People, institutions and democracy
The rapid rise of right-wing and left-wing populist leaders who offer abracadabra solutions to long-standing problems spell great danger. These ‘confidence men’, usually sharp-tongued, sell a short-sighted view that others, usually minorities and immigrants, etc, are the cause of complex problems.
History has taught us that especially when things are tough globally, as they are now, conmen surface in abundance. Beware of confidence men who will make things worse.
Worldwide democracies are under great stress. That is blindingly obvious. As I noted previously, respected publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Forbes magazine, generally agree that between 25 to 31 countries globally are at risk of recession.
Germany, Italy, and France, noted economists say, are at serious risk of recession due to the double-edged sword of inflation and the deleterious impact of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Plus, there are the massive aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic still reverberating throughout global economies.
What/who created the vacuum for these left-wing and right-wing populists? One of the leading scholars in the world on democracy, Professor Larry Diamond, who is the Mosbacher senior fellow in global democracy at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, gives this answer: “A narrative has been gathering that democracies are corrupt and worn out, lacking in energy, purpose, capacity, and self-confidence. This has been fed by real-world developments which have facilitated the rise of populist challengers to liberal democracy.”
Profession Diamond, in his seminal piece ‘The Democratic Recession’, notes that in the period in between the 1980s and the early 2000s there was an enormous wave of democratisation across the globe, especially in the Soviet Union and its empire, in Africa and many developing countries on several continents. Many dictatorships were replaced, some peacefully others violently, by democracies.
The mentioned democratic wave several scholars argue has started to recede because democracies are not delivering. Several scholars have argued that democracies are increasingly failing to deliver in accordance with the needs of its peoples.
When this consistently happens, disillusionment sets in and people begin to feel less confident in their futures. Some scholars have argued that similar to the political and economic travails of the 1920s, and times before that, people in democracies are growing angrier and angrier.
In this big boiling cauldron of massive societal anger, some scholars say, vacuums are rapidly being created for opportunists who take disadvantage of people’s angriness. How? Among other things, they carefully fan — wherever they exist — smouldering flames of differences, tacitly, and otherwise encourage violent demolition of long-established constraining and related self-correcting democratic institutions.
Abandon capitalism, and get rid of Western liberal democracy, these populists shout in the highways and byways of the globe. We have seen this movie before. The end is always horrific.
Think Venezuela. Think also the former Soviet Union and the various satellite states which it birthed.
Western liberal democracy needs reforming, and so does capitalism.
I have said so here before. I maintain the view, that popular sovereignty limited by a constitution which guarantees individual freedoms (such as speech), and rights (such as fair trial), underpinned by functioning institutions of self-correction which are cemented by the rule of law, is the best ladder to achieve equity and equality.
We best walk wide of those who say they have the solutions to all capitalism’s problems. They are liars!
The truth is there is no substitute for economic growth. This must happen prior to redistribution.
Here, at home, we have our own brand of populists who pontificate that if they are put in charge of the national purse they will, in a flash, deliver milk and honey. They do not provide any verifiable plans on how they will grow the economy before launching into a grand give-away of stuff. These are conmen!
Jamaica like other countries around the globe needs to be weary of populists. They come in all different sizes, colours, and shapes. They have two primary characteristics which set them apart from other seekers of political office. They are super-anxious to redistribute what they did not produce. And they love to talk about how they love the poor and the downtrodden. Any objective analysis of how much they have functionally helped the poor more often than not come empty. Confidence men are smoke and mirrors experts. They are skilled at trickery.
Revival of democracy
How do we best protect ourselves against these confidence men? I think President of the United States of America Barack Obama, in a speech at the Obama Foundation in November 2022, delivered one of the best answers to that question. He said: “I believe those of us who believe in democracy have to acknowledge the anxieties and frustrations that rapid economic and cultural and demographic changes have brought. And we have to find a language, a story of how we can affirm the best of traditional values in our respective countries or respective communities.
“We have to create a space for our differences, while insisting that our politics and our governmental institutions uphold the overarching principles of equality for all people. I think we have to rebuild healthy mediating institutions, worker organisations, civic associations, religious associations, trade groups, both in the real world and the virtual world, and they need to be adapted to how we live today. And they have to operate from the bottom up, and we have to find ways of bringing people from different backgrounds together in these groups, so we can all develop better habits of listening to each other, and debating each other, and making group decisions together for the common good.”
Obama prescribes “rebuilding healthy mediating institutions”. We in Jamaica need to pay attention here, especially given recent developments in our Parliament and at the Integrity Commission. I think institutions that are critical to constraining and self-correcting public officials cannot be managed by demi-gods and individuals who feel that they are infallible. Only God is. When we make mistakes, a simple, genuine apology — and acceptance of responsibility — is to me, de rigueur.
On the subject of demi-gods, one of the most famous dismissals of them was uttered by Oliver Cromwell, former prime minister of Britain, in April, 1653, in the British Parliament.
Said he: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
Those who follow especially political news coming out of Britain would recall that Cromwell’s words were most recently revived when former Cabinet minister David Davis stood up in the House of Commons and told Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign.
Among other things, Davis said: “I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that (referring to Johnson’s refusal to accept responsibility for Partygate).”
There are no perfect parallels in history. But last week, as calls for the resignation of Greg Christie, executive director of the Integrity Commission, grew louder Cromwell’s words returned to my memory.
At the time of writing, the National Integrity Action (NIA) had called for Christie to go.
The NIA said, among other things, in a news release: “We believe words matter. The words of our leaders have the power to incite and the power to deflect anger and animosity and should always be uttered with careful judgment. While we have respected the work of Mr Greg Christie, we recognise that the institution is more important than the individual…
“Unfortunately Mr Christie’s comments raise doubts and, in that regard, we urge him to do the honourable thing and resign as executive director.”
A similar call for Christie’s resignation was issued by the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP) last week. The caption of its release, ‘Integrity Commission’s executive director’s position untenable’, was decisive.
The editorial of this newspaper last Sunday was decisive in its position that Christie should vacate the office of executive director. The incisive commentary noted as follows: “…last Thursday Mr Christie struck a near mortal blow to that effort with his ‘ask the Government’ response to a journalist after a director of the commission had been shot and robbed in New Kingston.
“The response, which has correctly been described as reckless, has resulted in calls for Mr Christie to resign.
“They are not unreasonable, because as eminent attorney Mr Peter Champagnie has correctly said, ‘Mr Christie’s response to the shooting betrays the very core function of what the Integrity Commission ought to represent and provides fodder for those who would want to suggest that the agency is politically biased.’
“The commission will not shake that view with Mr Christie there.”
Numerous well-thinking Jamaicans have called for Christie to resign. And social media continues to be deluged with shouts of “Resign Christie, resign!”
Up to the time of writing Christie had refused to give up the office of executive director for the Integrity Commission. I doubt, strongly doubt, he will resign.
I get the impression from his public persona that Greg Christie is thoroughly wrapped up, if not indescribably, in love with Greg Christie.
That foible, I believe, won’t allow him to accept that his “ask the Government” utterance was, at a minimum, unbecoming. I am not surprised.
Recall this: ‘Christie: I have done nothing wrong… Defends anti-corruption stewardship; says criticism of tweets disingenuous’ (The Gleaner, February 20, 2023). Recall The Gleaner‘s news item delivered these and other details: “Integrity Commission (IC) Executive Director Greg Christie has strongly rejected calls for his resignation, declaring that he has been unbiased in his duties over the last three years at the anti-corruption agency.
“The commission’s publishing of a ruling exonerating Prime Minister Andrew Holness two days after the February 14 tabling of a report referring him for a corruption probe sparked a firestorm about procedure, law, and conspiracy.
” ‘I have carried out my job obligations faithfully and diligently, and above all, with scrupulous integrity. I have done nothing wrong,’ Christie said in a Gleaner interview Sunday.”
I think Christie’s “ask the Government” comment has placed a pall over the Integrity Commission.
Reasonable Jamaicans are right to conclude that Christie’s continued presence is a major distraction which the Integrity Commission that the country cannot afford at this time.
Contrary to what Christie and some at the Integrity Commission might believe, they are not our lords and masters; they are our servants. Folks are not demanding servitude. We are demanding service comparable to international best practices.
As I see it, the people of this country have not just a responsibility, we have a duty to scrutinise the actions of Christie and indeed the entire Integrity Commission.
I see some people on social media and elsewhere reprimanding others for questioning the conduct of Christie in the manner of “How dare you?” They reason that the commission is staffed by individuals of the highest intellectual and moral calibre. I think such people have totally missed the point. The legitimate questions which the public has a duty to ask should not be minimised and/or held hostage by discussions about the academic attainment, high standards of morality, or outstanding contribution to public service of Christie and/or members of the Integrity Commission, as some have been attempting to do.
Thousands of Jamaicans are looking on. Thousands of Jamaicans have formed and are forming opinions which I believe will hurt not help the Integrity Commission’s operations. Some people may not recognise it, but for the Integrity Commission to maintain its salt it must have the weight of public confidence alongside it.
I think the confidence of the public in the Integrity Commission has been severely dented.
The ‘I did nothing wrong’ braggadocio that up to now has been the response of Christie to public criticisms and calls for accountability is upsetting. Well-thinking Jamaicans would do well to walk wide of persons in public office who are obsessed with their own self-importance. They do not help this country. Neither do right-wing and/or the left-wing confidence men.