The Dogma of Democracy Gone Sour

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
Robert Hutchins


When it comes to political organisation the western world likes to claim the moral high ground. It touts the benefits of free and fair elections, as if the concept of democracy were a self-evident, eternal truth. For the US State Department, democracy has taken on near-religious significance. It has become a right, just as much as the right to life, liberty and happiness.

If the US and many other western countries actually practised what they preached, they would at least be giving their sermons from solid turf. But because they continue to undermine the practice of democracy at home, their pulpits are not very high and the ground they stand on is increasingly squishy.

In the nations with the loudest democracy trumpets, big businesses and rich individuals have corrupted the democratic process. They influence elections and laws to their advantage and suppress changes they don’t like. At the same time, the poor have become increasingly disenfranchised, either because they are deliberately excluded from the voting process or because they no longer believe it has any value.

This is not just a failure of democracy. It is also a failure of communication. Rather than achieving its goals, and promoting an idea with considerable merit, the West is undermining the cause. Democracy has become little more than an ideological weapon, and it is driving the doubters away.

1. Its Death is not Exaggerated

Democracy is not difficult to understand. It means “rule by the people”. It is difficult to achieve, however. And even when it has been achieved, when there is a fair electoral system and a government that represents the views of the people, it is easy to see the system’s flaws. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson,* democracy can still end up being “mob rule” with 51% of the voters imposing their ideas on everyone else.

When we talk about democracy we usually mean one particular form of representative democracy, called liberal or constitutional democracy. Under this system, most western countries hold regular elections to vote for representatives who make decisions on behalf of the electorate. To prevent these representatives from assuming too much power, there is usually a constitution, a legal framework that establishes the principles that the government must follow.

As well as a constitution, a democracy needs an independent judiciary and a fairly elected government. It needs equality of opportunity to stand for election. Anyone should be able to put themselves up as a candidate. Exceptions can exist, for those who might be criminally insane for example, but these should be rare. Being elected should certainly not depend on how rich you are.

A good system also needs universal suffrage. Voting should be open to all adults, without discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, beliefs or social status. This means that even those in prison should have a vote. If not, then those who are wrongful victims of political persecution or of bad laws are denied a voice.

There also needs to be an independent media — a free press — or at least mostly free. Voters should have access to opinions but, more importantly, to facts. It is vital that citizens’ views are not influenced by biased reporting, or by media moguls with their own agendas who are able to twist their audience’s opinions to suit their own ends.

Democracy also requires freedom of association. Citizens should have the right to form political groups and to have their views heard, even when these views are odious to the majority. Because of the increase in anti-terrorism legislation since 9/11, this requirement has been weakened in many western countries.

Finally, to have a high level of democracy, societies need to have citizens who are educated and informed about their rights and civic responsibilities. There needs to be a working relationship between those in power and those who vote.

It is easy to forget that an electorate has responsibilities too, that the process is two-way. It is not just up to those in power to make sure the system functions, it is also up to every citizen. Citizens, if they care about where their societies are heading, need to take responsibility for being properly informed; they need to speak out when the system does not work; and they need to take part in the political process, even if just through the act of voting.

In many western countries, however, the relationship that exists between the ruled and the rulers has become fraught. Those who have been elected often pursue their own agendas, or look after the interests of lobby groups, before they think of those who elected them into power. Lobbyists, especially those representing big businesses, have become extremely powerful in Europe, including in the UK, Canada, Australia and, especially, in America. They have distorted the political process by influencing elections and laws in ways that the electorate cannot.

At the same time, many western citizens have less direct contact with their political representatives than they once did. Politicians focus instead on a handful of swing voters, meaning that the voice of the majority is frequently ignored. As a consequence, many western citizens are choosing to vote less than before, and take less interest in politics.

Democracy has always had its problems, of course. Ancient Greece’s Aristotle called it one of the three “evil” forms of government. It was not even favoured by America’s Founding Fathers who feared democracy as much as they feared monarchy. They worried that a democratically elected government would take away the people’s freedom, either by being too weak to protect them from external threats, or by becoming too powerful and taking over every aspect of their lives.

To try and get around these problems, America chose a constitutional republic as its model of governance where executive, legislative and judicial powers are separated. The constitution and the judiciary are meant to stop any abuses by those in power. The intention was to make “a government of laws, not men”.

Despite these efforts, America’s democratic system, the one the world is supposed to look up to as a model, is suffering from exactly the problems the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid. Five stand out in particular:

• The constitution is being undermined.
• Millions have become disenfranchised.
• A tiny number of people determine the outcome.
• Big businesses and lobbyists have corrupted the process.
• There is too little choice.

First, the constitution: thanks mainly to a series of badly thought out laws put in place since 9/11, America’s constitution is no longer providing the protection for citizens that it should.

Those wanting to oppose the government, members of the Occupy Movement for example, have been denied the right to assemble and speak out, which is a violation of the 1st Amendment. Muslim groups have also been singled out for surveillance1 while journalists2 have been detained to stop them reporting stories the government does not like. These are also violations of the 1st. Just as bad, the PATRIOT Act allows the government to monitor citizens without recourse to law, which violates the 4th. The state can now legally obtain the source and addressee information of all telephone and online communications and gain access to unopened electronic mail. It can also collect DNA samples, even from those not convicted of any crime.

Even 30 years ago such activities would have been unthinkable. It would have been unimaginable that private letters between individuals could be opened and read by the State or that a democratic western government could demand unrestricted access to medical, financial, business and educational records or authorise secret searches of homes and offices, without extensive legal process. Yet these are all permitted in America today.3 The second problem is with the democratic process itself. In recent years, many more people have been excluded from voting in America. According to a report published in 2012 by the Pew Center,4 as many as 24% of those eligible to vote have not registered to do so because the process has been made too complex. That is at least 51 million people.

In many states, people wanting to vote must now have a government-issued photo ID card or passport. Because few Americans travel abroad and many others are wary of authority, this new rule alone has effectively disenfranchised 12% of the population. A disproportionate number of these people are poor and black.

Convicted criminals are also denied the right to vote in many US states, even after they have served their sentence and are free, in gainful employment, and paying their taxes. In those states where they can re-register, the process is often so difficult that few go through with it. Those in prison are also unable to vote, unlike in many other western countries, including neighbouring Canada. As the prison population of the US is so large compared to other developed nations, this adds up to a great many people. In total, more than 2% of the electorate is excluded because they are, or were, felons. Again, a disproportionate number are poor and black.

* Jefferson actually said: democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.
Graeme Maxton: Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome.
1. Frank Stoltze, “Muslims sue FBI for alleged First Amendment violation” South California Public Radio Report February 23, 2011.
2. Adam Goldman, “New documents in NYPD surveillance of Muslims,” Associated Press Report March 9, 2012.
3. “The Impact of the Patriot Act on Employers,” Rothgerber, Johnson and Lyons, LLP, January 2003.
4. “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient, Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade,” Pew Center February 14, 2012.


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