Three Rupees Worth of Democracy Nation Weekly, July 26-August1, 2004
What keeps America, in spite of its flaws, still a functioning democracy are its in-built checks and balances to authority
BY SUSHMA JOSHI
In Nepal there is a lot of talk—one might almost say too much—about “democracy.” Newspapers devote entire columns so theorists can pontificate on it (look at how much space Nation is giving to this pontificator!), international non-profits with money to burn fund seminars and workshops to discuss how to do it, people burn tires on the streets as a means to get it. If we had a self-help publishing industry, “How to Instill (and nurture) Democracy: And see if it can flourish in a semi-feudal society” might be on Nepal’s best-seller list. (Oops: our non-existent bestseller list.)
In America, the word “democracy” also raises passions and hackles. It gets people to give up their jobs and join the election campaign. It gets Congress to pass billions of dollars in funding to start wars in Afghanistan. It is enough to inspire people to support wars and send their children to die in foreign countries. In other words, it is as loaded as it is in Nepal.
A minority would argue that America is in fact, not a democratic country. That democracy flourishes better in countries where there is not such a massive disparity between the rich and the poor. For me, democracy in America kicks in when a right-wing person can sit down to dinner and break bread with a left-wing person without having to shoot them dead or chop their hands off. Surely, you think, that might be feasible in Nepal one day? Can people with different political opinions actually find themselves within the same system and think of living together without having to bomb each other into submission?
Perhaps our problem is a lack of space where people can express their opinions safely. Speech in our country has become actions: voicing opinions can become an act of suicide. Mention one favorable word towards the Maoists and you might end up being “disappeared.” Mention one word of support towards the monarchy and you might end up with your throat slit open. Why does this not happen in America? Plenty of people are plenty aggrieved at Bush, and plenty of them hate John Kerry. What keeps the people of the most militaristic society in the world from shooting each other dead due to difference of opinions?
Spates of extreme but small scale violence regularly rock America. Anti-abortion fringe groups from the right have bombed abortion clinics because they do not believe in abortion. Cults like the Klu Klux Klan kill their opponents. The difference in America may be that violence of this nature is seen to be unusual, and perpetuated by marginal groups—things that regular people do not do on a regular basis. Regular Republicans do not pick up guns and shoot Democrats dead for having sex with their interns. Regular Democrats do not pick up grenades and bomb Bush for starting an unnecessary war (although they might throw eggs and rotten tomatoes).
In our country, violence has become the way we hold conversations with each other. Shootings, bombings, disappearances and assassinations have become the norm. Whether we confess to it or not, this has become the state of our nation. And each incident, each moment in which a bombing or an “encounter” becomes normalized in the press, we forget we are moving closer and closer to a state where violence becomes the natural state of nature. Amidst all the weary litany of deaths, it is a challenge to keep seeing the strangeness in violence. This is not people’s normal state of being.
The other aspect that keeps America, in spite of its flaws, still a functioning democracy are its in-built checks and balances to authority. Nepal may be one of few countries where a politician is still allowed to run for office after holding it for four or more terms. The U.S. president gets kicked out of office after two terms, or eight years. Clinton recently gave an interview to Oprah in O magazine where he talks about how much he loved being in office, and how he had to mentally prepare to leave it. Who doesn’t love being the head of state? Now he has to wait on runways and in New York City traffic. Americans are prepared to step down from public office once their terms are over, no matter what their political orientation. We, on the other hand, are fixated with authority. We give them life-long power over us, like they are our fathers. We allow our politicians to be disgustingly greedy, and forget to remind that public service comes with a time limit.
Being in graduate school in America reminds me that teachers and students mingle on the same level. We break bread at the same table, we eat the same food, we even share the same conversations. If I have an opinion that is worth its salt, my professor will hear it – never mind that I am a young, minority woman, and they are old white men. This ingrained sense of democracy that is instilled in academic institutions in the United States, I would say, is the third wheel of democracy.
The proponents of democracy in Nepal need to work towards these three goals: to stop normalizing violence, to stop deifying our leaders and start making them accountable to the public, and to start building towards a more egalitarian relationship between different groups of people.