Democracy is fundamentally different from oligarchy: in a democracy, you always have a second chance, by definition. In an oligarchy, you are either winner (rarely), or loser (the 99%), and if the latter, you are surely losing ground every day. Treatment of whistleblowers and protesters in the U.S., Egypt, Brazil, and Turkey is exposing oligarchical tendencies within the respective regimes.
The dramatically different outcomes of protests in Brazil, Egypt, Turkey, and the U.S. provide much food for thought about what traits a good government in a democracy should have. Two seem fundamental:
1. the initial reaction of a good government to dissent (demonstrations, whistle-blowing, revealing government misbehavior even if classified, criticizing politicians) should be to avoid provoking violence and defend the right of citizens to engage in political activism;
2. beyond simply avoiding police brutality, a good government must listen to the criticism…and respond seriously.
Typical behavior by most of the world’s governments–including those that claim to be democratic–instead appears based on the following assumptions:
1. anyone who criticizes the government or exposes leaders to embarrassment (e.g., by blowing whistles) is an enemy;
2. transparency in government is the worst threat and must always be opposed;
3. democracy is a great way to get power but should be thrown away as fast as possible once one actually gets into office;
4. laws should be made by officials and corporate leaders chatting quietly behind locked doors;
5. the police exist to enforce Assumptions 1-4.
Despite very different scenarios that played out, of the Brazilian, Egyptian, Turkish, and U.S. regimes, not one has scored very well by these two very modest criteria. In all four cases, it has been quite clear that the politicians in control deemed themselves to be superior to the people they are supposed to be representing. If we imagine real governments existing along a continuum from ideal democracy to totalitarian oligarchy (i.e., dictatorship of a group, rather than just an individual–who will eventually die), the treatment by the regime of mass protest is a powerful lens for differentiating between an oligarchical regime pretending to be democratic and a real democracy.
Let us hope that the whistle-blowers and protesters will continue to defend the democratic rights we all enjoy by demanding transparency of government and holding politicians responsible for their behavior.
6/25/13 – Brazil: Organized labor joins political protests. It is not the fact of the demonstration but the question of the degree to which long-term worker politicization rises that is important, and the vigor of the worker protests suggests that politics in Brazil is becoming more broadly participatory, therefore democratic. [Euronews 6/25/13.]
7/12/13 – Chile: Labor federation joins student-started protest movement. [Sun Daily 7/12/13.]
7/13/13 – Chile: The president promotes new legislation facilitating police interference with demonstrations. While justifiable to strengthen police ability to control violence, it is unclear how the police will be prevented from exploiting the new legal powers to interfere with peaceful democratic activism. [Santiago Times 7/13/13.]
7/15/13 – Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood calls for reinstatement of Morsi. [Bloomberg 7/15/13.]
7/15/13 – Turkey: A campaign by thugs, perhaps police out of uniform, assaulting peaceful protesters is heating up in Turkey. [Shoah 7/15/13.] Turkey appears to be crossing a red line separating democracy from dictatorship. [See also Human Rights Turkey 7/14/13.]