism is the natural condition of politics in the age of X/Twitter, Meta/Instagram, and TikTok, but it is unsustainable. While I believe that there is something special about parliamentary democracy – that rooted in the power of the people it has the ability to right itself unlike other governance systems – it is suffering a midlife crisis.

Voter confidence is being eroded by regimes that fail to honour the underlying contract to create prosperity and spread it equitably. In Barbados, the citizenry have again gone quiet, this time due to grandiose promises not being kept.

The murder rate terrifyingly conveys a semblance of the O.K. Corral, with an incapable sheriff bargaining with bandits, rather than enforcing the law. Notwithstanding the masquerade of education reform, the recent BSSEE results, with declines in student and government primary schools’ performance, indicate that education, the pathway for upward mobility, is in severe crisis. In our rush into a new republic, the concomitant constitution seems forgotten.

Foreign borrowing is not linked to investment but to meet recurrent expenditure, fuel a self-indulgent ‘party’ mindset, and satiate the wanton appetites of those arbitrarily added to the government’s payroll. Due to ill-suited leadership and ineffectual marketing, Barbados is not among the leading Caribbean destinations in terms of market growth. Persons enter the QEH with a credit card in one pocket and the Bible in the other, underscoring a loss of confidence in our public healthcare.

Like the fishing fleet, our nation feels morally ravaged.

While these failings must be laid at the doorstep of the government of the day, some ire can legitimately be directed toward the would-be government of tomorrow, our Democratic Labour Party (DLP).

Although the citizenry can challenge those in power by highlighting omissions, failures, or malfeasance, in democracies this function is most effectively performed by opposition parties and the media. Opposition is the primary means by which democracies can temper a regime’s lust for political power and safeguard the electorate’s demand for accountability. Ours isn’t working effectively.

I urge the DLP to delink itself from the narrow confines of George Street and visualise itself as a crucial partner in the further growth and development of Barbados. I see a fourfold task ahead: to urgently resolve its leadership saga; to update its constitution for transparency and accountability; to develop and enunciate an alternative vision for the nation; and effectively communicate with the people.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late.”

This is no time for complacency but for urgent action. Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but move on.

May God continue to bless Barbados and protect all those vulnerable, particularly our neighbours, from prevailing weather systems.

Rev Guy Hewitt is a London-based social policy specialist and minister of religion. He is a member of the DLP and a former high commissioner. 

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