US President Donald Trump used his first State of the Union Address to call attention to the incredible story of a North Korean defector whose arm and leg had been severed during a desperate attempt to acquire food for his family when he was younger. A crippled Ji Seong-ho later escaped from the prison state that is North Korea in an unthinkable journey. In an inspiring moment, Mr. Ji raised his crutches in triumph as the US President introduced him to the world. Trump’s apparent goal was to use the young man as a “testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” Given the unity theme of the Address, it seems the President wanted to use Ji’s story to rally his country around democracy.
To cynics, Ji Seong-ho’s presence at the State of the Union Address can only be interpreted as a PR stunt designed to blunt criticism on a multitude of issues from immigration to war policy. Some may even conclude the Trump Administration is testing public sentiment on North Korea and priming the Country for a war against the Kim regime. Not only can war be used to help unite the American People, it can serve as a distraction from those issues dragging down the President’s poll numbers. Whatever the actual motivation behind Trump’s decision, the plight of Ji Seong-ho creates an opportunity to discuss a far more important conversation on the future of democracy around the world.
Ji Seong-ho is a symbol. His past is North Korea and his future is the US-led International Community: authoritarianism is the past and democracy is the future. The standard narrative, including that on The Washington Outsider, is that the world is democratizing. Democracy is spreading. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index, however, concludes “Democracy continues its disturbing retreat.” Based on 60 indicators under the categories of electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties, there is room to question the metrics of the Index, but the trend is very distributing and seems to contradict a large number of democratic uprisings seen in recent years across the globe.
The Index suggests less than 5% of the world’s population lives in a “full democracy” while nearly a third live under authoritarian rule. This is not surprising given the size of China’s population. The downward trend in the ranking of countries like the US and Turkey are, of course, alarming. On the other hand, upticks in the ranking of countries like Saudi Arabia and Ivory Coast are encouraging. The overall trend in democratization around the world may be negative, but much of this trend could be shifted by leadership changes in key countries. These changes can, of course, happen very unexpectedly while democratic governance matures over generations, not months, years, or even decades.
Because the Index relies on metrics that measure the functionality of government, which is important, the Index actually measures the democratic nature of government, not society. Democratization starts with cultural revolutions that evolve into political revolutions. Countries then become democracies when they have functioning democratic governments capable of protecting and asserting the sovereign authority of their populations. The democracies of tomorrow will be formed by the democratizing societies of today. Unfortunately, the governments of today charged with protecting democratic societies are becoming more dysfunctional even as more societies are democratizing, which threatens the security of democracy around the globe.
There are many reasons why democratic governments are faltering. For those who do not believe in democracy, it is easy to conclude differences of opinion and citizen competency doom democracy to failure. The strength of democracy is, of course, that democracy allows people to express their interests more freely, which should allow government to more readily address the interests of the governed. In the long-term, democracies are, therefore, more likely to remain free of catastrophic civil unrest, even if divisions can destabilize them in the short-term. The reasons democratic governance is faltering is that governments are failing to address the interests of their citizens. They are catering to the whims of special interests and influential political figures. They are acting like elitist-eccentric authoritarian regimes. As such, the restoration of democratic governance largely requires a fix for this issue.
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