The Progressive Post

A democrat’s conviction


Read the text in Spanish here

Memory is a rucksack which we carry on our backs. Some of us feel the weight of this rucksack. Others forget that it is there, and when they forget, the rucksack goes astray and swings forward: no longer on their backs, it falls in front of their faces and prevents them from seeing the future. It is therefore necessary to take past experience into account, in order to offer solutions to the problems we face today, and to create the future we wish to live. If we fail to take past experience into account, these solutions can develop in a void. Some politicians imagine themselves as Adam, as if history began with them. They make grave mistakes. History has a weight, but it must not weigh on us so heavily that we are immobilised. It must condition us to understand ourselves, and to go forward with reformist policies, through dialogue and the creation of social consensus.

This is the great question of our time: how to resist while also moving forward. The women’s march in the United States represents resistance, the defence of values which certain people today are placing at risk. But we must also seek reform and be daring enough to offer a future, to move forward, because resistance alone is not enough.

And offering an attractive and coherent vision of the future has a lot to do with understanding the crisis of governance, both in terms of internal and external factors, and being capable of offering solutions which overcome the reactionary impulses which grip our world.

Recently, I have dedicated myself to better understanding this crisis, in particular since embarking on my José Bonifacio professorship at the University of São Paulo, where I decided to devote my year working with its researchers to exploring the issues behind the crisis of governance which affects all branches of the nation state as we know it: executive, legislative and judicial. The book we have just published ¿Quién manda aquí? (Who’s in charge here?), brings together these reflections with contributions from academics in the field, with the aim of better defining the questions facing us, and shedding light on possible answers.

Significant internal factors analysed in the book include how to make the executive branch more effective, how to make representation of the legislative branch more efficient, and how to prevent the growing judicialisation of politics (and vice versa, the politicisation of justice), a phenomenon known as “rule by judges” in the Roosevelt era. Globalisation and the erosion of the powers of the nation state also demand new mechanisms for global governance and solidarity, so that the market economies in which we live do not become market societies.

But what we are experiencing, manifested so starkly in the year 2016, by everything from Trump to the refugee crisis, is also a crisis of values. One element in the crisis of governance in representative democracy is, perhaps, the crisis of the foundation of life in a democracy, which is dialogue. Not a series of monologues, but an effort to understand each other, guided by the existing legal framework, even when seeking to alter this very framework, and all while respecting the pluralism of ideas inherent to a free society. My reflexion, which prioritises the defence of the values of this democracy, the only one we know, in which the citizens’ democratically elected representatives act as intermediaries, leads me to express my increasing commitment to the existing model, while continuing to seek areas for improvement.

There is a need to respond to challenges without debasing democratic values. My reflections are also closely bound to the social democratic sphere that I inhabit. People become frustrated with democracy when it is presented as an ideological solution to their problems. Democracy is not ideological; it is a means of organising our coexistence so that governments are representative. As such, I am going to say something which sounds harsh, but which I will qualify immediately, as if I did not it would make the headlines: democracy does not guarantee good government, all it guarantees is that we can kick out a government we dislike. This is its main difference from dictatorship.

That said, the advantage of democracy as a form of organising our coexistence is that, in the medium to long term, compared to authoritarian or totalitarian systems, it always provides added value in terms of responding to the needs of citizens. This is why I maintain that, although it does not guarantee good governance, it allows us to throw out those who are performing badly, and as politicians do not enjoy being ousted, they try to do the best they can and correct their errors. This need is rarely felt by autocrats, who can always blame others, disregarding public opinion.

My strong commitment is based on the conviction that people who do not think like me depend on democracy to develop their ideas, and realise their political agendas. And, fundamentally, I believe that moderation is the virtue of the strong. The more political leaders shout and lack moderation, the weaker they are at heart. By shouting, they attempt to compensate for a lack of conviction, a lack of true commitment. Shouting is easy, but what works is creating dialogue, attempting to give expression to the various interests which shape a complex society such as our own. Moderation creates the backdrop for progress and democratic coexistence.

Yet when I have highlighted this reality, for example in Venezuela, people dismiss me, saying that I am defending the “right against a left-wing government”. This is not true, what I am defending is democracy in the face of authoritarianism, freedom in the face of oppression, and I do not qualify authoritarianism as being left-wing or right-wing. You cannot rebel against right-wing authoritarianism while adulating left-wing authoritarianism, because, for us, the result is the same; the same space disappears.

Therefore, the defence of democracy, not as an ideological value, but rather as the most respectful mechanism for achieving coexistence with others, forms the basis of my career and of this book, which seeks better solutions. This is the most primal battle, one of convictions. Mine always have been, and always will be, those of a dedicated democrat, and one who is, today, concerned.

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