U.S. President Joe Biden held an international online Summit for Democracy this week, and boy were people mad.
Domestic critics said this is no time for the United States to sell itself as the senior member of the democratic family, what with its racial strife, the violent attack on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 and the transparent campaign by the Republican Party to undermine the voting system in critical states and pave the way for Donald Trump to win the 2024 election.
China and Russia, neither of which were invited to participate, also attacked the summit. They accused the U.S. of Cold War thinking that splits countries “into good ones, in their view, and bad ones,” as a Kremlin spokesperson put it.
They also argued that “American-style” democracy can’t be taken seriously as an example to the world when the U.S. is home to many social inequities, its political system is dominated by moneyed interests and the current polarization in Washington has resulted in, according to an insufferably smug Chinese government analysis, “an entrenched political paralysis” that has led to legislative “gridlock.”
The backlash to the summit is off base. And from China, it’s downright ridiculous.
It’s both hilarious and infuriating to see Beijing’s analysis of American democracy amount to the accusation that the U.S. doesn’t do perfectly the things that China doesn’t do at all: free expression, a free press, fair elections, government that serves the interests of the people and not those of the Communist Party.
Yes, America’s democracy isn’t as healthy as it should be, and the country is going through its most divisive period since the Vietnam War upheavals of 1960s and early 70s.
Canada’s democracy, too, is no paradigm of perfection, as this page has often said of late. Even “model democracies” such as Sweden and Germany no doubt have their problems and critics.
But Mr. Biden was right to hold his summit, which ended Saturday, and to use it to highlight the differences between democratic countries and repressive ones.
You don’t get to call yourself a democracy, as Beijing tried this week in a state position paper, just because you declare your country to be a People’s Republic and call your legislature the Great Hall of the People.
In democracies, governments and politicians are held accountable in free elections that occur on a regular basis, free speech and a critical press are protected and nurtured, and the rule of law is enforced by independent judiciaries.
In dictatorships such as Russia and China, the ruling parties and their presidents-for-life have no fear of losing office in something as trivial as an election; non-state media are closely controlled or completely outlawed; journalists, critics and opposition politicians are murdered or disappeared; and the justice system is just one more tool of repression at the service of the ruling class.
If a repressive state such as China held a summit to examine whatever it chose to call its system of government at that moment, there would be no critical voices, no doubts about the appropriateness of the event, and no question that the conclusion would be that it was a flawless system beloved by every citizen.
It would not be an occasion for self-reflection and harsh criticism, as it was in the U.S. this week. Because that is what a real democracy ultimately is – a constant effort to progress and to correct mistakes that is fuelled by people who are free to voice their criticisms without fear of repercussion.
It’s messy as hell. And there’s no question that the hypocrisy, the mindless partisanship, the failure to live up to stated ideals, the social injustices and the painfully slow pace of progress in a functioning democracy can make citizens cynical and less eager to participate.
But to go from that to doubting whether democracy has the right to advocate for itself is a terrible mistake. It’s exactly what Beijing and Moscow want people in democratic countries such as Canada to do, so that they can tell their voiceless citizens, Hey, look: Democracy isn’t so great after all, and you don’t want it.
The world needs more summits such as the one this week. There’s never been a bad time to stand up for democracy or to work co-operatively to make it better.
And there may have never been a more important time to do so than right now.
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