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Democracy isn't immortal

The last week has seen a steady stream of horrifying images coming from the US. First the murder of George Floyd, and then: police ramming protestors with cars; journalists arrested or beaten on live TV; a freelance reporter made blind in one eye; a woman filming from her own front door shot with projectiles as police yell ‘light ‘em up!’; police offers hit by gunfire; and the US President calling for the use of military force against his own citizens.

These scenes are eerily autocratic. They echo what we saw in Hong Kong just a few months ago - police drawing guns on reporters, shining bright lights to obscure their vision, hitting media with tear gas canisters – a systemic repression of the territory that has been well discussed.

The obvious similarities between what is happening in the US and Hong Kong will no doubt spawn plenty of comparisons, contrasts and debate. How the US chooses to respond to the crisis has already been highlighted as a potential point of difference: a ‘test for it as a democracy and polity,’ as others have written. ‘America must show it’s different here and now.’

But what if the choice has already been made? What if these scenes show America for what it really is?

Some have argued, for example, that there is an opportunity for President Trump to forgo the language of violence that he has been using so far and speak of unity. The likelihood of that happening seems infinitesimally small: this is a President who ordered a peaceful crowd to be violently dispersed with batons and gas so he could hold a Bible outside a church, a President who threatened to deploy the military against American citizens, who has designated political opponents as terrorists, who spoke of ‘dogs and ominous weapons’ facing Americans exercising their civil rights outside the White House. This is the behaviour of a tyrant.

When the US shows symptoms of an ailing democracy, we often respond from a position of hope and opportunity. ‘Maybe the US can prove it is different.’ Yet it would seem foolish to say that events in Hong Kong are an opportunity for China to prove itself to be anything other than what it is: an authoritarian state.

To be clear, there is an obvious difference between the two. American democracy provides a mechanism for change that we highlight and hope for. Chinese autocracy does not. But until we see that change coming, maybe it is prudent to consider what happens if it never does.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the systemic forces that have brought America here (which predate Trump) – the severe polarisation of politics and media, the post-truth civil discourse, the militarisation of the police, the exploitation of division by political leaders, enormous economic inequality – continue into the future. We’re lead to a scary but obvious question: will the US remain a democracy?

That is not an unreasonable question. It's sensible to consider all possibilities. A senior Asian diplomat was recently cited by Foreign Policy: “The choice is between an unreliable and increasingly transactional and autocratic democracy (US) and a reliably transactional and unforgiving autocratic rising power (China).”

We don’t know how this ends. America could steer away from the unprecedented assault the Trump administration has made on democratic institutions and civil norms, such as the violent repression of largely peaceful protests. The US could still exercise the power of democracy to prove that it truly is different.

Or it could not. No system of government is immortal. Over the coming decades, it could follow Plato’s maxim; that over enough time, democracy rots into tyranny.

It is important to hope and advocate for change. But perhaps we should consider the possibility that Trump foreshadows a dark future: ‘When somebody is the President of the United States, their authority is total.’

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