Barack Obama used one of his last speeches as president of the United States, some days ago in Berlin, to make a clear warning about the threats hanging over democracy around the world and to urge citizens who appreciate the democratic system to compromise more in its defense, abandoning the extremes. “Do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life. I think there is a tendency … to assume that that’s always the case. And it’s not. Democracy is hard work,” Obama stated.*
The American president’s reminder could not be more pertinent. Democracy is at risk precisely because, for diverse reasons, many voters today don’t feel they are effective participants in the political process. The apathy generated by this sensation is the first step for adventurers—who negate politics and support the destruction of democratic coexistence—to come to power, as happened in the 1920s and 1930s, with dire consequences for the whole world.
Each time, fewer citizens are disposed to go vote and many fewer are disposed to actively participate in political life. Electoral abstention, which was also seen in recent municipal elections in Brazil, is growing in a constant manner, and soon there will be those who question the legitimacy of those elected by the system.
“In the United States,” said Obama, “if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened. And it is in this vacuum that populist rhetoric grows.” It was thus, driven by voters who felt forgotten by the system, that the billionaire Donald Trump, who has never held a public office before and made this his main asset, arrived at the White House. And it is in such a way that many other populists intend to come to government in various parts of the developing world, taking advantage of this obvious moment of democratic fragility.
More attentive Brazilians already see with apprehension that the country is confronting a similar challenge. Parties that are no more than meaningless acronyms multiply like flies, accenting the disbelief, already more or less generalized, in politics and politicians. This is why the discourse of those on the margin of traditional politics who propose meeting popular demands without the mediation of democratic institutions is gaining ground. One fears with this that political leaders without a minimum commitment to democracy receive the votes of the disillusioned and, as Trump did, rise to power.
The strategy of these “irresponsibles” is to use the liberties guaranteed by democracy to destroy it. What was seen in the Trump campaign in the American election, for example, was the exploitation of free speech to spread blatant lies about his adversary Hillary Clinton, to the extent that even some of the candidate’s own party members, among whom there are certainly no newcomers to politics, abandoned him.
Obama called attention to the fact that these days many people cannot manage to distinguish between what is truth and what is a lie because what matters is disseminated “information,” especially on the internet, which can annihilate the opponent. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not—and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in sound bites and snippets off their phones—if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” the American president said.
The main problem is that disinformation creates an atmosphere in which democracy and traditional politics end up being seen as obstacles to the well-being of the population, making what the extremists present seem like a solution. “If people, whether they are conservative or liberal, left or right, are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process, and are taking absolutist views and demonizing opponents, then democracy will break down,” says Obama. The only way to stop this tragedy, affirmed the American president, is to “engage in citizenship continuously, not just when something upsets us, not just when there’s an election, or when an issue pops up for a few weeks.”
*Translator’s note: The following is the full quotation by President Obama: ‘“Do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life. I think there is a tendency—because we have lived in an era that has been largely stable and peaceful, at least in advanced countries, where living standards have generally gone up—there is a tendency I think to assume that that’s always the case. And it’s not. Democracy is hard work.” The quotation was abbreviated or edited by the author.