Comments by Katherine Deves’ trans women have sparked another round of culture wars – and added another nail in the coffin of democracy

The second American President, John Adams, said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It gets wasted, worn out and killed quickly. There has never been a democracy that didn’t last long. committed suicide.”

A little reckless, perhaps – and Adams was more of a philosopher than a politician, a man given to bold statements.

More than two centuries after he said that, American democracy still stands, still offering what another president, Abraham Lincoln, called “earth’s last best hope.”

But it falters. Americans have lost faith in their democracy. It is a nation torn by tribal political warfare. Dividing and corrosive, hope undermines inequality.

It sometimes appears as an ungovernable nation.

Pro-Trump supporters storm the US Capitol in Washington in January 2021.(Reuters: Ahmed Gaber)

He is not alone. Democracy is not dead but it is weakened. Freedom House, which measures the health of democracies globally, now counts 15 straight years of democratic decline.

At the same time, the strong politician, the autocrat and the populist have harnessed genuine fear and anxiety to rule not over division but because of it.

Yes, democracies commit suicide.

We are not immune. Australia is one of the world’s robust democracies, but we are plagued by the American disease of relentless culture wars that inflame passions and cloud reason.

As the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke once said, “The wild gas, the still air, has clearly been unleashed.

We saw it this week with the debate – or is it the panic? — on transgender women in sport.

It’s not about trans women in sports

Now, there is a real discussion to be had here. It is clear that sports organizations need consistency and clarity based on science.

The science on whether transgender women continue to have an advantage is embryonic and far from a consensus.

But the noise this problem has generated goes far beyond the dilemma itself.

Simply, there is not yet a critical number of transgender athletes dominating women’s sport. At the last Summer Olympics, there were over 11,000 athletes; less than half a dozen were transgender.

But it’s not about transgender women in sport. Comments – often inflammatory – by Liberal candidate for Sydney’s Warringah seat, Katherine Deves, have sparked a new round of culture wars.

As usual, people lined up to choose sides, claim moral superiority and fight identity battles.

This is happening across the political spectrum, left and right; this happens in many problems.

This is only the last. Right-wing cultural warriors talk about free speech and silence. Those on the left speak of hate speech and “safe spaces”. In a world of “cancel culture”, each wants to cancel the other.

What we don’t do is disagree. The media, with a few exceptions, does not help. The debate revolves around points of divergence and conflict: polarizing and dividing.

This is not what democracy was designed for. Yes, it’s supposed to be a contest of ideas. Yes, it is supposed to be vigorous. All too often the so-called “middle ground” is where politics dies.

But what happened to the vision of John Stuart Mill, which sought to build freedom by softening the limits of the extreme to reduce the difference between us? Not to found a meaningless environment, but to put reason above resentment.

Culture wars fill columns — at great cost

Ours is a graceless politics. The public is disillusioned. Primary votes for major parties in the 1930s and polls showing that young people, in particular, have lost faith in democracy, tell us that something is wrong.

Today is transgender sport. Earlier in the year it was religious freedom. Then, as now, a real issue of contested rights and how to live respectfully and fully with our differences was stifled by a focus on bigotry and discrimination.

As with the transgender issue, we have gone to extremes to make our respective cases.

The secular left has sought to characterize believers as hateful ideologues. Conservative religious groups seemed more determined to talk about exclusion than God’s superior gift of embrace.

Israel Folau looks straight ahead during the rematch ceremony ahead of an Australia v Ireland test.
Israel Folau was a pawn in a political culture war.(PA: Dave Hunt)

Rugby player Israel Folau has become a touchstone, with each side using him for their own ends. For some, he was a Christian publicly proclaiming the Bible’s teachings on sin. For others, he was an intemperate bigot who needed to be silenced and fired.

Folau has never been a threat to Australian social cohesion, nor has he been the rock on which to build a case for freedom of religious expression. He was a pawn in a political culture war.

It fills the column inches. He emboldens the fighters. It feeds political identity. And this has a cost for all of us.

This type of identity politics erodes what is essential for democracy, what American political scientist Mark Lilla has called a “civic us”.

The culture wars have also prevented us from reaching a settlement on the greatest question of Australian virtue: a just reconciliation with First Nations peoples.

Every advance is met with resistance. Not based on a rational argument, but stoking fear. Land rights were meant to take away Australian backyards. Didn’t happen. The Mabo decision would threaten mining and agriculture. We have found a passage.

The Uluru From the Heart declaration calling for an indigenous voice in the constitution was misrepresented as creating a “third chamber” of parliament.

It’s fair that people wonder if the voice threatens to create “two classes” of Australians based on race. But that should be a starting point for the discussion, not an end.

We need to listen carefully and understand a history of exclusion and oppression of First Nations people. We should ask ourselves why, after two centuries, in one of the richest nations in the world, indigenous peoples are the most imprisoned and the poorest in the land.

We must understand that the Uluru Declaration does not call for division but for healing. Sowing Australian affiliation with tens of thousands of years of culture, history and tradition and blending that with all the traditions that have followed.

Virtue is critical, it promises hope

The Uluru Declaration is a profound affirmation of the potential of our democracy. That a people originally excluded from the constitution can find there the fulfillment of its aspirations.

We can still disagree after we agree. It is as it should be. But it should come from a place of good faith, not bad will.

Virtue is essential. It was only because Martin Luther King Jnr believed that America was a virtuous nation – despite itself and its worst – that he could launch a just campaign of nonviolence to shame his country for recognizing the black humanity.

Martin luther king jnr addresses a large crowd from a podium
Martin Luther King Jnr believed that America was a virtuous nation.(Wikipedia Commons: Minnesota Historical Society)

America is still falling short. Yet virtue promises hope. Even hope in the face of despair.

As our federal election campaign continues, is virtue too much to ask? In a world where democracy is declining and authoritarianism is rising, can we continue to destroy ourselves?

We watch the Chinese threat on the horizon and all the while we are destroying our democracies from within.

For an American president, John Adams had a gloomy view of democracy, as he said, “Individuals conquered each other. Nations and great groups of men, never.”

However, democracy has the capacity to renew itself.

It starts with the belief that our best is better than our worst. Even John Adams believed it. As he wrote, “To believe that all men are honest is folly. To believe none is something worse.

Stan Grant is ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.

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