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Are democratic principles at risk of being undermined?

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Is democracy dying? Certainly authoritarianism is rising. A generation ago, it was the opposite — authoritarianism seemed moribund, democracy on the cusp of new life. Sekai magazine (April) sums up the gloomier mood now gaining ground. “We cannot,” it says, “take democracy for granted.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the December 1989 Malta Summit — the symbolic end of the Cold War.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t exactly lay down their arms — no formal agreements were signed — but Gorbachev said, “We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era,” and Bush added, “We can realize a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of lasting cooperation.”

The “peaceful era” and “lasting cooperation” would, it was generally assumed, be democratic. The Berlin Wall was crumbling. The Soviet Union was ill; two years later, it was dead. The cause of death: The intellectual and economic bankruptcy of communism, authoritarianism’s modern face after the demise of fascism. Communist states remained, but they were marginal — except China, whose new “market socialism” was capitalism thinly disguised. Give it time, said the experts. Rising prosperity and a rising middle class would spawn democracy. It was inevitable.

But it wasn’t. It didn’t happen. Today, writes historian Tomohiko Uyama in Sekai, it’s the democracies that look bankrupt, with economic growth hovering around 1-2 percent and “populism” battering a stunned intellectual and economic “elite.” China, meanwhile, more proudly authoritarian than ever, wins admirers and imitators worldwide for its robust economy and triumphant conquest of age-old poverty.

To be sure, writes Uyama, authoritarianism today is not the crude instrument it was in the darkest days of the 20th century. Authoritarian states are not “prison states” — at least not to the same degree. Nor, for that matter, do the “neo-Nazis” of Europe aspire to the brutality of their vaunted model. Refinements have crept in. Authoritarians no longer seek to suppress, mold, warp or crush entire majorities to their own nefarious or ideological purposes. Instead, says Uyama, they rally the majority and its deepest fears against minorities — refugees, immigrants, “elites” and so on. Majorities and would-be majorities worldwide — victims, as they see themselves, of a seemingly irresistible globalism that is overturning the only world that makes sense to them — are answering the call.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a choice to be made between democratic freedom and economic prosperity. Which is choice-worthy?

The prevailing thinking as the Cold War ended was that democracy and prosperity went hand in hand, one stoking the other. Totalitarianism’s crumbling infrastructure was Exhibit A. Exhibit B — today’s state of affairs — seems to point the other way. Democracy is in question and must defend itself. As Sekai says, it cannot simply be taken for granted.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, a report issued annually by the American consulting firm Edelman, shows the Chinese government as the one most trusted by its own people. Eighty-four percent of Chinese trust their government, the organization found in 2018. First-world democratically elected governments don’t come even close. Germany: 43 percent; Japan: 37 percent; the United Kingdom: 36 percent; the United States: 33 percent.

True, democracies permit free access to critical opinion, which Chinese citizens are denied. Among democracy’s many blessings is the right to feel and vent dissatisfaction. Is that important? Less and less so, suggest figures cited by Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk in an interview the Asahi Shimbun published last November. Among Americans born in the 1930s, Mounk says, 70 percent feel that “it is important to live in a democracy.” Among those born in the 1980s, only 30 percent feel that way. In 1995, research he cites shows that 1 American in 16 felt living under a military regime would be acceptable. In 2011, the figure was 1 in 6.

No equivalent figures for Japan are in evidence, but political scientist Koji Nakano, writing in Sekai, takes no very bright view of Japanese democracy. In the Diet, the governing Liberal Democratic Party is unchallengeable. Within the LDP, Prime Minister and party President Shinzo Abe has few rivals. The recurring phrase in Japanese media is “Abe 1-kyo,” “kyo” meaning “strong.” The clear suggestion is of power concentrated in his hands. He controls the party, the party overwhelms an impotent and fractured opposition, and voters who have returned him and his party to power in election after election since December 2012 show little restlessness.

Any discontent that does surface in Diet debate is easily stifled by the LDP’s irresistible majority, permitting it to ram through legislation regardless of heated, if submerged, controversy. Examples Nakano raises include the state secret protection law passed in 2013 and the legalization in 2016 of collective self-defense — the former a perceived threat to a democratic public’s right to know, the latter over objections it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the antiwar Constitution.

More ominous still, perhaps, is the language the government permits itself. Nakano cites two instances. In 2013, Finance Minister Taro Aso, expressing the LDP’s eagerness to once and for all set a precedent for Constitutional amendment, said: “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed (by the newly empowered Nazi Party in 1933) before anyone knew. … Why don’t we learn from that method?” To which the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, replied, “What ‘techniques’ from the Nazis’ governance are worth learning — how to stealthily cripple a democracy?”

Nakano’s second citation is from Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the LDP in 2013 when, referring to demonstrators protesting the secrets law, he said, “I think the strategy of merely shouting one’s opinion at the top of one’s lungs is not so fundamentally different from an act of terrorism.” The equation of protest with terrorism dented neither the government’s electoral dominance nor its solid support ratings.

Bungei Shunju magazine in its March edition notes China’s surging advances in artificial intelligence technology and application, in contrast to Japan’s slower progress. Possibly, it speculates, authoritarian government by its nature favors AI, and vice versa. Privacy concerns that give democracies pause are more easily overridden by autocracies.

Journalist Daisuke Tsuda raises a related issue in an interview published in the Asahi Shimbun earlier this month. He fears the death of critical thinking.

Young people growing up awash in data, he says, take its inviolability for granted. You can’t argue with it. It utters its pronouncements as God did His in earlier times and dictators theirs more recently, with an additional authority that they lacked: hard science.

Is democracy possible without critical thinking?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.