Firsthand: Life Without Democracy

A scene from North Korea: “Your supreme ruler will be the most strong-willed, wise, and benevolent of all.”

Last week, in an idle panic, I tried to imagine what it might be like to no longer live in a democracy. Then my foolishness struck me across the face, and I realized I should ask someone who has already experienced that life. I contacted an intelligent young journalist and interpreter who grew up in East Africa.

He would rather not say which country he is from.

Now living in the States, Mohammed Mupenda is a news correspondent and freelance reporter for publications here and abroad; he spent the early years of his career in East Africa reporting on politics, elections, and human rights. I liked him the minute I saw his email signature: It reads, in another of his languages, “Je pense donc je suis.” Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.”

Alas, thinking is a tricky endeavor when you do not live in a democracy. I asked Mupenda my single, burning question: What would it be like, if we could no longer count on fair elections and a representative government?

His response was wry.

First, he said, life is relaxing: “Most of what is happening in the country poses less concern to citizens, and you’re not responsible for what happens to your country. You won’t be asked, ‘How did you guys allow these things to happen?’—for instance to healthcare, or education, or the national defense. Your conscience is pristine.”

Also, he said, you will have more time, because you are spared the “effort that would have been consumed by civil activity and the fight for your interests. This is the reason why China has become so strong and wealthy in such a short time. They were busy making money, not rallying in the streets or shouting slogans at each other.”

If the regime becomes repressive, Mupenda added, “you can make a few good career moves snitching on your colleagues and neighbors, doing little else.”

There are cosmetic improvements: “Noisy minorities, bums, and panhandlers disappear from the streets, which visibly enhances the urban environment.”

Granted, “police violence would increase,” he said, “and corruption may resurface and appear far worse, since people will never hold anyone accountable.” The thrust is maintaining order, not uncovering wrongdoing. But “there is much more stability in the corridors of power. It makes relationship-building much more predictable, if you know who you want to make friends with, and how to do it.

“The yoke of political correctness is gone. Your rulers, your boss, and the police are the only ones you might offend, and you always know what they do like to hear, and what not.

“The media news stream radically improves. You stop seeing depressing news about crime, depravity, incompetence, corruption in the government, and deterioration of infrastructure and social services.

“Your supreme ruler will be the most strong-willed, wise, and benevolent of all. Nothing can compare to the sense of direction and certainty this will impart to you and to everyone around you.

His sarcasm was thick, but the tone was so earnest, it took me a minute to shake off how real it felt.

In my scenario, relatives abroad would have been a ray of hope, but Mupenda pointed out that without democracy, you have to reckon with the knowledge that “your relatives abroad are only safe if they stay where they are.

“For me,” he said, now heartfelt, “the worst thing is to know that to survive under such a government you have to keep quiet and never voice your criticism about wrongdoing of the government and its allies.” He warned of the dangers of “low grade of intelligence in the representative body, and in the popular opinion which controls it.” Describing the standard post-election “chaos generated by those who found it illegitimate,” he noted that “this will weaken the country’s institutions.”

He then drew a careful distinction between a real democracy, based on “the equality of all citizens,” and “a government of privilege in favor of the numerical majority,” whether by race or class. The latter, he said, can be “strangely confounded” with the former, but the majority will end up possessing the only real voice, “to the complete disenfranchisement of minorities.”

In such a scenario, he said, “Ordinary citizens end up living hopelessly.”

Nonetheless, he added with a twinkle, “the history of your country will radically improve. People will find good explanations for things that enemies of your nation tried to harass you for and discover new bright examples of your past greatness.”

Which rather cheered me up about the dismal history, corruption, and social ills we still acknowledge.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.