You may not know this, but today is Zimbabwe’s Independence Day. Yet few Zimbabweans could honestly say that the gains received when they won independence in 1980 — sovereignty, national pride and freedom from colonization — have been sustained in a meaningful way. Rather, today is a sorrowful day, as it marks the 26th year that Robert Mugabe has been in power. Not only is our economy in tatters but our population is being decimated by AIDS. One quarter of Zimbabwe’s population is living abroad and those who are still in Zimbabwe are constantly subjected to propaganda that tells them that they are not really suffering. After all, the state media claim, the granaries are full, no one in Zimbabwe is starving and we are a sovereign nation — the U.S. and British neocolonialists have no right to interfere in our affairs. Our once vibrant agricultural sector is in ruins after a disastrous, racially charged, fast-track land redistribution program. The opposition has withered in the face of brutal repression and we are increasingly isolated abroad. Simply put, the prospects for change are bleak.
No one could have dreamed when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 that the oppression so many had fought to overcome would soon return in a different guise, this time through the man and the party that had supposedly liberated us. How did things go wrong? Was it inevitable that Zimbabwe would become an authoritarian state, the fate of any developing African country? Is it Zimbabweans’ fault for not reading the warning signs and taking action?
Zimbabwe’s progression from beacon of democratic hope 26 years ago to the abyss of authoritarianism today makes me consider an uncomfortable possibility — could America ever go the same way? The comparison may seem ridiculous at first. After all, America has never had a dictator, has always recovered from its economic crises — however dismal — and is the longest surviving democracy in the world. In fact, America is such a good model for democracy that it has taken it upon itself to promote democracy abroad, rescuing less successful countries from the throes of bad governments.
All the same, some disturbing parallels exist between Zimbabwe and America: flawed presidential elections; unpopular, financially draining and deceptively organized foreign wars; and even wire-tapping. One could spout other parallels with other countries all over the world, and these examples could be just as easily countered by the crucial difference of degree. America may not be a perfect democracy, it could be argued, but it is definitely more democratic than Zimbabwe. This is true. But degree does not trump principles. Simply claiming that America is on the high end of the democratic spectrum does not absolve it of the compromises it does make on democracy. This country is uniquely placed to be a model to other countries, but a democracy must embody its characteristics not only in name but in substance. Whenever the government compromises the tenets of democracy, it makes its arguments for democracy that much less convincing. America’s belief in its democratic providentialism does not protect it from the weaknesses that lead other countries to fall into dictatorship. In fact, what is particularly dangerous for America is the way Americans have been so conditioned to equate their country with democracy such that national actions cannot be conceived of as being anything but democratic. Thus, infractions are integrated into mainstream democratic rhetoric, aberrations are overlooked, the errors of the Bush presidency are regarded as a one-time occurrence and the unfortunate results of an incompetent leader. Because the democratic fabric of the country is never doubted, the changes away from democracy are hardly viewed for what they really are.
America may always remain a democracy. But the point is that, analogous to Lincoln’s words, it must be a democracy “worthy of the saving.” Substance matters as much as degree. As Zimbabweans continue to struggle for democracy, Americans must fight to ensure they preserve theirs.
Dambudzo Muzenda is a junior in Morse College.