It is easy to become inured to the constant alarms we hear about threats to democracy. The Tibetan parliament-in-exile reminds us why it matters in practical terms, and offers inspiration on how to keep democracy alive in even the most perilous conditions.
The recent history of Tibetan democracy has been marked by high drama. In 1959 His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled from Tibet in perhaps the most high-profile escape of the 20th century. For a decade, former President of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong and his government severely restricted Tibetan freedoms and dismantled many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and homes. On March 10, 1959, His Holiness, in company with twenty family members and ministers, disguised himself in a Chinese uniform and escaped Lhasa, Tibet, amid rioting crowds. Over twelve nights, they traveled by foot to the China-India border, and upon arrival the Indian government permitted the caravan to set up the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Sixty-three years on, the government-in-exile and its democracy has endured in Dharamsala, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is in this location that Harvard Kennedy School William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership Arthur Brooks and our Kennedy School team chose to launch the Leadership & Happiness Laboratory (‘the Lab’), an organization dedicated to lifting global well-being by teaching public leaders how to be happiness teachers.
Over the course of a week, the Lab was generously granted a two-day audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, opportunities for in-depth exploration of Tibetan cultural institutes, and an audience with the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, which included a conversation surrounding questions of democracy with Deputy Speaker Dolma Tsering Teykhang, the elected leader of the parliament.
In her very person, Teykhang embodies the Tibetan cause. Despite representing exiled Tibetans across the world, hosting a rotation of global leaders, and navigating complex Sino-Tibetan policy, Teykhang operates in a modest office inside a similarly modest parliamentary building. She describes herself as a “teacher, not a politician,” having spent twenty-six years as an educator before her election in 2001. And in the Lab’s interview with her, we sought to explore what it takes to sustain a democracy under threat, and what qualities make the best democratic leaders.
Our conversation with Teykhang began in the Western context. Today, both sides of our political class insist that malign forces—from the other side of the aisle, mostly —are attacking the very core of our democracy. While sympathetic to these concerns, Teykhang wondered openly whether Tibetan and Western definitions of ‘threat’ are misaligned:
“During the Chinese [cultural cleansing],” said Teykhang, “the government of Tibet did their best to co-exist with China…but China became increasingly aggressive.” But, even under this common threat, she says, “As [hundreds of thousands] of Tibetans died, Tibetan democracy underwent intense strain.” Even today, “the Chinese government seeks to disrupt democracy-in-exile elections in Nepal [and other areas], in which ballot boxes are stolen and voters are intimidated [by threat of their lives]. These challenges do not quite occur in the West.”
In other words, Tibetan democracy has survived lethal threat in a way that appeared to Teykhang as incomparable with the real, albeit far less severe, challenges of Western democracies.
In fact, the realities of Tibetan and Western democratic governments are incomparable. The Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), a robust source of country-by-country data, uses research from economic historians to track the democratic health of every nation. In this metric (and others), exiled Tibet is not considered an independent nation, and thus its ‘democratic health’ metrics are not measured. Meanwhile, Tibet proper’s Global Freedom House (GFH) ranking is an abysmal 1 out of 100. The United States’ GFH ranking is conversely high (83 out of 100), and its V-Dem data show spikes in democratic health during three major inflection points: The end of the Civil War (1865), the climax of the women’s suffrage movement (1920), and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1965). Since 1965, the U.S. has remained above the globe’s 80th percentile, and, more broadly, Western democracies across Europe have gained strength year-on-year since the latter half of the twentieth century. Importantly, rich democratic nations have shown no signs of perilous strain in their democratic health.
This is not to suggest that Western democracies are in perfect shape. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index charts the strength of 165 countries’ democracies, and shows that, on average, most countries’ scores declined amid the coronavirus lockdowns and widespread populist movements on both the political right and left. Only eleven countries hold the highest thresholds (defined as a ‘free status’ nation from the GFH and a ‘full democracy’) and the U.S. is notably off this list. Yet the U.S. does register as one of the world’s sixteen ‘free status’ nations, and is considered a ‘flawed democracy’ largely based on its low political participation and political culture. These metrics indicate that in Western nations, the foundations of our democratic systems (e.g., electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, and government functioning) are strong, but that our antagonistic political culture has driven citizens to disengage from political participation altogether.
Our political culture is upstream of warnings of threats to democracy. A generous view suggests that politicians who warn of democratic threats are operating in good faith and are genuinely concerned about equality of representation, fair elections, and freedoms of expression and association. A less generous view suggests that, in an effort to make voters fearful of the opposition, politicians instead stir up ideological narratives (“the other side wants to destroy democracy”) designed to drive voters to their camps. While the Lab strives to provide empirical clarity on complex topics, it is not the aim of this essay to determine which view is reality, though we suspect there is truth in both. Instead, we wish to emphasize that both views oscillate around a faulty premise. The data demonstrate unambiguously that Western democracy is not falling apart at the seams; it is instead reliably strong (albeit not perfect) across V-Dem and the EIU’s leading indicators.
This reassuring picture, however, should not deter us in the West from learning from others, such as the inspiring people struggling for a free and democratic Tibet. What, we asked the Deputy Speaker, has allowed the Tibetan government-in-exile to survive amid threat? Teykhang’s answer will provide Westerners a straightforward and radical shift in mindset: Democracy, like spirituality, must be considered an exercise for finding cultural meaning. For the parliament-in-exile, Tibetan Buddhism is deeply tied to the democratic system in ways unfamiliar to Western democracies:
“There are both religious and lay people in parliament,” explained Teykhang. “His Holiness wishes for democracy to be influenced by theocratic personnel so that they can help lay people when they go awry.” But even in purely secular governments, Teykhang suggested that for threatened democracies to endure, constituencies must approach democracy in the same way Buddhists approach their faith – an opportunity to find meaning.
This is a profound point. The fact that our democratic institutions are strong does not necessarily mean that they are meaningful to many people. Pew data indicate that some Western democracies have been robbed of the central place they play in culture. In some countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany, two-thirds or more of the population are satisfied with their countries’ democracy. But in other nations such as the U.S., Spain, Italy, and Greece, a majority of citizens are dissatisfied. The two aforementioned lagging indicators of American democratic strength—low political participation and antagonistic political culture—are symptoms of a malaise in seeing democracy as central to who we are as nations.
At the Lab, we define meaning in line with the best social science: ‘A cognitive and emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value.’ Philosophers have debated the nature of meaning for millennia, but scholars writing in the Journal of Positive Psychology provide an excellent synopsis of a variety of thinkers across time. The ‘meanings of meaning’, so the research calls it, are three-pronged: coherence (e.g., why things happen), purpose (e.g., what you are alive to do), and significance (e.g., your life matters). These ‘meanings of meaning’ are intuitive for our personal lives, but how can we wield them to reinstitute meaning in our democracy?
Teykhang advises that we start with higher purpose. This need not be God; it could be our children, principles from ancient philosophers, or the universe’s transcendental nature. Any combination of these help to build the ‘meanings of meaning’ in our own lives. We should also consider democracy as ‘something higher’ that gives our lives purpose and value—beyond today’s politics and beyond whether our side wins an election. History’s democratic champions understood this idea. Think of scholars such as John Locke, who was informed by Enlightenment principles; or American founders who wrote seriously about natural law in the face of British imperial rule; or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who vouched for inclusion during the suffrage movement; or Martin Luther King, Jr., who used arguments of all these thinkers to achieve justice for marginalized Americans. Each of these movements, in fact, occurred in the face of intense (and often deadly) challenges. Research shows that a tough challenge is a boon for meaning. When seen through this model, our ancestors derived meaning from democracy in a strikingly similar way: in the face of adversity, while seeing the democratic goal as ‘something higher’ than themselves.
Teykhang recognizes this principle: “Anything for which you haven’t spent a penny or shed a tear,” she said, “is very difficult to understand its meaning. Therefore, [democratic leaders in Tibet and beyond] must tell our people to look at the world at large: They shed tears, blood, and sweat for democracy while fighting [non-democratic] regimes. When we have democracy easily, we are not able to understand it…Anything that comes free, the value comes down.”
The West has had the privilege of not fighting for democracy for more than two generations. This is a good problem to have, but one that makes it too easy to take democracy for granted—as if it were automatic. Teykhang emphasized that through proper historical education, both Tibetans (who are currently struggling for democracy) and Westerners (whose ancestors largely did the struggling) can recognize the deep meaning that can be derived through elected representation and its associated freedoms. For the West, this is a challenge to better teach our histories to fully appreciate the governmental systems in which we live.
Still, the question of good democratic leadership lingers, especially if our governmental systems are to endure. We thus asked Teykhang a final question that sorely needs answering: What makes a good democratic leader?
At this, Teykhang gave a wry smile: “When I came from teaching to parliament, I never promoted myself with lavish posters. Instead, I went [unannounced] to the village farthest away in my [district]. People told me, ‘Don’t go! You’ll have to ride horses and walk a treacherous path.’ But I went. And when I arrived on the outskirts, a local man saw me and began to cry. And I told him, ‘No matter if I have to roll…jump, or…do anything, I will come to your village to hear your voices’.”
Put simply, a good democratic leader prioritizes deep principles over personal glory. Or, in other terms, we need morally good – not charismatically great – leaders. We should take heed of the Deputy Speaker’s ‘principles before glory’ advice, and vote out leaders who are stuck in the vicious charisma cycle.
“I put faith in my people and my work, not in myself,” said Teykhang. “Democracy is rarely what I believe; it is a reflection of what my people believe.” Across the world, Teykhang noted that democratic leaders have “become obsessed with their own idolatry,” instead of humbly representing one’s constituency. Indeed, this sense is rooted in the negative side of political charisma.
Deputy Speaker Teykhang and her parliament have therefore given the West a salient blueprint for not only sustaining a democracy under threat, but also how to resupply its meaning.
First, we must understand democracy in a global and historical context. Western democracy is perhaps under strain in specific ways, but we mustn’t give way to those who, in pursuit of their own partisan power or narrow ideology, insist that Western democracy is under lethal threat. Such an insinuation is not only based on a false premise, but is also insulting to bodies like the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, who have for decades faced literal extinction.
Second, democracy, like spirituality, must be considered an exercise for finding meaning if it is to survive serious threats. Proper historical education will reaffirm the meaningful plight of our ancestors and make us appreciate the rarity and favorability of our current governing systems.
Third, democratic leaders should place principles above glory. We should be wary of charismatically great leaders and instead welcoming of morally good leaders. Regarding the vanity of charisma, Teykhang reminds us that “sin and sickness cannot be hidden, and the more you hide either one, the more complicated the picture becomes.”
by Bryce Fuemmeler, research associate, The Leadership and Happiness Lab
The views and opinions expressed in Community Reflections are the solely those of the author and are not endorsed by the Center for Public Leadership.