A Critical Examination of Democracy – What Do We Assume About It?

Democracy is a powerful concept that many of us are taught to believe in. But what exactly are we asked to put our faith in?

In a previous blog I called for a critical examination of modern democracy. Not because I don’t believe in democracy as an idea, but because I feel we have become complacent and much too accepting of a system that is far from perfect. Only a critical examination can help to uncover its flaws and – I hope – help us find ways to improve and strengthen the system.

One way to explore a human-designed system is to look at its underlying assumptions: the ideas implicit in the system itself or the way it is being presented. So here is a rather random list, in no particular order, of assumptions I believe are usually seen as part and parcel of most Western people’s perception of democracy. Since they are implied assumptions, they are mostly taken for granted, and seldom questioned. I am quite sure there are many more of such assumptions upholding our current system of government. But at least this is a start.

In a Democracy, people choose those individuals that can best govern the country for the next few years.

That is the whole point of democratic elections, isn’t it? So that the whole population has a change to critically look at the state of the country, make up their mind about the kind of government that would be best suited to deal with the current problems and challenges, and then carefully select the people they think are best suited to form that government.

The reality is, I suspect, far less rational and far less deliberate. Most people, it seems, do not actually vote for candidates because of their abilities, skills, or track-record in managing the country, but base their decisions on much more emotional grounds. They look at candidates and judge how well they like them, based on what they see them say and do in public. And that judgement of likability is necessarily skewed by the media, the careful orchestration of public appearances and press releases, and the kind of scandals candidates can unleash upon each other.

The problem is that this way of selecting likable candidates is hopelessly inadequate as a way of choosing a capable government. Since there is no direct way to interact with the candidates, or at least observe them in action when the spotlights are not on them, elections have turned into a popularity-driven media-circus. Public debates are not set up as a meaningful debate about issues, options, and arguments, but as shouting matches and point-scoring exercises, where no actual content needs to be discussed in any discernible depth. And instead of politicians being expected to be serious, well-meaning, and capable people, the system filters such people out in favor of the publicity-seeking, grand-standing, empty-gesturing, media-attention seekers the public seems to like. Which leaves us with people who may be able to secure enough votes to win an election, but have not much of any value to offer beyond that. In fact, the way many politicians behave in order to get elected would disqualify them for office would they be asked to undergo a standard job-selection process.

Candidates come from the people and govern for the people: they are themselves just normal citizens, with only a temporary mandate to govern. When their term is over they return to society as ordinary citizens

That may have been true once, but over time politicians have become a professional class, a group of people that chose politics as a career, not as a calling next to or after a normal career. While there are aspects of politics that require professional training to really understand and perform well in, the problem with having a class of professional politicians is that such people become closer to each other than to the people they are supposed to represent. Someone who has never worked a job other than politics has not been exposed to the kind of challenges life presents to most people. And the more politicians surround themselves with politicians, the harder it will be for them to even empathize with the very people they are meant to be spokesperson for. Instead of representing the people on whose behalf they are meant to govern, professional politicians are almost bound to represent themselves more than their voters, and have the interests of the political class closer at heart than that of the people.

Democracy is a transparent form of government: a government of the people by the people is free and willing to share their information, decisions, and actions with the people as a way for the people to stay informed and provide feedback and control over the actions of their elected government.

Whether is is because of the second assumption above, or because power craves more power, or because governments believe there is power in secrecy, whatever the reason, even the most democratic of governments end up hiding behind layers of secrecy and deception. And it is not just individuals trying to keep things secret. The bureaucratic system itself seems designed to obfuscate rather than clarify the true workings of government. And on top of that we seem to have entered an era in which fear has become such a constant narrative that our democratic governments have been allowed – one could almost say forced – to create more and deeper power structures, for the apparent purpose of keeping us safe from harm. But, and this is the catch, one cannot be safe and free at the same time. And the same goes for information: it’s either safe and secure, and therefore unavailable, or it is free and accessible, but not safe. Our governments by erring on the side of safety, are eroding the basic principles of transparency and accountability democracies need to maintain even the semblance of a government under control of its population, rather than the other way round.

Democracy is a balanced form of government: the extend of power bestowed on the elected government is limited by a body of law that is enforced by an independent policing power, and interpreted and overseen by an equally independent legal power.

This works well in theory, but how well does it work in practice? Only when those three forces are truly independent can they keep each other in check the way they are supposed to. In most modern democracies, however, there is a fourth force in play that is both much more pervasive and much harder to control than the other three: the power of commerce. We live in a commercial society, where business for business’ sake has become a rule unto itself. Because of this, in spite of the supposed delicate balance of the power triangle, commercial interests can overrule each and any of the other forces, rendering the checks-and-balances design obsolete and unworkable. Privatization of public services is one example: when public services become privatized they become largely removed from the kind of transparency and public scrutiny expected of public services. And because of this lack of transparency they are no longer kept in balance by the power triangle, nor can the public form an informed opinion about how well or badly these services fulfill the functions they are expected to.

Democracy in the hands of commercial interests

In a democracy every voice counts.

In a democracy everyone gets to vote so everyone has a voice to add to the total of voices that end up determining the government that gets chosen. In reality, however, since in a democracy only majority voices end up determining the chosen government, many minority voices get lost in the process, even those that represent better alternatives than those espoused by the majorities. More importantly, the whole democratic process must of necessity stay close to the majority consensus in its decision-making, prioritization, and social engineering. Voices that do not fit in with that consensus will not just be ignored, they will be actively shut down and persecuted since – it will be argued – they destabilize the social structure democracy itself relies on.

Of course not each and every dissenting voice should be acted on, but democracy – by limiting its perspectives to those that conform to the stable consensus – thereby limits its ability to read the signals and early warning signs of the sweeping changes happening around us. The majority concensus tends to downplay such signals or builds defensive arguments against them, trying to shut them down rather than considering how to act. This paralyzes a democratic society untill the signals get so loud they can no longer be ignored. By which time it may be too late to act.

I have been working on this blog for over two months now, and have just decided to stop here. There are many more assumptions I considered, but most of those seem variations on the 5 I describe here. Also, I think, several of those assumptions require much more thinking to figure out whether they are actual assumptions people have, or just flaws in the system most people acknowledge but choose to accept as inevitable.

And completeness wasn’t my goal here.

I just want to show that we must remain vigilant and keep questioning the systems we have created to organize our society. Not because they are necessarily wrong and need to be torn down – even if they are not perfect – but because unquestioning acceptance leads to a societal blindness that can lead us to move in a direction none of us want, but none of us tries to stop either.