BUENOS AIRES — Like health, peace or freedom, democracy is appreciated once it is lost. It has been 35 years now since democracy was restored in Argentina and Raúl Alfonsín became its elected, civilian president on Dec. 10, 1983. The military dictatorship became part of the past. It was a historic landmark. The balance of that period is a mix of undeniable achievements and glaring mistakes. But the best homage we could pay it would be to ask what the future holds for us.
What does one see today, not just here but elsewhere in the world? One sees repeated and brazen attempts at both ends of the political spectrum to weaken democracy and highlight social unease as a means of exhausting and discrediting democratic mechanisms. It is a disturbing panorama that is spreading and has already shown itself in the region. To this we may add that a good many political actors, whatever their position or constituencies, seem unable to meet the challenge of changes taking place. They are more focused on the past than on the enormity of unfolding events.
Spain's former prime minister, Felipe González, recently warned on the 40th anniversary of the Spanish constitution — written in 1978 after the end of General Francisco Franco's regime — that we are debating and presenting too many solutions for a past that is definitively gone, instead of discussing duties for a future that demands social justice and freedom. This is not valid just for Spain.
The list of challenges is immense: digitalization and robotization and their effects on employment; biotechnologies and advances in health and longevity that are shaking existing retirement systems; climate change and its impact; gender equality that is rebooting society and the family; the future of work; globalization; big data; drug trafficking; inequalities; education; widespread poverty...
The other observation is older. The novelist Jorge Luis Borges observed after reading Argentine writer and politician Domingo Sarmiento a rare intellectual quality in that man of letters. Sarmiento, he said, "achieves the feat of seeing the present in historical terms, simplifying it and sensing it as if it were already the past." A good deal or most of our political debates are going the other way: We talk about the past as if it were happening now, and are failing to see what is already taking shape as the future.
New governments promise radical reforms, but always with ideas from the past. Leaders are not seeing clearly how the challenges at hand are affecting the democratic system. Meanwhile extremist agents have returned with magic proposals to rectify our circumstances, with unknown consequences. Instead of resolving residual tensions with the past, these are exacerbated as a lethal tactic.
Citing Felipe González again, "We must recover the space of dialogue and understanding, because there is absolutely no reason for claiming that what was possible 40 years ago has become unattainable. Let us not open new trenches after sealing the ones the caused so much suffering." It is imperative to look at what is coming in order to consider the answers the future of democracy demands.