Friday, 21 October 2016
Is Democracy Obsolete?
"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." - Winston Churchill
Is democracy obsolete? The short answer is Yes, because the wicked problems humanity is facing today are global, not national, and all democracies are national. There is no global democracy through which the peoples of the world could pool their wisdom, vote on the solutions to the wicked problems we so desperately need, and put them into action for the benefit of all.
What wicked problems? Global warming, air pollution, worldwide degradation of oceans, waterways, and land environments, predatory multinational banks and other corporations 'too big to fail or jail,' declining biodiversity, worldwide habitat destruction, food and water insecurity, human trafficking, massive refugee crises, ethnic and religious conflicts, endless warfare, international terrorism, etc. (1)
While these problems are often the subject of public opinion surveys, media conversation, and internet petitions, there is no political mechanism for a global democratic approach to their solution. The UN was supposed to be that instrument, but it was never intended to be a true democracy, and it has failed even to deliver on its main mission of ending warfare among nations and maintaining peace. Global problems cannot be solved locally, and all democracies today are local. As instruments for solving wicked global problems, democracy is obsolete.
obsolete: something no longer in use or no longer useful
Am I suggesting a global democracy is needed? Yes, but before outlining what that might look like, let's take a closer look at how democracy fails even at the national level to deliver on its promises.
Everyone who follows the news senses that something is wrong with their own democracy. and perhaps with democracy in general as we know it. The political wisdom of the crowd was on display recently at the October White Rock Philosophers meeting. After deciding on a working definition of democracy, the members came up with a lengthy list of ills that today's democracies suffer from.
One person thinks that a true democracy has never existed. Others acknowledge democracy's existence but claim that it is in serious disrepair. Complaints included the following and probably others which I have forgotten:
· democracy is a fiction; it has never existed.
· domination of elections by big money
· powerful lobbies have undue influence
· apathy, ignorance, and irrationality among voters
· ill-informed elected representatives
· corruption of various kinds
· party and districting systems exclude some voters from meaningful participation.
· lack of sense of responsibility among citizens, voter apathy
· corporate control of media
To this depressing list we can add massive lying, exaggerations, and fear-mongering by politicians, xenophobia against immigrants, racist policing, corporate crimes, predatory banks and other corporations, lack of accountability for people at the top, domination of elections by big money, enormous and increasing inequality, illegal surveillance of citizens, persecution of whistleblowers and protesters, government secrecy, revolving door between government and corporations. Are citizens ever allowed to vote on these issues?
Theoretically, all those problems can be fixed, we might think. However, the fundamental problem may be even worse. Writer George Monbiot takes seriously the claim of some philosophers that democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it. He asks:
"What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?" (2)
How is democracy supposed to work? The word 'democracy' means 'rule by the people.' Literally, the people, the whole people, are the sovereign, the supreme power. This astonishing concept, first invented and practiced by ancient Greek city-states, has today become the aspiration of virtually all the world's peoples. The ideal was immortally expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
These three components can be fulfilled in direct democracy, a government in which all decisions are made by the entire body of eligible citizens, outcomes to be determined by a majority of votes. No nations today are governed by direct democracy, because populations are too large. Instead, we have indirect democracy: citizens vote for representatives to a national assembly of some kind where laws are passed and handed on to an elected executive. An independent judiciary is charged with ensuring the laws are fairly administered.
So what we have is not 'government of the people': the governing bodies are made up of elected officials, not the whole people. Many other officials are appointed, not elected. We do not have 'government by the people' because only the elected representatives are allowed to vote on legislation. We do not have 'government for the people' except insofar as laws benefiting the people also work to keep the representatives and their parties in power. Self-interest is almost always the first motivation of politicians, not public service.
Thus, representative government, as we know it today, falls far short in most cases of fulfilling the ideal of democratic rule. As soon as an election is finished, the people's ability to control the functions of government is ended. Representatives are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but very often they do not for reasons mentioned earlier. Yes, a robust system of binding referenda, as in Switzerland, can help to maximize citizen power, but even the Swiss can't control everything their politicians do, e.g. prevent their giant banks from carrying on criminal activities without fear of legal interference. Moreover, as I have pointed out, even the best democracies are helpless to solve global problems.
It appears, then, that the 'folk theory of democracy' - our belief that a people in the right circumstances can elect representatives who will then carry out their will is a myth.
Here are some additional reasons for this rather discouraging view:
1. Democracy is not majority rule: a party can take power with less than 50% of the vote.
2. Public opinion has almost no influence on major political decisions. (3)
3. Wealth rules: supreme power is held by corporations and other vested interests.
4. Democracy fosters superficial and inadequate focus on the issues.
5. Party systems foster divisiveness; zero-sum-game dynamics.
6. Democracy is not a meritocracy: politicians are often ill-qualified for office.
7. Politicians don't have an independent voice either - their vote is 'whipped.'
8. The system facilitates self-interest and scandal.
"Enough already," you might say. "True, there is no democracy that doesn't have serious flaws. Nothing is perfect in this world. But look at all that democracy has accomplished over the centuries: gradual broadening of voting rights to women and minorities - now everyone has the right to vote. Protected rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have hugely increased the wealth of the masses and brought them all manner of life-enhancing social services like education and medical systems. Freedom of thought has unleashed the creative brilliance of scientists, inventors, and engineers, as well as that of culture critics who work to keep the power of democratic rulers from morphing into tyranny. Don't be such a nabob of negativity; think on the blessings of democracy. Besides, despite its flaws, representative democracy is the best system available; direct democracy is simply not possible."
We can and we should keep the 'blessings' of democracy in mind, even as we take note of its shortcomings. It is also true that the huge size of national populations has forced us to accept representation as the only method of expressing the will of the people - that is, until now. The invention of the internet changes everything.
The internet confronts us with the stark fact that our constitutions, political parties, and election apparatuses are all obsolete. For hundreds of years, voters have been forced to vote only for representatives from their state, province, or territory. (In presidential systems, people are also allowed to vote for the national leader.) They have been required to travel to some polling place where they enter a booth, put an x on a piece of paper, or press a button on an electronic machine. In this age of the internet, is there any good reason why everyone could not vote online from their home? The answer is no, of course, and a few countries are experimenting with just such a system (Estonia, the Netherlands). We can expect more and more countries to adopt online voting systems in the future.
Will online voting solve the crises of democracy? It will help to increase voter participation, but as long as the elective representative system remains in place, the deeper structural problems will continue to undermine the popular will. Why? Because all representative systems separate the people from the levers of power in actual governing.
However, the possibility of elections being conducted entirely online has led to an even more dramatic proposal: online direct democracy - the replacement of congresses and parliaments with legislative power exercised directly by the people themselves via the world wide web.
This radical proposal, currently being investigated only by a relative few social researchers, has already acquired a (rather awkward) name: crowdocracy. (4) Literally, the crowd rules. Whereas traditional political philosophers have always distrusted the people as a whole ("the Beast") in favor of rule by experts, crowdocracy is based on a new but well-supported hypothesis: the crowd is actually smart. The theory is called 'the wisdom of crowds.'
Look for more on crowdocracy and the wisdom of crowds in Part 2 of this series.
1 In a recent survey, millennials voiced their concern about 10 outstanding problems their generation is facing. All are arguably global problems, only partially solvable, if at all, at the national level.
2 George Monbiot's essay can be found here.
3 Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is cited in Crowdocracy. For a useful summary and commentary, see this piece in The New Yorker.
4 See Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus, Crowdocracy: the End of Politics, 2016.