/ |

Can democracy survive the rise of the right?

by

Special To The Japan Times

“What,” demanded a protesting student at the height of the summer of protests just past, “is to become of democracy?”

No question better sums up a year ending, as it began, with terrorist massacres. Can democracy survive unbridled terror?

It faces other challenges as well, most conspicuously that of being taken for granted. Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously called democracy “the worst form of government,” thinking no doubt of the vacuity and inefficiency to which it is prone — “except,” Churchill added, “for all the others.” Generations with no experience of “all the others” may well forget to count their blessings.

It’s happening now, Shukan Post magazine fears — in Japan and throughout the democratic world. A qualification is called for. Generals are not seizing power, jackboots do not thud in the streets. Elections proceed, orderly and fairly for the most part. Actually the word the magazine uses to describe the force increasingly gaining ascendency is not “undemocratic” or “totalitarian” or “fascist” or “authoritarian” but “ultra-rightist.” Is an elected ultra-right regime democratic? We may soon find ourselves better informed on that subject.

So far it’s more a looming threat than a present danger. Of the eight ultra-rightists in Shukan Post’s portrait gallery, only two — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — currently hold power. The two household names among the remaining six are front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, president of France’s National Front.

Trump and Le Pen have at least two points in common — a vigorous anti-immigration agenda and a chance of being elected president in 2017. Even without things going that far, the rising popularity of the ultra-right worldwide is an observable fact scarcely open to dispute. The dispute is over whether that’s good for us or bad and, if bad, how bad.

Inseparable from ultra-right-wing democracy is the sort of populism that recklessly stokes fears and prejudices in the interest of electoral success.

Shukan Post quotes historian Masanori Tsujita as deploring the consequent oversimplification of political discourse. Trump, his representative example, “divides the world into his own side on which stands justice, and his opponents’ side, where evil reigns.” We live in complex times, Tsujita continues — “the economy globalizes, races fuse, good and evil are no longer clear, and people are uneasy.”

Simplicity is balm, even if illusory — fed, ironically, by that most bewilderingly complex of technologies, the Internet, where partisans of this or that oversimplification can reach out to each other for support and encouragement.

No one understands this better than the Islamic State group, whose reign of terror over large swaths of Iraq and Syria has spread far beyond local borders. France, attacked in January and on high alert since, nonetheless proved vulnerable again in November. The U.S., fortified behind rigorous security measures since September 2001, lost 14 to a terrorist attack in California on Dec. 2. If, as former U.S. President George Bush liked to say, radical Islamists “hate our freedom,” they may have discovered the best way to undermine it. The global rightward shift suggests as much.

The monthly Sapio, analyzing developments from a Japanese viewpoint, notes the risk of terrorist assaults on shinkansens, tourist venues and Buddhist temples, Buddhism being “idolatry” to the Islamic State group. Nuclear power plants are not mentioned but inevitably spring to mind. An essay by former Foreign Ministry analyst Masaru Sato includes this chilling insight: “Preventing all action by terrorists who have no thought of retreat and are quite willing to die is well-nigh impossible.” It’s been proven again and again in the course of the West’s “war on terror.” “There are in every country,” Sato observes ominously, “young people who sympathize with the Islamic State group.”

Against such a pervasive, invisible and intractable menace, a fearful citizenry might well throw its support behind a strong government, tolerating its potential excesses in return for real or imagined security. Could that be one reason for Abe’s swift recovery from the battering he took during the summer demonstrations?

They were the largest bouts of popular activism Japan had seen in decades. Were the masses awakening? A sinister state secrets law that went into effect in December 2014 was the first impetus. A second followed in summer — the brusque passage, over vigorous opposition, of security legislation permitting what the “pacifist” Constitution had long been interpreted as banning, namely a broader global military role than Japan has undertaken since its last attempt at global reach culminated in the Pacific War.

Spearheading the protests was a group called Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs). Its most visible leader was a 23-year-old political science major named Aki Okuda. “What is to become of democracy?” he demanded. The demonstrations he did so much to inspire are his answer — it either takes to the streets or it withers. “No one,” he said, “can stop people who have begun to think and take action as individuals.”

He’s wrong there. “Beginning to think” is just the beginning. A movement that ends with its beginning is just noise. In October, SEALDs announced its pending disbandment. Meanwhile, Abe’s approval ratings are edging upward again after their summertime plunge.

How strong should a government be, and how much government strength is consistent with democracy? A theme running through Sapio’s package of articles is the blurring of the old left-right dichotomy. No “rightist,” in Shukan Post’s sense of the word, rejects electoral democracy. Arguably they game the system — as Putin’s 80 percent approval ratings or Japan’s 60 years of nearly unbroken one-party rule suggest — but they do not overthrow it. And the Japan Communist Party, its name and history notwithstanding, has long since eschewed revolution as a legitimate road to power.

A more intriguing anomaly is noted in Sapio by journalist Satetsu Takeda. Japanese ultra-rightists, until very recently, were staunchly imperialist, at least to the extent of proclaiming and advocating readiness to die for an emperor they held to be divine. The liberal views of the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne has muddied those clear if sinister waters.

Emperor Akihito’s expression of “deep remorse” over the war on the 70th anniversary of its end is in stark contrast to Abe’s squeamishness on the subject; the Emperor’s “earnest desire for the continuation of peace” seems a thinly veiled criticism of the direction Japan is taking under Abe’s leadership. Thus the new configuration Takeda points to: a government symbolizing the ascendency of the ultra-right, an Emperor symbolizing the hope that the ultra-right will not prevail.

Michael Hoffman’s new book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    Democracy should be seen for the legalised, legitimatised extortion racket it is. That said, one does have to be apprehensive or concerned about the possibilities of arbitrary law under a LDP government. At this point however, Abe is showing himself to be one of the better leaders in the globe, prepared to take steps to address intractable problems. More problem is the false dichotomy posed by his opponents, who appear to think a ‘context-dropping’ dogmatic constitution is a source of protection.

    • KietaZou

      Gosh, a real menagerie here. It’ll bite you when it has a chance. An you’ll deserve it. Bye.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        Anything intelligent to say?

      • KietaZou

        I said my piece above, and what would be the point? You know it all.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        you didn’t say anything useful. Apparently you don’t know if all, but profess to be beyond reproach. I don’t convey that arrogance. I’m open and accountable.

      • KietaZou

        What a thing to say! Read my original comment at JT on this – you don’t seem to have bothered. That’s YOU to a Tee!

        Goodbye, and may you learn as I am how difficult but rewarding the exercise of honesty is.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        I’m not JT.

    • KietaZou

      Gosh, a real menagerie here. It’ll bite you when it has a chance. An you’ll deserve it. Bye.

  • CLJF

    One could equally validly pose the question “Can democracy survive the rise of the left?”

    • KietaZou

      Yeah, “one” could, if “one” was a clueless, selectively ignorant conservative, “one” who holds all knowledge and right answers, and whose mistakes are always “unforeseen” or due to “improper implementation” and need to be doubled up.

      Conservatives, today, mean humanity ill, out of selfishness and fear, false vanity and dishonest pride. Yes, that’s one broad brush I’m using, and yet it’s been twenty horrible years before I got it out: there are no “good” conservatives any longer, if there really ever were.

      If you are, you need to revisit your core beliefs – I promise you that you’re lying to yourself, and utterly shallowly.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        Pot…kettle…

      • CLJF

        Conservatives? Sounds like you’re describing the left, which seems to think it not only holds all the answers but sees fit to legislate to force everyone to agree with it. No democracy there. The left means others ill, is selfish beyond belief, puffed full of pride, and everything else that you claim conservatives to be.
        All that said, however, I think Mr Sheldon summed everything very nicely with his two-word reply to your hysterical vitriol.

      • KietaZou

        You provide anyone else who reads these silly posts with a perfect example of what you are, why you are that way, and how awful, purposefully yet cluelessly dishonest and enamored of evil, anyone who says “I’m a conservative” now is.

        You’ll get yours – the more certainly if your side “wins.” Given that certainly, I wouldn’t wish your empty ugliness on anyone. Nor do I now. You smug, hate-filled, fear-filled, cowardly people insist.

        Remember this person – me – reached out to you, and wants us all to have decent, honest and fulfilling, if mortal and ultimately “meaningless” lives. And think then of what YOU and your goons are dumb enough and dishonest enough to pretend they want.

        May some spark of conscience yet save you from yourself.

      • CLJF

        If your vicious attacks are “reaching out” then no thanks, it would be better for all if you got back in your blinker-visioned, hypocritical, hate-filled box. You should also realise that your irrational posts are very revealing about who you are; ironically, I doubt it’s going to give you the self-awareness that you so desperately need. I won’t stoop to your level by wishing you ill, instead, I hope that you somehow wake up to yourself.

      • KietaZou

        Right. YOU’RE the one being kind and reasonable, eh?
        I’m sorry, but it takes a very great amount of effort to shake the cock-suredness of anyone who posts un-thoughtout drivel like yourself. You immediately fall back on the tired defenses that others have used to cushion themselves from ever questioning the borrowed right-wing drivel they decided is more simple (and especially COMFORTABLE) than going to the bother of making an effort – you’re right, goddamit, and everyone else is wrong (and YOU will never, ever be bothered to suffer the consequences, so that’s one heck of a lot easier.)
        Read this reply of yours again. You felt something, despite the silliness and “I’m rubber you’re glue” standard evasions. You’re current thinking is sick, and rather cowardly as well.
        Hey, I’m just a nobody online, working away at a life. What are you? And are you the sort of nobody who won’t just stand by, but cheer on cruelty and suffering and stupidity, so long as they spare yourself?
        This is generosity. You’re a fellow human being, whom I’ll likely never exchange even words with again.

        It’s not that I’m so very correct [guffaw] but that you’re so very, very wrong, and so ashamed of acknowledging it. A world that moves your way will literally be hell, even for the “winners.
        – and you will clearly not be one of those.

    • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

      No you can’t because ‘the right’ is not inclined to resort to extortion to gain; only to defend what they earned. Its the left that look to govt to benefit. i.e. union or corporate privileges. Corporate ‘right’ only go to govt for ‘lower regulations’ where they are punitive. Observe the response of biz to the pharmaceutical extortion. Observe the response of Hollywood to Kim Dotcom. Hollywood = The Left.

  • CLJF

    One could equally validly pose the question “Can democracy survive the rise of the left?”

  • tisho

    Democracy = tyranny of the majority. Two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for lunch.

    • KietaZou

      What an overstatement. I won’t do more than hint why you would. A good democracy depends on a solid Constitution that is respected and reasonable followed. Excesses – almost always due to “conservatives” being annoyed at their inner wolvishness being restrained – are due to the failure to properly follow, or alter, it.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        A ‘solid constitution’ is a contradiction in terms. A constitution is a set of dogmatic proscriptions adopted by a majority. There was no concensus. The ground rules are not open to challenge, but by a ‘super-majority’, which perversely only required a majority to support. That’s a perversion because there was no choice of constitutions, nor any opportunity to choose, so no notion of standards of what constitutes ‘the good’. Would you enter a library with one book? I guess you’d buy that book, wouldn’t you?
        A ‘good democracy’ I guess you might consider a ‘wolves convention’ where they agree to only eat the young, so the breeding capacity of the sheep remains in place.

      • tisho

        A good democracy does not depend on a solid constitution, any constitution is irrelevant in a democracy, because people can vote whatever they want. The US constitution has been violated numerous times, all by popular demand. For a democracy to work well, you would need to have a very well educated majority, which no country on this planet has. That’s why you want to have a constitutional republic, you want to ensure good laws and good policies that benefit the people, within the constitution, so that no amount of dumb ignorant folks can vote it removed. Benjamin Franklin put it very well by saying – ‘When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic”. That’s what a democracy is, you use the government to force somebody to do something you can’t otherwise convince him of doing. Democracy is two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for lunch, liberty is one well armed sheep contesting that vote.

      • tisho

        A good democracy does not depend on a solid constitution, any constitution is irrelevant in a democracy, because people can vote whatever they want. The US constitution has been violated numerous times, all by popular demand. For a democracy to work well, you would need to have a very well educated majority, which no country on this planet has. That’s why you want to have a constitutional republic, you want to ensure good laws and good policies that benefit the people, within the constitution, so that no amount of dumb ignorant folks can vote it removed. Benjamin Franklin put it very well by saying – ‘When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic”. That’s what a democracy is, you use the government to force somebody to do something you can’t otherwise convince him of doing. Democracy is two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for lunch, liberty is one well armed sheep contesting that vote.

  • KenjiAd

    Political “right” has a much broader appeal in a country, such as Japan, where ethnocentrism is strong.

    In fact, one could reasonably argue that most Japanese people have an intrinsic tendency to be right-wing (though the same can be said about any other ethnocentric nationalities). It’s just that there have been a short period, after WWII to the collapse of Berlin Wall, when political “left” dominated the media in Japan. Internet has changed that.

    Can democracy survive the rise of the right? Or more specifically, can democracy survive the Internet era, when rational opinions tend to get pounced by angry iconoclasts (look at this forum, for example)?

    I hope so, but I have some doubt.