The space for dissent is narrowing in powerful democracies, and the pandemic and social media manipulation is decimating it altogether.
A clutch of powerful world leaders, at the helm of some of the most significant democracies, have demonstrated their intolerance for dissent and the spirit of democratic debate. Their ability to dismiss opposing voices has grown stronger because of their power to outshout them on social media and during a calamity like a pandemic, giving them enormous 'emergency' powers.
U.S. President Donald Trump is a prime example of such leadership. His method is clear cut: remain silent or leave the corridors of power. The latest in a long list of resignations and dismissals was the embarrassing public exchange and removal of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, who had overseen the prosecution of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Cohen.
There is an entire page in Wikipedia dedicated to dismissals and resignations under the incumbent administration -- around 415 and counting. The list includes such high-profile dignitaries such as National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Trump has in his arsenal strong language, insinuations, and unsubstantiated allegations to hound those who disagree with him publicly. A stark example was his reaction to the violent nationwide protests following the brutal man-handling and subsequent death of African American George Floyd at the hands of the police on May 25.
HEALTH MINISTERS AS CASUALTIES IN BRAZIL
But POTUS is not the only one. From Washington to Rio de Janeiro and Hungary to India, the space for dissent in a democratic framework is under enormous duress.
Brazil's controversial President Jair Bolsonaro's administrative campaign against COVID-19 has been plagued by sackings of a string of Health Ministers.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a paediatric orthopaedist, was sacked from his post by the president in early April after he defended and pursued quarantine measures to fight the pandemic, in opposition to the line advocated by the president. Mandetta stuck to his stance despite Bolsonaro gaining notoriety for comments like “it’s just another flu” and vociferously arguing against lockdown measures.
His successor Nelson Tich, a practising oncologist, and a new entrant to politics, fared no better. He too quit in disgust after just a month in office when confronted with the president’s brazen disregard for containment measures. He was replaced by General Eduardo Pazuello with zero health-care experience.
INFORMATION BUBBLES AND DECIMATED OPPOSITIONS
Democracy is all about accepting differences along political and ideological lines and building consensus through debates. However, with polarisations gaining deeper roots amidst the disruptions caused by falling national incomes and the pandemic, the resistance to engage with opposing points of view is growing stronger in ruling establishments.
Here, social media creates “information bubbles” feeding into biases of individuals in a polarised environment. This leads to hardening of respective postures and further impedes the cerebral exchange of opinions and tolerance to divergent views.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to a stupendous victory in the May 2019 parliamentary elections, sweeping up 303 of the 543 seats. The principal opposition Congress stood decimated and the once-powerful regional political forces are now confined to fighting the BJP in their respective States. The result is a feeble opposition voice at the national level.
Modi’s personality towers over his party colleagues and appears unchallengeable. Naturally, in this scenario, decisions, even the most significant ones such as the Abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the implementation of the Citizenship Act, saw little intellectual debate within the establishment, and was rushed through an absolute parliamentary majority. The vociferous and spirited public protests which followed lost steam in the wake of the COVID- 19 pandemic.
The enormity of the pandemic in India and the lockdown measures only intensify the barriers to a factual exchange of thoughts and reduce the impact dissenting voices could have on the administration.
Liberals fear that in a post-COVID era, which could last for a long time, the situation may only get more extreme.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the pandemic to pass a 'Coronavirus Bill' that gives him enormous emergency powers with no end date and arguably makes him the government judge, jury, and executioner of the European nation.
WILL THIS TREND CONTINUE?
In an article titled 'The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President', published by The Atlantic in the March edition, McKay Coppins states, ”What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes — jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.”
Governments and political parties have enormous human, technological, and monetary resources to influence social and mainstream media opinion, but the objective should not always be an electoral success or to shout down an alternative view.
The role of dissent is more crucial after an electoral victory, while in office, making major decisions. It is here that adherence to a democratic spirit and openness to opposing opinions can avert catastrophic mistakes.
Unfortunately, the overarching feeling is that allowing dissent is a sign of weakness and debate could lead to indecisiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth; the true art of statesmanship is to balance decisiveness with dissent and democracy.
THE ONUS ON LEADERSHIP
National leaders, while using the information cocoons that social media create to their electoral advantage in a campaign, must not fall for their “information trap” while making crucial decisions in office. They must be acutely aware that social media can feed into the vanity of the powerful, and there needs to be a conscious engagement with alternative information universes.
A distinction needs to be made between the perception of accepting dissent and the spirit of understanding dissenting voices. It is the latter that is part of an accommodative and inclusive decision-making process, and the perception is irrelevant. A dictatorship with a democratic decision-maker may be better than a democracy with a dictatorial leader.
War, pandemic, national and global emergencies are what put leaders on the line, and crushing dissent may often lead to catastrophic decisions, whereas lending an ear to a naysayer may indeed save the day.
Author: TM Veeraraghav, Consulting Editor, Synergia Foundation