Democratization Ethnic Politics Article Review

Published: 2021-06-22 00:29:09
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Category: Politics, World, Elections

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In ideal terms, one’s response to this debate should be straightforward: the principle of self-determination would seem to be at the heart of the notions of freedom and democracy, and, therefore, in principle, every group that claims to be a nation should, in principle, be allowed to have their own state, but the real world is far messier than the ideal. There are distinct problems with allowing this principle to be exercised across the globe, and, because each call for nationhood occurs in a slightly (sometimes radically) different context, there can be no single solution which can be applied across the board.
It is certainly true that the creation of more states to satisfy perceived demands for ‘nationhood’ encourage the dissolution of the world into smaller geo-political units and that may lead to more increasingly less tolerant states. It also puts bureaucratic hurdles up at a time when on issues like sustainable development, the environment and the eradication of global poverty, the international community needs more than ever to be able to speak with one voice and be able to monitor and regulate areas of human activity: this becomes more complicated if more nation states exist.
Moreover, a striving towards nationhood seems slightly illogical at a time when we see large geo-political units like the European Union and the Russian Federation functioning and, in the case of the EU, planning further integration. Had the terrorist group ETA succeeded in its aim of independence for the Basque country, would the new Basque state have become a member of the European Union alongside Spain? Quite possibly. However, to ignore the desire for ‘nation’ status can lead to increased violence with continuing disruption to the economy and well-being of citizens: the conflict in Chechnya is a good example, although here the context is complicated by religion (the Chechen separatists are radical Muslims); Russia’s desire to exercise geo-political influence over that region; and, perhaps, the fact that the system in Russia is not essentially democratic enough to allow Chechen representatives in the Duma to enable their voices to be heard.
Yet the process can be achieved peacefully if we look at some examples from recent history. Spain was a fledgling democracy in the 1970s and 1980s and responded to Catalan separatism by giving Catalonia and regions like Galicia, increased autonomy – tax-raising powers and the ability to change local law. Spain remains a single political entity. In Canada, the Quebecois separatists saw their percentage of the vote reduced in the recent general election there and a party lead by an Anglophone politician won a majority of seats in Quebec for the first time in history. The fledgling democracy in Iraq has pursued a similar policy in respect to the northern part of the country where most Iraqi Kurds live. However, context is all: Kurds also live in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and, while political autonomy within Iraq is a solution for Iraqi Kurds, it creates internal problems, potentially, for the other states where Kurds live. There are no easy answers to this question.
Political Institutions
Lepsius’s arguments are very persuasive. A system of proportional representation which allowed parties with a mere 1% of the vote to get representation in the Reichstag was a recipe for fragmentation, especially given the dual-nature of the executive with a President and a Chancellor. Faced with a succession of coalition governments and irresponsible use of the no-confidence vote (encouraged by the fragmentation of political party representation), it is clear why the President began to rule directly – there were many occasions when decisions had to be made, but Germany was between coalitions and awaited a new Chancellor, or when the Reichstag was not sitting. It is easy to see how this may have convinced ordinary Germans that strong rule by a single figure was preferable and superior to the type of democracy that existed in the Weimar Republic.
However, Lepsius’s arguments are not wholly persuasive. He asserts that because of the way the Kaiser had ruled, the political parties did not know how to govern or have any real experience of running the country. That is a historical legacy which would have been the same no matter what democratic institutions were put in place in the Weimar Republic. Furthermore, the system that allowed parties with only 1% of the vote also allowed the Nazi Party to gain early representation in the Reichstag. Furthermore, the events of the 1920s and early 1930s were exceptionally unfortunate for Germany: the cost of reparations, followed by the Great Depression. Lepsius is convincing in showing that the Weimar Republic could not cope with these twin economic crises, but there is no hard evidence that a different democratic structure would necessarily have made things better for Germany. The success of the democratic FDR in modern times again might be explained by a democratic model which avoided the perceived ‘errors’ of the Weimar model, but would that have succeeded without the common threat of the Cold War and the economic support of the Marshall Plan.
Institutions are important tools in creating democracy, but contextual factors should not be ignored.
Bowling Alone
I think it does matter that more Americans are bowling alone, especially as this phenomenon has coincided with a reduction of the number of Americans voting in elections. If we judge the vitality of a democratic country by its ‘social capital’, including the extent to which ordinary citizens engage in civic or community life, then these things do matter – and may even be connected. It matters for the sake of our own nation and the health of its democratic institutions – even those at grassroots level – and it matters in a global sense: if we are to encourage or export democracy around the planet, then our own democratic credentials should be the highest imaginable, but they are not.
Putnam puts forward a variety of explanations of this decline in American civic life from a string of scandals emanating from Washington to more working women to the advent of new technologies. We should also be careful to see this as a phenomenon not confined to the USA: in elections for the European Assembly the turn-out of voters is even lower than in our own presidential elections. In parts of the developed world there is a lack of trust or a disillusion with the democratic process.
Writing in 1995, Putnam did concede that information technology might hold a solution in the future to our loss of social capital. Putnam’s tone remained rather cynical: “My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley....” In retrospect, we might argue that the internet has replenished some of America’s social capital – but with a difference. What the internet allows is the formation of grassroots political activist groups very quickly in ways that transcend distance. Much more research needs to be done before we can state with certainty that such groups have started to refresh America’s social capital. The phenomenon also abounds with problems: firstly, these groups are often united on a single issue towards which their stance is generally negative; secondly, at the moment the mainstream political parties have found no mechanism by which to utilize or connect with the grassroots, internet, and single-issue activism. One might dare to suggest, though, that such committed activism is simple better than any type of bowling – period.

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