By Josh McClain
“I have a question,” an Indian student says. “We’ve said we’re here to talk about global democracy, but it’s been a day and a half, and we only have a few hours left, and – while every panel has turned to Brexit and Trump – we’ve hardly talked about non-western democracies. We haven’t, for example, even mentioned India, which is the world’s largest democracy! Why is this discussion so biased towards western countries?”
“We have a question about India,” says the moderator, turning to his panelists: a Chinese scholar (there to insist that China is just its own kind of democracy) and Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“Oh – well, I’m here representing India, of course,” says the Minister, as if that answers the question.
That bit of paraphrased dialogue is from a conference I had the opportunity to attend recently – the New York Times Athens Democracy Forum (ADF). It was a wonderful opportunity, and an amazing conference, with lots of fascinating ideas discussed – from intellectual humility and fake news to media and social media to alternative democratic systems. But the Forum also had its puzzling moments and some troubling undertones, one of which I’d like to tease out here and talk about: the western-centrism in our discussions of democracy.
Let’s start by talking about the interaction I paraphrased above. Obviously, there were a number of problems in the back-and-forth, from the moderator’s interpretation of the question to the Minister’s response. Let’s cut right to the core issue, though: the ADF’s pervasive lack of engagement with the questions and problems of non-western democracies.
The student who asked that question was right – the emphasis of the ADF had been extremely western-centric. Brexit and Trump had been so much the focus of discussion that a shift to the upcoming German elections felt like the addition of global perspective. The panel she asked her question at was explicitly meant to be the panel about “alternative democratic perspectives” – apparently a euphemism for non-European democracy.
I don’t mean to imply that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump aren’t important issues for democrats (used in the broad sense) to consider – they are. But the US and the UK, or even North America and Western Europe, do not have a monopoly on democracy. They also don’t have a monopoly on the challenges facing democracies. It shows an unforgivable nearsightedness for a forum billing itself as a global solution-building space to practically ignore a huge swath of the world’s democracies, including almost all of the world’s emerging democracies.
Of course, the ADF is not the only influential place where we can see failure to engage with a broad scope of global democracy. The leadership of our country is turning inward. Our State Department is, depending on who you ask, either crumbling or being pulled apart. In Germany, the AfD – the far-right, nationalist, anti-immigrant party – made significant gains in the last election.
But I don’t think western bias in the discussions of democracies is limited to the ADF, the Trump government, or far-right parties. In fact, I think it’s pretty pervasive. I’ll use myself as an example: I’m a junior political science major – I am well educated, particularly about politics, fairly well read, and engaged with current events. I would, however, be lying if I told you that I know much at all about Indian democracy, or, for that matter, almost any non-western democracy.
That might not be a problem day-to-day. We all have limits on what we can know, and all have to focus our attention somewhere. It makes sense that I would spend more time reading about Donald Trump than Narendra Modi – my everyday life is affected far more by Trump’s actions. My western-centrism becomes problematic, however, when that lack of day-to-day attention translates into a blind spot in discussion and thought.
Real, critical, and far-looking discussion of democracy is critical – particularly right now, at a time when there are increasing global challenges to democratic norms and even to the underlying principles of democracy. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but democracy needs us – it needs intelligent young people around the world to be working to solve its problems; it needs us to be thinking and talking. But we cannot talk or think about democracy effectively if we don’t think to talk about India – or South Africa, or Bolivia, or Kyrgyzstan, or any number of other democracies that are experiencing very real and very serious problems. We cannot solve the problems of global democracy if we don’t understand issues from across the globe, not just from one corner of it.
The good news is that the solution is actually pretty simple. If you care about democracy, if you want to see it kept alive – and improved – be conscious that democracy is a global phenomenon. We have access to a wealth of information. We’re bright. We can get better at this. I’m trying to read more about non-western democracies and democratic problems. I’m keeping in contact with my friends from the ADF, including the woman who asked the question that prompted this article, so that we can all provide each other with local perspectives on global events. This is a serious issue – it’s severely limiting how we understand challenges to democracy and how we propose to solve those challenges – but it’s also solvable. I’ll take that combination any day.