Is democracy a sham?

On the way out?
Photo credit: Ungry Young Man licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the centuries since the English Civil War and the Putney Debates it has become customary that democracy is seen and promoted as the most desirable basis for governance, whether at state or local level. Rooted in the concept of human rights, democracy seeks active engagement of all qualifying citizens in selection of policies and representatives to deliver fair life chances for all, usually through the provision of public services which even out the inevitable discrepancies of inheritance and chance. If fairness in distribution of a nation’s wealth is the rationale for democratic governance, then the systems of leading proponents such as USA and UK are failing.

There is no single system of government called democracy. The prerequisite for any democracy, that of establishing the demands, needs or preferences of the citizenry, is not easy to achieve. Referendums are simplistic, costly and too easy to manipulate. Governing based on the instructions of an insurgency rarely survives long, as factionalism, disagreement and greed for power lead to collapse. For these reasons, democracy most commonly involves election of representatives to a decision-making parliament. 

Within the parliament of a representative democracy, the elected members may band together into political parties with common aims and values not always or solely related to their own constituents’ interests. Such parties accrue resources through which to support candidates’ campaigns, to form blocks of votes in assemblies and to represent the most possible constituencies, to gain the greatest influence over decisions taken through majority voting. This may result in the party’s interests being represented in the assembly over the apparent but different needs of their constituents. The most well-intentioned politicians may be divorced from awareness and representation of citizens’ needs by personal affiliations and party loyalties. 

Representative but partisan democracy, therefore, distances citizens from the decisions made in their names. Competition and disagreement inevitable in such tribalized assemblies divide rather than unite, as each tribe advocates and defends the version of democracy it prefers, leaving the assembly at risk of representing only the interests of a dominant party; and communities represented by delegates belonging to minority parties may find their voice unheard and needs unmet, often in perpetuity. This particularly applies in parliaments with two-party or first past the post electoral systems. Sham democracy indeed. 

If a party grows through electoral success to become dominant in the parliament, it may so control matters that it can change rules to prolong its tenure, pass laws in its favour and even prohibit opposition, overcoming the obstacles to egregious undemocratic behaviour deliberately imposed in constitutions, written or unwritten. History shows that would-be autocrats often manipulate or side-step parliaments in this way, appealing for support direct to a populace more susceptible to simple-to-grasp slogans than to more complex rationale. Ruthless populist demagogues can and do foment coups to turn countries into one-party states, with no opposition, without even the popular imprimatur of a revolution. Such States cease to be democracies but claim democratic legitimacy through use of regular, albeit fake ballots and inventions of “enemies” to justify their continuing powers. Erdogan, Hitler, Mugabe, Mussolini, Orban and Putin come to mind. 

Interest groups without accountability to the people may damage democracy. Powerful individuals and issues-based lobbying exist in many countries, using their wealth and influence to ensure that their interests are allowed to thrive and perceived threats are weakened. Boris Johnson has already used so-called “dark money” in ways clearly not intended in democratic systems. Such powerful cliques may transcend party lines and even move allegiance between parties, influencing or infiltrating political parties to optimise success for their investments and long-term agendas. In UK, alumni of elite schools and universities form life-long networks for mutual advantage, bypassing or manipulating any democratic processes. 

Democracy is an idea which is hard to turn into a governmental system which actually works for all. There has long been a strand of thought which regards it as too clumsy for a large population, which may be too uneducated, too passionate or too apathetic to be allowed to make decisions. But if not democracy, what? Who could or should be allowed to interpret or decide what is best for citizens and on what basis? Benign autocracy, oligarchy or even monarchy can seem very attractive even to a disinterested citizenry but benignity has a habit of being temporary, with extreme ideology, self-enrichment or abuse of power overcoming any original good intentions. Even the most egregious of dictators may have set out on a democratic path and have delivered benefits to their people until in the end their journey will have involved depriving people of human and civil rights, including life itself. A philosopher-monarch or benign dictator informed by experts seems an ideal too hard to find or endure. Consideration of alternatives suggests the desirability of representative democracy enshrined in a protective constitution, regulated by an independent judiciary, in which citizens are consulted regularly both about their choice of representatives and policies in a fair voting system. 

If sharing a country’s wealth fairly is a criterion for democracy, the inequalities so extreme in UK and USA suggest either that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be, or that in these particular states, champions as they claim to be of democracy, the systems are failing. There are increasing signs today in supposedly democratic states, including our own, of apparent democrats taking decisions secretively which should lie with the representative chambers, even deliberately damaging established norms and institutions to create chaos which “demands” that control to be grasped by the ruthless.

As the song says: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. Right now in the UK, we may be watching some of what we value going, through:

The tactics used by demagogues to win and wield power are well understood but what of those needed to be used to oppose them? Where is the defence of democracy; and of what does it consist? Its legitimacy lies with the people, so long as they are allowed an informed say; and with Parliament, so long as it sits. Failing this, the independent judiciary is perhaps the last line of defence. When this is attacked by an authoritarian executive, we can be sure that voters risk losing their say and that democracy has indeed become a “decorous façade”. 

Democratic governance seems a sound idea, socially, morally and politically – if it can be made to work. Alternatives are more likely to disadvantage more citizens. Democracy requires constant scrutiny of the values and behaviours of would-be leaders by those who care about democracy against the real risk that it may be subverted. Apparent support for democracy by an authoritarian minority suggests its usefulness to their covert agendas. In such hands, it is unquestionably a sham. History shows clearly how a society can and may unwittingly turn against democracy, with all of its complexity and vulnerability. Perhaps the greatest challenges to the validity and continuity of a democratic system lie in its reliance on leaders of goodwill; the need for vigilance against its manipulation; and effective, timely means to prevent this. It may at any time and place be a sham without citizens being aware. 

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