RM Issue #040118
The Myth of Democracy
by Paul Harris
This article was prompted by an email exchange I had with a reader who had written to me about an article I published some while back (it doesn’t matter which one, this reader doesn’t like anything I write). After a few messages between us, the reader finally concluded by saying that I promote anti-Americanism, that I am probably on the payroll of some group in Teheran or Beirut, and that I actively discourage democracy. I confess to being opposed to most internal policies of the United States (which might be none of my business) as well as most external policies (which are). Alas, I am not on anyone’s payroll; but it was his final accusation that caught my attention. How exactly do I discourage democracy? I am fervently hoping that people will once again participate in democracy and I hope my writing reveals that I am actively trying to engage them to do so.
We’ve all heard variations on the statement, usually ascribed to Winston Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others; but somebody define democracy for me. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1992 pocket edition) says it is: “1. government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives; 2. classless and tolerant society”. Does everyone agree that’s what makes a democracy and does anybody know where I can find one of those?
A few years ago, Canadian journalist Patrick Watson got intrigued by the question of just what is a democracy. He noted that, for instance, the United States has a formal constitution and a whole set of laws and rules for how its version of democracy works. Countries following the English parliamentary tradition, like Canada, don’t follow the same rules as the US but most folks would agree they are democracies. Many other nations follow neither of those models but still describe themselves as democracies. Is any one of these models the ‘real’ democracy? Or are they merely variations of the same thing and thus equally entitled to think of themselves as democracies?
Watson produced a multi-segment documentary on the struggle for democracy and part of what had intrigued him was the variety of manifestations around the world of countries claiming to have democracies although they bore no resemblance to each other. In the course of his research, he was quite surprised to discover a number of countries who considered themselves to be democratic that would astonish most of us in the West. Countries such as Libya, the former USSR, China. How could they think of themselves as democracies? Because we are smug in our self-assurance and they are the bad guys, our natural tendency is to simply dismiss them as liars. But let’s try to examine what democracy really is.
In Athens, where it allegedly all began, democracy meant rule by a mob of land-owning citizens. People gathered in the Agora and whoever yelled the loudest won. A noble experiment, but it didn’t really catch on in a whole lot of places. After Athens, it was a long time before we ever got to the stage where dictators and hereditary monarchs were mostly displaced in favour of elected governments; but we did get there. It was a long time before we got past the requirement to own land as a prerequisite for suffrage; but we did get there. It was only a short time before we let go of the democratic dream; but we got there, mostly without even knowing we had done so.
If you wanted to hire/appoint/elect someone to administer your country, how would you choose? What makes a person suitable for such a role and what makes other people suitable judges of who could fill that role? Therein lies the fundamental danger of democracy — the power to make a horrendous mistake, the power to have uneducated electors choosing unqualified practitioners. It should never be lost on history that Hitler first came to office by winning a democratic election. It should also not be lost on history that the present leader of the foremost nation on Earth came to office by failing to win a democratic election.
Democracy should, by most people’s agreement, mean that the people rule, that they decide what is best for them, that they mutually agree to behaviour that will serve the needs of the greatest number of them, that they will structure their societies in ways that will benefit all. Because our populations far exceed that of ancient Athens, it is simply not feasible to get everyone together and let them yell. In most countries, therefore, a system of elections has been established (and there are a wide variety of electoral programs from a simple ‘one-person-one-vote’ system to a series of runoff elections where the eventual winner is the last dog standing). However elections are held, we eventually appoint people to represent us and to make those good judgments on our behalf.
There are still many countries where rule is by dictator, military cabal, or monarch. In some, for instance Libya, the dictator still swears his country is a democracy. But I can think of nowhere on earth where the people truly rule even though in most countries there is at least the pretence that they do. Elections are held at regular or semi-regular intervals and the people are asked to choose representatives from a narrow array of candidates chosen by special interest groups about whom they almost never know anything and whose credentials for the job are almost always highly suspect. Once elected, these representatives no more represent the wishes and desires and needs of the populace than an African wildebeest can join a marching trombone band.
In most cases, our elected representatives find themselves free to do as they wish and are not answerable to anyone until the next trip to the polls when they can be re-crowned or replaced by someone equally repugnant. In between elections, they are rarely called upon by their constituents to explain their actions or inactions because citizens everywhere have disengaged from the political process, in some countries more than others. For some, they simply have busy lives or blind trust in their electoral systems. But for many others, it is out of frustration; not for the realization that they are unable to hold their elected representatives accountable, but from the knowledge that those representatives really aren’t accountable.
Increasingly, citizens are marginalized by elected officials who believe the questions of the day are too complex for the average citizen to have any meaningful opinion. And they might be right about that; we are woefully uneducated about the issues we are asked to decide at election time largely because there is never any reliable information for us to use as guidance. Political parties propose things, opposition parties oppose things, special interest groups support one or the other or, sometimes, third, fourth or even fifth alternatives. And each of these groups gives us the ‘facts’ with their own special ‘spin’.
In many countries where there is at least the semblance of free elections, huge numbers of people choose not to exercise the right to vote. I might be going out on a limb here, but I am guessing this is not a sign the people believe that voting isn’t really necessary because our governments are the best they can possibly be. I’m also guessing that most thinking people realize there is something seriously wrong with the democracies that we all claim to treasure.
It seems to me a healthy democracy depends upon the ability of citizens to express themselves politically, which includes the right and the obligation to criticize and oppose the actions and policies of their governments. In many countries, dissent is at least politely discouraged if not openly trampled. People own the streets and should be free (peacefully) to take to them in massive numbers to let their leaders know of their dissatisfaction. We have seen that elected representatives almost everywhere pay no attention to their constituents until or unless there is a sufficient number of them in the street causing a ruckus … maybe we haven’t come so far from Athens after all, maybe the idea of getting together and yelling the loudest still has merit.
But where does the problem really lie? It lies in the fact that the democratic dream disappeared when corporations began to rule the world. Government is now virtually meaningless. No government controls the flow of its own economy any more; they no longer have control over the means of production within their borders because the corporate behemoths dictate the terms under which they will continue to do business within those borders, under threat of moving somewhere more favourable. So governments cave in to save the jobs, only to have the jobs disappear later anyway when the corporation decides a round of layoffs would bolster stock prices. Those corporations, which increasingly are multinational and beyond the rule of any one government or people, have taken over as the de facto government in almost every nation.
The more commerce, the better off we should all be. No one would deny that. But commerce is a subsidiary activity of human existence. And because it is subsidiary, the fact that it has been allowed to lead the way has deformed every aspect of our society. The idea that the very real citizen rights upon which we have built our societies should by overpowered by tariffs, or lack of tariffs, or the theoretical right of corporations to do whatever they please, simply makes no sense.
Democracy doesn’t really have much to do with counting votes; its legitimacy resides in the citizenry and their expression of collective will. We have slowly fallen into the error of worshipping and defending the ‘truths’ of public management and corporatism instead of encouraging the evocation of real choice and real public debate. The citizenry has largely silenced itself and made itself meaningless.
In order for democracy to survive, in any real sense, citizen engagement is needed — almost everywhere. Citizens need to be encouraged to participate, to take back responsibility for ensuring that society is what the people want it to be, to make representatives truly represent our best interests instead of their own or some special group’s, to make them accountable every day for every decision they make or don’t make.
We granted the authority to elected representatives to serve our best interests; we did not grant that right to faceless and unaccountable corporations. It used to be said that "what was good for General Motors was good for America" and most countries had a corollary industrial giant. But that was, and still is, ass backwards. What’s good for America is good for General Motors.
Until the citizens of all countries realize the need to wrest control of their governments from the clutches of corporations whose only god is the shareholder, we will have to accept the fact that democracy is just a myth.
Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing businesses with the tools and expertise to reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. Canadian businesses can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has traveled extensively in what is usually known as "the Third World" and has an abiding interest in history, social justice, morality and, well, just about everything. Paul is also a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com. He lives in Canada.