I’ve always imagined that democracy was a critical element for a good society. But democracy is crashing all around us and we seem almost powerless to stop it. Then I learnt that fully participative democracy is quite fragile. Only a few countries in the world had democracy before WW2. Dictatorships are common in the world.
So what is it that makes ‘democracy’ valuable and stable…and how do we ensure we keep it and make it work for the good of most, rather than for the enrichment of the few?
What makes democracy strong?
A recent article in The Guardian (Capurro, ‘Can we stop the collapse of democracy?’, 5 Aug 17) suggested the following elements make a democracy strong:
– The rule of law
– An independent judiciary
– Freedom of speech
– Freedom of the press
– A strong civil society
– Firm civilian control over security services and the military
– A strong system of checks and balances on government
What about the importance of voting?
What’s interesting is that voting for a government is not listed. Because, when you look at voting, you see that China, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rwanda and many other countries ‘vote’, but the results are simply unbelievable as being representative, because the voting system is somehow rigged. (Actually it is increasingly rigged in the US too – the nominal ‘home’ of modern democracy – via the gerrymandering of congressional electorates.)
And, where people do vote, increasingly the voting is so split that many parties are represented, making governing by any one, or even a grouping of, parties quite difficult. And if we are really after ‘strong leaders’, then dictatorships provide great opportunities for ‘strong leadership’…
But fully participative voting, based on independently or concensually-determined electoral systems, should be a bedrock of any democratic system. Clearly, proper vote counting and abiding by the results are also necessary conditions.
Why are these elements important?
Voting is important because it gives all votes the opportunity to directly participate and reflect their views in choosing their own representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Voting enables non-performers to be replaced. Rule of law is important because it provides rules for how society should work and – theoretically – treats people equally, over time. An independent judiciary is very important as it provides the ultimate check and balance on any government that tries to change the rules or misuse the rules for its own advantage. Freedom of speech is important because, for societies to improve, problems must be able to be raised and alternative solutions proposed and debated openly, so everyone can consider the issue and the alternatives. Freedom of the press is important because the press has generally been the communicator of different opinions and the place where open debate has taken place. (The role of the internet now makes the role of the ‘press’ less clear and freedom of ‘speech’ very easy – perhaps too much, given the trolling of some people which takes place.)
The role of a strong civil society is underplayed. A good society needs a civil service to weigh up the evidence on issues, regardless of what current government policy or philosophy may be and to communicate that, not only to government and politicians, but also to the people, to improve decisionmaking. Civil servants know the evidence, but are often unable, even in democracies like Australia, to get this evidence out to the people. (Australia’s immigration practices are one simple example.)
Firm civilian control over security forces and the military is another underplayed element. As fear of terrorism and crime are promoted, citizens feel afraid even when the evidence may not support that. Money is given to boost ‘security’ and the military, with little or no discussion of its value, compared to alternative uses, such as addressing the underlying social causes of terrorism or crime. If the government controls security forces and the military, it gains access to private information and the power to prosecute, jail or kill anyone they wish.
A strong system of checks and balances – to appeal decisions, to review and overturn bad policy – is another important element. As well as the role of an independent judiciary, having two houses of government, with differing views, requiring compromise and logic to get policy through, is another key element. The roles of the legal system, appeals systems and civilian processes (eg Omsbudsmen, whistleblower legislation, civil service monitoring of laws) are just a few mechanisms that slow or stop dictatorships developing.
Democracy needs to be fought for
I must say I thought democracy was well established and highly desirable for most countries. But experience of trying to impose western democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere suggests this is not necessarily the case. More so, the experience of 6 months of Trump in the US – following Putin, Erdogan, Zuma, Maduro and many other elected ‘strong leaders’ – shows how hard-fought, social equity gains are easily swept away. In a ‘good’ society, these proposed changes should be met with evidence, rational argument and good processes to get to a logical decision. But strong leaders, believing in their righteousness and personal importance, often brook no argument…and democracy crumbles, often slowly, incrementally, but crumbles all the same.
Who knows how long it will be before Turkey or Venezuela or Egypt recover, let alone Russia, recover from their current anti-democratic situations…if ever?
Which battles will we fight for, because there are so many unjust issues? Will battle fatigue overcome us, as more and more undemocratic solutions rain down on us? How many causes can we support, in the face of shadowy millions from unknown organisations, seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the people?
What seems certain is that fight we will have to, not only to preserve what we have or had, but to seek any new improvements for our ‘democratic’ society. The elements listed above are the fundamental, underlying elements to look at to see if a democracy can defend itself, or to see which foundations are being attacked. If only we had a dictator who could rule for the good of all…