Along with all the scientific questions the COVID-19 pandemic has generated, it raises two political questions of primary importance: what is democracy? And what system of governance do we want?
Faced with the health situation in March 2020, every government in the world had to make decisions in the governance of its country. Some opted for a total lockdown, others for less strict measures and some advocated taking no measures at all.
My concern here is not to debate the soundness of these decisions but to consider for a moment the reactions of the citizens in countries with democratically elected governments. Many of these citizens challenged their governments’ decisions. Many of these citizens complained, voiced their outraged, refused to wear masks or respect social distancing and other measures.
The first question I would like to ask these disgruntled, refractory citizens is: did you vote in the last elections?
If the answer is no, then consider the fact that you have no right to complain. For as a voting citizen you are responsible for the government that is in power. Consequently, if you did not vote, you are guilty of serious negligence: you did not assume your responsibilities. You are, therefore, obligated to observe the measures that have been put in place since you are indirectly responsible for them.
You can express your dissatisfaction at the polls by finally using your voice and choosing your next elected leaders.
If you did vote for the government in power and you do not like the measures it has imposed, then you are jointly responsible for them. You are obligated to observe these measures because you are directly responsible for them.
You can express your dissatisfaction at the polls by not reelecting your government.
If you voted for candidates who were not elected and the government in power is not the one you chose, you more than anyone are obligated to observe the measures put in place because you are the direct guarantors of democracy by respecting the voices of others, of the greatest number. Just as in the opposite situation, you would want others to respect the decision made by the greatest number.
This is what democracy is: an exercise that is incredibly demanding and difficult, but it is yours, you citizens of democratic countries. It is a responsibility incumbent on you. Some people would like to politicize the notion of responsibility. However, it is not the privilege of the right, nor of the left, nor of any particular party. It is the cement of our civilization. Without this responsibility, nothing can function: not society, not technology, not the survival of democracy. Because democracy is not an acquisition, nor is it a right. Democracy is a fragile opportunity. It is a state that can endure only if we citizens kindle it and put it into action on a daily basis with the difficulties and responsibilities we bear.
What is democracy? It is, by definition, a state whose sovereign is the people, all together.
What is the guarantor of democracy? It is the state of law, which assures the people that it is neither manipulated, nor betrayed by its governors. But what, then, is a state of law? Without entering into a long philosophical and political debate on the concept of the state of law, I would like to offer two necessary conditions: the absolute separation of powers and the obligation for everyone to observe the law.
And what is the guarantor of the absolute separation of powers and the obligation for everyone to observe the law? It is a free and independent press.
Without a free and independent press able to alert the citizens to possible wrongdoings and failures on the part of their rulers, the state of law is doomed. Without a free and independent press, who will there be to denounce possible lapses and derelictions on the part of the government? Certainly not Facebook or the social networks which have been proven to be easily manipulated and conduits of false information.
In 2020, two civic acts are fundamental to democracies:
– Refusing to inform oneself through Facebook and, instead, trusting the free and independent press, which means subscribing to a newspaper (to ensure its survival), something that generally costs less than a daily purchase at Starbucks.
This civic responsibility is the only guarantor of our democracy’s durability and preservation, the indispensable barrier against all forms of totalitarianism. But our responsibility does not end there. It is not limited to electing a government and then sanctioning its politics by allotting good or bad grades. Our responsibility extends according to our values, ambitions and dreams for the future. For after having elected our leaders, we must, as the highest organ, transmit our impulses when we believe or suspect that our government’s promises are not promises for our futures. And in such moments, it is a matter of making our voices heard, whether through existing legislative mechanisms (as in Switzerland, for example, where any citizen can submit new laws or changes to the constitution to a vote, provided that he or she has collected enough signatures) or by demonstrating in the streets, obviously without violence, in order to have our voices heard and to express our wishes for the future.
An untroubled future climate, for example, is a right and a duty for all of us, a promise we must make to our children. During the past fifty years, not a single government has known how to pursue a policy for the future, not a single one has shouldered its responsibilities, instead leaving the planet to deteriorate, exploiting all its reserves, destroying its ecosystems. And still today, governmental policies combating global warming are hesitant. In these crucial times for humanity, it is our role as citizens to get out on the streets and demand that those who govern us finally accept their responsibility and act.
The future is our responsibility.
The future is in our hands.
Translated by Tess Lewis
Joël Dicker was born in 1985 in Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied law and still lives. He is the author of six novels, translated into 40 languages, which have sold more than 10 million copies.
His novel The Truth about the Case of Harry Quebert was the literary sensation of 2012 in France and the best-selling French-language novel in the last decade. Dicker’s work has won three French literary prizes, including the « Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française » and the « Prix Goncourt des Lycéens » . His best-selling book was also chosen as one of the “101 favorite novels of Le Monde readers” and was adapted into a television series by Jean-Jacques Annaud.