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'Zombie Democracy’ Is a Nightmare for Natives

Duane Champagne says Indigenous Peoples are particularly vulnerable to the zombie democracy phenomenon.

The British magazine The Economist has coined the expression “zombie democracy” to denote government leaders or parties that believe winning elections automatically translates into a mandate to rule as they please. Indigenous Peoples are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.

Some policy makers believed that Indians needed only five to ten years to make the transformation to economically self-sufficient U.S. citizens and abandonment of tribal government. We know this policy as termination policy or the period of forced assimilation between the 1870s and 1934. Other policy makers thought Indians would need a generation or two to make the transition to cultural and political integration into U.S. society. In both cases the democratic majority dictated policy to the Indian minority, and imposed the majority’s values and terms on the Indians.

Majoritarian rules can be countered to a certain extent by checks and balances. Such an effort offers more respect to minority interests and some hope that elected officials will rule for the entire nation, rather than for just their parties. It affords some hope of escaping zombie democracy. However, the shared political agendas of both minority and majority parties are alien to Indigenous Peoples. These populations form a segment of the nation that requires respect and understanding beyond majoritarian consensus.

For Indigenous Peoples, however, both minority and majority political parties have shared political agendas that are alien and often not wholly accepted by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous political non-conformity is not a matter of direct opposition to the democratic state and its ideals, but rather the continuity of indigenous commitments to their own political traditions, goals, and values. Indigenous Peoples form a segment of the political body of a nation that requires cultural and political respect and understanding beyond the majoritarian consensus and political competition.

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Majoritarian democracies assume that all citizens agree to the political process and are therefore subject to its outcomes. But indigenous nations are politically marginalized by such competitive and monocultural processes. And in majoritarian-zombie democratic institutions, indigenous governments and institutions are not recognized. They cannot gain wide recognition or support. Few people understand or support them. Yet democracy is, or at least should be, more than the tyranny of the majority. A complete democracy would recognize the range of cultural and institutional forms upheld by the peoples within a given nation.

There will be no truly democratic governments in the world until indigenous rights are recognized, included and protected. Until then, Indigenous Peoples remain politically and culturally subjugated to zombie democracy.