- Making Our Best Move with Audrey Tang and Taiwan's Digital Democracy
As I look outside my window to examine the smoky morning sky, a twenty-foot van slowly rolls by. Painted on its side is a silhouette of a horse-drawn covered wagon driven by a man in a cowboy hat in the front and another man loading the wagon from behind. Next to the image is the company name, "Make Your Best Move." The exodus of residents from the San Francisco Bay Area began with the coronavirus pandemic and continues with the fires raging across the entire US Pacific Coast, the worst ever in recorded history. Amid these trying times, my friend in Taiwan texted me, "Taiwan is safer than anyplace in the world." This feeling of safety, unlike in the US, speaks volumes to Taiwan's governing capabilities. This essay reflects on Taiwan as a critical method for the US and American studies by serving as a model and a mnemonic of democracy, a hard-won core value of the US. Through the figure and civil service of Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang, this essay shows how this mnemonic works to understand that democracy is not guaranteed but must be fought for, and practiced with trust, flexibility, and adaptability.
As pressing examples, the climate crisis and global pandemic call for strong, swift, and compassionate leadership. Solving the intensifying climate crisis requires global cooperation and genuine political will. That is, the wreckage left behind cannot be used as fodder for continued unfettered globalized capitalistic gains that studies show, and our lived experiences confirm, are antithetical to maintaining the long-term health of planet Earth.1 Furthermore, though several factors have led to catastrophic deaths surpassing 590,000 people in the US, the one factor that stands out is weak leadership. Interestingly, reports found that countries led by women were doing much better to mitigate and contain the spread of Covid-19.2 One of these leaders is President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan.
With the 2016 election of Tsai, Taiwan's first woman president, I began my research on female presidents and prime ministers for my new film Her Excellency. When she was elected, I thought to myself: Why can't the US, a 220-year-old democracy, elect a woman president, especially since Taiwan, [End Page 363] a 20-year-old democracy, has done so? Electing a woman is no easy feat for most countries in the world. Despite the increase of democratically elected women heads of state since 1980, in the past ten years, the percentage of women presidents and prime ministers has hovered between 6 and 7 percent of the world's leaders. This means that global affairs that affect our daily lives are run mostly by men.
In 2016 the US came close to electing its first woman president, Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes. Many believe US electoral reform is badly needed, including eliminating the electoral college voting system. This is only one of many aspects contributing to the US's "lowfunctioning democracy," an assessment politely made to me by Torild Skard, former president of the upper Norwegian Parliament. Other major aspects involve election security issues, voting eligibility, voter suppression, low voter turnout, an entrenched two-party system, corporate campaign financing, a corporate-dominated media landscape, and, in my field of communication, the glaring lack of comprehensive media literacy education in the US's K–12 schools. While the US serves less as a role model for good democratic practices, its economic and military-industrial complexes continue to have formidable global influence.3
In the meantime, Taiwan's relatively young democracy is recognized as robust and dynamic, earning it a score of 93 for "Global Freedom" in Freedom House's 2019 annual "Freedom in the World" report, compared with the US's 86 and China's 10. I myself have experienced Taiwan's democratic practices and spirit of experimentation as an artist-in-residence and teacher from 2004 to 2010. I saw the creation of Taiwan's Indigenous Television in 2005, the first in Asia. I also had the fortune...