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Living in an "Illiberal Democracy"

Gergely Bérces, Joint Second Prize, High School Category, Essay Contest 2018

March 12, 2019

Anti-government protesters rallying through Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, Budapest. CREDIT: Wikimedia (CC)

"I am a Hungarian student in my junior year of high school. Although I hold Hungarian nationality, I have lived most of my life abroad, having spent five years in the Czech Republic, six in Indonesia, and a year abroad in the United States at Deerfield Academy as an ASSIST scholar. I consider myself extremely fortunate for the opportunities I have been afforded throughout my life, and seek to repay this debt to the world in the future through some means of charitable or political service the details of which I am still in the process of discovering."

ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?

On a sunny April morning, 2018, the final results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections began to flood in just as the bell signaled first period. Though we knew the results were more or less preordained, most of us sitting at our desks nevertheless despaired at the incumbent party—openly calling for "illiberal democracy," and demonizing refugees, most of whom did not want to stay in Hungary—renewing its two-thirds majority in Parliament. One by one we decried our government's crimes, ranging from rigging the legislatures, through wrecking the education system, to naked corruption, shameless graft, and unabashed cronyism. At the end of our juvenile rant, we collectively proclaimed the death of democracy, before fatefully decreeing we would never participate in such a depraved system.

The democratic experiment to create "government of the people, by the people, and for the people"—in the words of Abraham Lincoln—stretches back millennia. The spark Pericles struck in ancient Athens soon kindled, extinguished by the tide of populism, only to rise again and again, birthed, killed, then revived by the very same citizens. Whenever democracy failed, chaos ensued, be that the Peloponnesian Wars, Napoleon's rampage through Europe, or the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Democracy once again faces assault from vile populism, as well as from disruptive technologies. Today, the importance of living in a democratic country intimates not only a duty to fight for the most practicable and moral form of government to date, but a struggle for our very humanity.

From the moment of its inception, democracy has weathered ruthless denouncement, repeatedly proving itself as the best form of government, actuating our human drive towards individuality, guaranteeing natural rights, and serving as a bulwark against oppression. Individual responsibility, reason, and creativity permeate every one of our achievements, from monumental medical breakthroughs, through liberating oppressed peoples, to the mundane ordeal of getting out of bed every morning to make a difference. Throughout history, we have created the most prosperity where we enjoyed the greatest freedom to cooperate as equals. The scientific revolution and enlightenment worked in tandem to drive wellbeing and emancipation towards even more open societies, and the demographic boom of the industrial revolution. Today, postcolonial liberty sees once oppressed peoples creating some of the fastest growing economies, eradicating hunger and poverty, while driving innovation at breakneck pace with the exploding fountainhead of popular rule. In democracies, the Sword of Damocles forever dangles over officials, whose electorate ensures their integrity and guarantees basic rights through due process. The resultant freedom plants the seeds of innovation, allowing individuals to pursue their hearts' desire in an environment governed by the rational pursuit of the common good. While flawed, as all things, no other system so perfectly foregrounds the essence of humanity, resting in individuality, equality of opportunity, and rationality, as democracy.

Unfortunately, the idyllic system of governance described above has always existed in the shadow of populism that sets in at the faintest lapse of faith in humanity. Democracy is a dream realized through its pursuit, and the audacity to chase the values pillaring the finest system of government is fading once more as we, through our inaction, alienate democracy's reality from its true meaning.

Hungary, like many other countries emerging from the twilight of communist autocracy, rushed to sign up for the "End of History," pledging to transform the world into a tableau of equality, individuality, and prosperity sparked by free innovation. Not long after, however, Hungarians grew tired of waiting in line for utopia to come to them, eventually settling for a leader affectionately greeted by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as "dictator."

Other countries followed a similar trajectory. The United States unleashed its military, waging wars the world over as it pushed for steeper restrictions on immigration, while stifling self-determination abroad, as the nation abandoned belief in peaceful democratic conversion upon meeting the first hurdles among many. The rest of the West followed suit, siring disillusionment at home and resentment abroad out of xenophobia and cynicism regarding our shared humanity.

We slowly set about killing democracy with the belief that foreigners are incapable of it.

Today, virtually all countries make claim to democracy, even conspicuous dictatorships such as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Reality, however, increasingly consists of citizens of ostensibly democratic countries sacrificing their freedoms, violating human rights, and, paradoxically, extinguishing democracy—their own and those of others—in the name of democracy.

Meanwhile my friends from Hungary, Indonesia, America, South Africa, and Britain joked about democracy amounting to nothing but tons of explosives dropped on countries with oil, Russia abandoned faith in governance by the people altogether amidst chants of "dermokratiya"—"shit-o-cracy."

As United Nations officials, in tandem with independent experts, bemoaned the rise of xenophobia, noting the "resurgence was visible in public discourse, the media and political rhetoric," Foreign Affairs warned of a decline in democracy manifesting in "centralization of power in the executive, politicization of the judiciary, attacks on independent media, the use of public office for private gain." Across the world, the majority of citizens remain impassive, believing that amorality and corruption are the price to pay for security in a grim, dark world. Unwittingly, however, we make the world even grimmer and undemocratic as we deny the value of human life and the rights of foreigners out of fear.

In addition to the omnipresent historical menace populism presents, technological developments also threaten to compromise democracy. One of the preconditions of a functioning democracy is voters making informed, rational decisions. However, a Stanford study has found that 82 percent of students could not identify fake news, while a BuzzFeed News analysis of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections revealed that, on Facebook, fake news outperformed stories from 19 major news outlets. Fake news, which have become ubiquitous, to online media platforms from where we increasingly obtain our information, coupled with algorithms designed to reinforce preconceived biases, jeopardize voter rationality, and sow the kind of tribal fear that leads to populism.

When my classmates and I finished lambasting the death of democracy amidst exclamations to never vote again, we caught the eye of our literature teacher. With a look contorted between approval and amusement he chided us, "whether there is democracy or not, depends solely on you." Our teacher was right. Democracy, at its core, is a self-actuating faith in humanity that holds that we, as individuals coming together under equal rights and freedoms, can do the best for ourselves and the world. And the only prayer the creed of the people demands is participation. Hence, it is, indeed, important to live in a democratic country, for doing so is an opportunity to participate in the making of the future, and in the preservation of the human condition at its progressive zenith even as it faces assault from populism and disruptive technologies. Thus, the opportunity to vote in a democracy implies not only an individual privilege, but an existential duty. Truly, a vote for democracy is a vote for humanity.

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