In February I attended a panel of OU’s Forum on Democracy, an international event held to answer the question “is democracy in danger here and abroad?” and provide various perspectives as to the state of democracy today and how to defend it, as well as to address the ways our new president has left us questioning its future. The speakers I had the chance to listen to gave enriching and informative presentations of their views on the state of democracy, and their comparisons of our nation to various others close to their fields of work were eye-opening for me.
The first panelist to speak was Dr. Mitchell Smith, who gave a talk titled “Checks and Balances: Robust or Fragile?” The panel began early so I missed the beginning of his talk, but for the part that I listened to he focused heavily on propaganda and the role of elected officials, especially in situations of protests, to acknowledge citizens’ concerns. Dr. Smith cited examples of people using fake sites and ads to project that protestors are being paid so that elected officials can ignore the passion that motivates citizens to protest.
The second panelist was Dr. Alan McPherson, who compared Trump to the autocrats and populists of Latin America. He began with defining autocracy as non-constitutional and stating that populists act outside the bounds of normal democratic behaviors, with populism itself being a result of inequality. He said that Trump exemplifies populist behaviors in that he is very charismatic; he seeks the attention of crowds and monopolizes on the media (with his endless stream of tweets), exudes male chauvinism, and is deeply divisive- he is an expert at finding enemies and inventing dragons to slay. From Trump’s presidency, Dr. McPherson said we can expect significant violence and oppression at home and abroad, which puts us in the same boat as Chile. Trump is also like Latin American leaders like Fidel Castro with his disregard for expertise, or like Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela in that he thinks his leadership can replace bureaucracy and only does what makes him look good. Dr. McPherson continued to emphasize that all of Trump’s actions as well as the populism in Latin American countries is due to inequality.
After Dr. McPherson gave his talk, Dr. Tassie Hirschfield came to the microphone to address corruption and kleptocracy. She prepared a slideshow with her presentation, and defined corruption as “illegal use of public office for private gain” and kleptocracy as “rule by thieves” or, “the most common form of office that no one wants”. Kleptocracy is brought about when non-elected leaders take power by force. She explained that increased “gangsterism” in the economy corrodes democratic governance and that a racketeer economy is incompatible with democracy. The example that Dr. Hirschfield employed for kleptocracy was Russia in the 1990s. Crime re-organized the post-Soviet economy as the banking and natural resource sectors were gangsterized. Afterwards, she asked the question “where are we?” in terms of danger of kleptocracy and corruption and showed us images from Transparency International, which included a “How Corrupt is Your Country” map. Then she brought up a slide titled “Things to watch for/protest”, which listed things like the repeal of Cardin-Lugar and other parts of Dodd-Frank, reckless deregulation of energy and banking that allow organized crime to invade or manipulate these essential industries, bank bust-outs and bail-ins (where banks go bankrupt but get to keep your money to bail themselves out), questionable sale of public assets, and looting/skimming public pensions under the guise of privatization, stabilization, or bankruptcy reform. But she also reassured the attendees of the Forum, reminding us that the U.S. has never had a czar or king, our institutions were built to support democracy but require citizen buy in and participation, and that foreign attempts to manipulate the executive branch can only work if done in secret but that the information “wants to be free”. In other words, we were founded on democratic principles and as long as they are maintained, we should be able to avoid the threat of kleptocracy.
The final panelist I listened to was Dr. Peter Gries. He, after listening to the other panelists, decided to digress from his original topic in order to address the assault on truth and its consequences coming out of China. He discussed the sustained widespread assault on free press coming out of the country and cited three main examples. First was the Korean War. There is a museum in China showing evidence of alleged American bacteriological warfare during the war- propaganda produced by the government accepted as fact by the people. Those who had seen it, when asked about it, said they could not trust America (exactly what the government wanted with their spread of false information). His second example was the Great Leap Forward. In the 1950s China wanted to catch up with Europe and the U.S., which led to a nationwide push led by chairman Mao Zedong. The assault on truth in this situation was within the country itself; Zedong was so insulated that while he heard that things were great, in the fields people were starving and the Leap was followed by a famine in which an estimated 30 to 60 million people died and widespread cannibalism occurred. The final example Dr. Gries gave was a personal anecdote of his time at Beijing University in the Spring of 1988. The Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred shortly after he left the university, and he was extremely worried about many of his friends there. But he was unable to get any valuable information because the Chinese government covered up the Massacre by broadcasting “trials” of counterrevolutionary protestors. The government continues to whitewash the entire situation, calling it simply the Tiananmen Square “Incident” if they speak of it at all and making no reference to the fact that millions of innocent civilians were murdered by the government. Chinese students today, with China’s heavy censorship blocking nearly all information about the massacre, know nothing of the true violence perpetrated due to the complete absence of free press in this example of the assault on truth.
Overall, I thought the Forum on Democracy was very engaging and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. The differing perspectives and wide range of examples and comparisons from different regions brought forth by the professors were incredibly informative as well as being a prediction of where we could be heading under the Trump presidency. I would have liked to see each of the speakers interact more with potential positive effects of Trump being in power, because I am certain that there are possible benefits, but the general reaction is to highlight all the not-so-pleasant qualities he so proudly puts on display.