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In defence of democracy

Forceful farewell speech: President Barack Obama, in a typically elegant performance, spoke out against the modern tendency to reject news and opinions outside one’s own views (Photograph by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

When outgoing US President Barack Obama lamented the state of democracy in his farewell address to the American public this week, one can only hope that prominent members of our own community were listening. For many of the points he made could just as well apply to our small-island democracy as to that of the United States.

Obama, with characteristically masterful oratory, spoke with passion about the dangers of an increasing modern-world tendency to reject reason, to seek out only news and information that back personal views whether true or not, and to retreat to social-media “bubbles” of like-minded people where points of view are reinforced and not challenged.

He referred to George Washington’s farewell address when he said “we should reject the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties that make us one”.

Obama added: “America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are even unwilling to enter into public service. So coarse with rancour, that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent.”

He could have been talking about Bermuda. And as the island heads into a general-election year, a time when we can expect social tensions to heighten and divisions in our community to be accentuated, we could do worse than reflect on Obama’s finely crafted words.

The clash of ideas on what is best for Bermuda and Bermudians will sometimes become heated. There will be times when those chasing power choose divisive rhetoric over reasoned argument as a means of grabbing voter attention and appealing to base instincts. Democracy is inevitably messy.

And Bermuda’s brand of democracy has been messier than usual in recent months. We should all be free and encouraged to speak out when we see injustice, free to assemble, demonstrate and march on the streets in support of a point of view. But no one has the right to deliberately obstruct others from going about their law-abiding business.

In a democracy, this principle is especially important when the business in question is that of the elected representatives meeting to debate legislation. Their right to meet their legislative responsibilities is enshrined in the Parliament Act 1957, which makes interfering with lawmakers’ free exercise of duties an offence punishable by two years in prison and/or fines. It is not surprising the law treats this issue seriously. After all, what point is there in holding the hard-won right for all to vote so dear, if a group of people who oppose pending legislation are allowed to stop the people’s representatives from meeting to legislate?

This question will be pertinent once more when Parliament reconvenes next month. When the airport redevelopment bill is on the agenda, demonstrators may decide to gather outside Sessions House as they did on December 2. Let us hope the outcome is different from that day, which was marred by injuries to police officers and pepper-sprayed protesters. No one wants to see a repeat. If we treasure our one-person, one-vote democracy, and its associated rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, then it should follow that we regard the right of elected members to meet and debate in the legislature as similarly sacrosanct.

Let us hope that in the run-up to the election that amid our strongly expressed differences, we can stop short of undermining democracy itself and reward those who stand for old-fashioned reason and sensible compromise, rather than blind partisanship and division.

Again, Obama said it best: “Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarrelled, eventually they compromised, they expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together. That we rise or fall as one.”

How right he is.