Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What is 'Democracy'?

In this day and age a term everyone seems to know and define, the trouble is that nearly every dictatorship also claims to be 'democratic' and almost all 'democracies' at some stage elect an authoritarian government. So what is democracy?

According to Sir Winston Churchill, it is the worst form of government - except for all the others. In every 'western' country you can find a variation on the 'democratic system,' by which most people understand there is a 'one man; one vote' system of electing the government and any other local governing bodies or regional legislatures. But there are almost as many variations within that as there are countries which consider themselves 'democratic.' Some even elect the officers of justice, the heads of Police and Fire Services and other 'public services.' But then one encounters the system for electing the head of state which awards certain numbers of votes to the constutuent member states. Thus, while the overall number of votes caste for one candidate may exceed the number of votes going to the opponent, the opponent may still 'win' the election because he/she has the support of more 'state votes' than the other.

Then there are the 'Democratic' states where the one man; one vote system is in place, but there is a single party and ideology to vote for, or there are other 'Parties' but a Central committee decides who is 'suitable' to stand for election and who may not. Is that also 'democratic?' Those who impose that system certainly claim it is, and also claim that everyone else has it wrong.

In other systems, the 'one man' enjoys a 'transferable' vote, so that if choice number 1 does not garner enough support, the vote is transfered to 2nd choice and even 3rd choice. The much defended UK system works, in my opinion, only in the eyes of the beneficiaries - the three main Parties. For one thing, for a large slice of the electorate who live in the so-called 'safe' seats for one or other of the Parties, it doesn't matter whether I vote or not if I don't support the Party who 'owns' the majority of support in that seat. How can the 'elected' Member then claim to represent me? He or she doesn't. I don't agree with their ideology or their policies, which is why I won't vote for them. They cannot therefore claim to be 'my elected representative.'

Worse, the system of 'Whips' in Westminster means that no matter the desires of his or her constituents, the 'elected' Member will vote as they are told to by the Whip for the Party. Then there is the whole question of voter 'turnout.' In recent years the numbers actually exercising their right to vote in any given election is falling to the point of it being of dubious value. The last several in the UK have had turnouts dangerously close to the 50% mark - which means the 'elected' government often represents the views of 30%or less of the whole electorate. (Tony Blair's 'landslide' victories were actually only 28% of the total electorate.)

How democratic is a state were there is almost not chance of changing the government because of what is best described as 'tribal' voting. This happens in most countries to some extent, when voters cannot bring themselves to vote for anyone not of 'The Party' they or their parents have always supported - even when they know that party has not delivered, and cannot deliver on promises, or will continue in government only to destroy jobs, promote corruption or destroy communities. In part this is because most people live in 'democracies' dominated by some form of 'party' system where the 'representative' has almost no connection with the constituency they purport to represent. Probably the worst example of that is the system where the voting is exclusively for the 'Party' and the 'Party' then decides who will take the seat.

In my travels around the world I have seen many examples of supposedly 'democratic' states where one 'Party' is so entrenched it cannot be removed from power. Often this is because the 'constituencies' are so arranged that there is a built in majority for one particular group or Party. In other places the Party controls the Civil Service Bureaucracy (Indonesia is a good example - only Party Members of the ruling 'nationalist' Party are appointed to position in the civil service). In almost all nations, democratic or otherwise, you find the same thing. An entrenched ruling 'elite' supported by embedded advocacy and lobbying groups and a media geared to feeding the electorate only the ideological line the respective regime wants promoted. Can an electorate make an informed decision when it comes to voting? Or will the natural biases we all have be so strongly reinforced by the 'information media' that we cannot make a rational decision?

Even where there is a clearly defined electoral system, where the electorate do have a greater say in who gets elected and who not, the trend recently has been for minority groups and Parties to challenge every decision made by the elected government. Such groups often seek recourse to a court, dragging the elected government/governor through courts such as the "European Court of Human Rights" or any other court they can use to mount a challenge. I get the feeling this is part of a wider movement to try to drag government back to a village council concept, but all it does is lead to frustration and fragmentation. Worse, it means that minority interests can now trump the whole underpinning concept of 'democracy' which is that it is 'rule by the majority.'

I'm sure I can't be the only person who finds it strange that the very same groups and people who campaigned against all forms of 'minority' rule, now want to impose a different form of minority rule on all democratic majorities ...

What is democracy? Well, the inventors of the system, the Ancient Athenians certainly wouldn't recognise the system we call 'democracy.' Perhaps that is the problem.


  1. Well, it's a while since I've been prompted to respond to the Monk's observations, but my muse was driven today by the fact that whilst I agree with most of the views expressed by the Monk, he has in his thinly veiled description of the American system confused "democracy" with the concept of "Republic", a common error, not helped by the Donkey and the Elephant.

    As the Monk states, quite correctly in his closing paragraph, the Greek origins of democracy have little in common with the modern world's various interpretations thereof.

    Aristotle, in "The Politics" treats this question to a mere 120,000 words, and he had the status of "resident alien" in Athens, being a subject of the King of Macedon.

    What "Politics" today means is in the traditional sence the "Civis" rather than the "Polis"; our nearest controling force resembling polis is, in fact, our police, the Scottish pronounciation is therefore, yet again not an example of lazy dialect but rather of classical awareness in the state as a whole. (Other examples would be "Corbie" for crow or other Corvid and "Buckie" for spiral shellfish as in the Whelk, a range of gastropod molluscs of the familly Buccinidae.)

    The "Polis" was an example of the citizen being promoted, rather than elected, to a position in the assembly with a right to voice opinion. Plato referred to this as the concept of "Rule by the Governed". This is not at all what we experience today. In the United States there is no question that the Republic's Presidential office has for many decades been a simple Plutocracy, he with the deepest pockets will garner the most power. The British Empire at its height was governed by a Timocracy, the landed gentry and nobility being of a class where status was more important than wealth, unless, of course, one was exposed as being poor!

  2. Part 2:

    It is commonly accepted (I could cite sources, but they would be so many and varied as to be of little value.)that a Coven of Witches numbered no more than 13 because a group of any greater size cannot comfortably exist without conflict unless there is an appointed leader. In the Bushman civilisations, often family or tribal groups could reach 30 or 40 before a formal "Head Man" or "Big Woman" emerged as a leader; this would be a form of Monarchy,or to continue the Greek, an Autocracy, the rule by a single individual.

    The Monk points out, again quite correctly, churchill's observation that democracy is, at best the pick of a bad bunch; he also correctly identifies the variety of disfunctional systems labelling themselves as democracies. In the West, and particularly in Britain, the beauty of the current system, as I have written here before, is not that the person you vote for will get into a position of power, becvause it is unlikely that they would wield it as you wished anyway as the "Greater Good" has to be served by the local electee. No, the beauty of British democracy is that your vote can eject a Government that has past its best, become corrupt or has failed in its promises. that for me is the great positive in our otherwise imperfect system.

    The discussion of the moment is about the British revising chamber, the House of Lords. For long a timocracy in the true sense, it has provided a banance to the excesses of the elected chamber who are driven by ideological imperatives and by the short-sighted narure of an elected body, nothing that will be unpopular before the next election can be carried forward.

    The parliament of England and later Britain was set up, by Magna Carta, to limit the power of a Monarch, it grew into an elected body in the time of De Montfort, not the most pleasant figure, especially if you were Jewish, in 1265 and muddled along into the time of the Great reform Act of 1832 when we entered a recognisable modern phase with education as a centralised function and the Monarch as a titular head. That change, however, was brough about by the wealth of international trading, industrialisation and fear of foreign invasion.

    Democracy today is a meaningless term for many systems of government where the citizen is apparently given influence by being allowed a vote, it is incredibly expensive to operate, elections (and referenda) cost hundreds of millions of pounds to carry through and require constant support by legal teams and civil servants to ensure that the "Gallacher Effect" does not become widespread. To fight the potential for corruption, the so-called democtratic process buries itself in a burden of legislation and operating control that renders it impotent in the nature of polity it can provide.

    Personally, I'll muddle on, content that there are worse systems, but that is for my children (well, OK, my child, singular) to worry about, not for me.