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Democracy (“rule by the people” when translated from its Greek meaning) is seen as one of the ultimate ideals that modern civilizations strive to create, or preserve. Democracy as a system of governance is supposed to allow extensive representation and inclusiveness of as many people and views as possible to feed into the functioning of a fair and just society. Democratic principles run in line with the ideals of universal freedoms such as the right to free speech.
Importantly, democracy supposedly serves to check unaccountable power and manipulation by the few at the expense of the many, because fundamentally democracy is seen as a form of governance by the people, for the people. This is often implemented through elected representatives, which therefore requires free, transparent, and fair elections, in order to achieve legitimacy.
The ideals of democracy are so appealing to citizens around the world, that many have sacrificed their livelihoods, even their lives, to fight for it. Indeed, our era of “civilization” is characterized as much by war and conflict as it is by peace and democracy. The twentieth century alone has often been called “the century of war.”
In a way, the amount of propaganda and repression some non-democratic states set up against their own people is a testament to the people’s desire for more open and democratic forms of government. That is, the more people are perceived to want it, the more extreme a non-democratic state apparatus has to be to hold on to power.
However, even in established democracies, there are pressures that threaten various democratic foundations. A democratic system’s openness also allows it to attract those with vested interests to use the democratic process as a means to attain power and influence, even if they do not hold democratic principles dear. This may also signal a weakness in the way some democracies are set up. In principle, there may be various ways to address this, but in reality once power is attained by those who are not genuinely support democracy, rarely is it easily given up.
On this page:
- Pillars of a functioning democracy
- Challenges of democracy
- Paradoxes of Democracy
- Voting in non-democratic forces
- Minorities losing out to majorities
- The fear of the public and disdain of democracy from elites (while publicly claiming to supporting it)
- Democracy requires more propaganda to convince masses
- Limited time in power means going for short term policies
- Anti-democratic forces undermine democracy using democratic means
- Those with money are more likely to be candidates
- Confusing political ideology with economic Ideology
- Democracies may create a more effective military
- Democracy, extremism and War on Terror; people losing rights
- Democratic choice: parties or issues?
- Election challenges
- Democratic governments and the military
- Powerful countries: democratic at home; using power, influence and manipulation abroad
- Democracy of Nation States in the age of Globalization
- The dangers of apathy in a democracy
- How can democracy be safe-guarded?
The word “democracy” literally means “rule by the people”, taken from the Greek terms, demos (meaning “people”), and kratos (meaning “rule”). It is a political concept and form of government, where all people are supposed to have equal voices in shaping policy (typically expressed through a vote for representatives).
Democracy past and present
The Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, the student of Plato and teacher to Alexander the Great, is considered one of the most important founders of what is now described as Western philosophy. In his work, Politics, he offered some comparisons with other forms of government and rule, but also included some warnings,
The following table offers only the briefest overview of democracy throughout the years. Of course, the earlier forms of democracy were not close to what we consider as democracy today, but were often important precursors or “proto-democracies” that laid down important foundations and principles. The examples shown here are also not complete—each and every instance is not mentioned or detailed, but a sampling of the more common or interesting ones to get an idea:
|Various forms of rule, ultimately resulting in Athenian Democracy, a form of “direct democracy,” as opposed to representative democracy.
An exclusive club, however, as only adult male Athenian citizens that had completed military training could vote. Women, slaves, and foreigners could not.
|500 B.C – 27 B.C
|Ancient Roman Republic
|Planted the seeds of “representative democracy.” Like other systems of the same period, it was exclusive, and not like democracies we consider today. After this time, Rome had an emperor characterized by dictatorial rule, and eventual decline.
|600 B.C – 400 A.D
|Early forms of democracy, republics and popular assemblies, especially where Buddhism and Jainism was more prevalent.
(Today, Hinduism is the main religion in India, but in ancient times, Brahmanism, as it has also been referred to, co-existed with Buddhism and Jainism. While Brahmanism was also the main religion then, Buddhism and Jainism were far more widespread.)
The caste system, though not as rigid then as it would later become, nonetheless meant it was not a type of democracy we think of today, just like Athenian democracy and the Roman republic systems would not be.
(See Democracy in Ancient India by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University, for more details).
|5th Century to 16th Century
|Small examples of elections and assemblies
|Parliamentary system. The Magna Carta restricted the rights of kings. Election was very limited to a small minority. The monarchy’s influence over Parliament would eventually wane.
|Revolution of 1688 saw the overthrow of King James II, paving way for a stronger parliamentary democracy, strengthened by the 1689 English Bill of Rights
|18th Century to Present
|United States of America
|Adoption of the Constitution provided for an elected government and protected civil rights and liberties. Considered the first liberal democracy, but started off with limitations: voting by adult white males only (before 1788, propertied white males only). Women and slaves (predominantly African) would have to wait a long time still.
|French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a precursor to international human rights conventions, for it was universal in nature (but still only applied to men, not women or slaves). This and the American Constitution are considered influential for many liberal democracies to come after.
|The Bolshevik Revolution saw the autocratic Tsar replaced. Led by a Marxist-Lenin ideology, a form of democracy known as Soviet Democracy was initially supported where workers elected representative councils (soviets). This was a form of “direct democracy.”
However, the Russian Civil War and other various other factors led this to be replaced by a more bureaucratic and top-down rule, ultimately resulting in Stalin’s authoritarian rule and any remaining democracy appeared only on paper, not practice. In other words, democratic rule combined with Communist economic ideology quickly gave way to paranoia and authoritarian rule combined with Communist economic ideology.
|World War II
|Democracies give way to fascists in an attempt to retain or increase power. Allied forces also become more militarized to counter Hitler. With the help of the US, all eventually become democracies after the War.
|Post World War II
|Colonized “Third” World
|Colonial breaks for freedom as Europe weakened itself during World War II. Many breaks for freedom saw fledgling democracies overthrown by Western Democracies who favored dictatorships to retain key geostrategic control. Some new democracies were claimed to be under Soviet influence. In some cases this may have been true, in many others, it was just an excuse. (See this site’s Control of Resources section for more detail.)
|Post World War II
|Initially characterized by corrupt dictatorships, now has over 40 countries that have moved towards participatory elections and democratic tendencies though many challenges still remain. Some are democracies on paper, while others flaunt it as and when it suits (a recent example seems to be Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe).
|Gains independence from British rule, splitting into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). India becomes the world’s largest democracy, while the other two struggle with both dictatorships and democracy.
|Post World War II
|Initially characterized by numerous dictatorships, often supported into power by the US. Almost all are now democracies now struggling more with economic ideology issues.
|Post World War II
|Some countries remain dictatorships. Many transition eventually into democracies.
Is Democracy a Western or Universal Value?
Democracy is often described as one of the greatest gifts the West has given to the world. It certainly is one of the greatest gifts to humanity. But is it
Western or more universal a principle? The previous table suggests there is some universality.
A common Euro-centric view of world history describes ancient Greek democracy as Western democracy, with ancient Greece as part of that Western/European identity.
Yet, as John Hobson writes in his anti Euro-centric book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), ancient Greece and Rome were not considered as part the
West until much later; that is, Greece and Rome were part of a whole Middle East center of civilization, in some ways on the edge of it, as more was happening further Eastward.
Western Europe adopted or appropriated ancient Greek achievements in democracy as its own much later when it needed to form a cohesive ideology and identity to battle the then rising Islam and to counter its defeats during the Crusades.
And, as also noted much further below, it was the Middle East in the 9th – 12th centuries that preserved a lot of Ancient Greek and Roman achievements after Rome collapsed (which Europe then thankfully also preserved when the Middle East faced its own invasion and collapse — by the Mongols.
The point here is that democracy is perhaps more universal than acknowledged and that there is a lot of propaganda in how history is told, sometimes highlighting differences amongst people more than the similarities and cross-fertilization of ideas that also features prominently in history. After all, great battles throughout the ages are often celebrated far more than cross cultural fertilization of ideas which require more study and thought and doesn’t make for epic tales!
As discussed further below, there are elements within both Western and non-Western societies that are hostile to democracy for various reasons.
State of democracy around the world today
Wikipedia’s Democracy article collates interesting images from organizations that research democracy issues. Some of these images show what countries claim to be democracies, and to what degree they really are (or not) democratic:
As George Orwell noted, the word democracy can often be overloaded:
While most countries claim themselves to be democratic, the degree to which they are varies, according to Freedom House, which surveys political and human rights developments, along with ratings of political rights and civil liberties:
Perhaps it is no wonder Churchill once said,
On the one hand then, there has never been as much democracy as present. And yet, many countries suffer from poor representations, election anomalies and corruption, “pseudo democracy”, etc. While these issues will be explored further below, first a look at some of the fundamentals of a democratic system.
Pillars of a functioning democracy
In a democratic government key principles include free and open elections, the rule of law, and a separation of powers, typically into the following:
- Legislature (law-making)
- Executive (actually governing within those laws)
- Judiciary (system of courts to administer justice)
It is felt that separating these powers will prevent tyrannical rule (authoritarianism, etc). Critics of this may argue that this leads to extra bureaucracy and thus inefficient execution of policy.
Not all countries have or need such a complete separation and many have some level of overlap. Some governments such as the US have a clear separation of powers while in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, a parliamentary system somewhat merges the legislature and executive.
An edition of a Wikipedia article looking at the separation of powers noted that “Sometimes systems with strong separation of powers are pointed out as difficult to understand for the average person, when the political process is often somewhat fuzzy. Then a parliamentarian system often provides a clearer view and it is easier to understand how ‘politics are made’. This is sometimes important when it comes to engaging the people in the political debate and increase the citizen [participation].”
This suggests that education of politics is also important. The US for example, attempts to teach children about their system of governance. In the UK, for example (also writing from personal experience) this is not typically done to the same extent (if at all). This may also be a factor as to why further separation of powers in the US has been reasonably successful.
Some people talk of the difference between a minimalist government and direct democracy, whereby a smaller government run by experts in their field may be better than involving all people in all issues at all time. In a sense this may be true, but the risk with this approach is if it is seen to exclude people, then such governments may lose legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. Direct democracy, on the other hand, may encourage activism and participation, but the concern is if this can be sustained for a long period of time, or not. (There are many other variations, which all have similar or related problems; how to handle efficiency, participation, informed decision making and accountability, etc. Different people use different terms such as deliberative democracy, radical democracy, etc.)
The historical context for some countries may also be a factor. Many examples of successful democracies include nations that have had time to form a national identity, such as various European or North American countries.
Other nations, often made up of many diverse ethnic groups, may find themselves forced to live together. A major example would be most African countries, whose artificial borders resulted from the 1885 Berlin Conference where European colonial and imperial powers, (not Africans) carved up Africa (for the colonial ruler’s own benefit, not for Africans).
Such nations may find themselves in a dilemma: an intertwined set of branches of government may allow democratic institutions to be strengthened, but it may also lead to corruption and favoritism of some groups over others. Furthermore, many such countries have been emerging from the ravages of colonialism in the past only to be followed by dictatorships and in some cases social and ethnic tensions that are freed from the restraints of authoritarian rule. As such, many poor nations in such a situation do not have the experience, manpower or resources in place to put in an effective democracy, immediately.
It is therefore unclear if what is determined as best practice for an established democracy is necessarily, or automatically, the recipe for a newly emerged democracy. For example, a country coming out of dictatorship may require a strong leadership to guide a country towards further democracy if there are still elements in the society that want the old ways to come back. This might mean more integration of powers, to prevent instability or the old rulers attempting to manipulate different branches of government, for example. However, in this scenario, there is of course a greater threat that that strong leadership would become susceptible to being consumed by that power, and it may become harder to give it up later.
Getting this one aspect of governance right, let alone all the other issues, is therefore incredibly challenging in a short time. As such, an effective democracy may not be easy to achieve for some countries, even if there is overwhelming desire for it.
In addition to those formal aspects of a functioning democracy, there are other key pillars, for example,
- Civilian control of the military
Civilian control over the military is paramount. Not only must the military be held to account by the government (and, be extension, the people), but the military leadership must fully believe in a democratic system if instability through military coups and dictatorships are to be avoided. (This is discussed further below.) Indeed, some nations do not have full-time professional armies for the reason that coups and military take-over is less likely. Others, notably the more established powers, typically do have it, because they have had a recent history of war and their place in the world stage may make it seem a necessary requirement.
To achieve the openness that transparency and accountability gives, there is an important need for a free press, independent from government. Such a media often represents the principle of the universal right to free speech. This combination is supposed to allow people to make informed choices and decisions thereby contributing to political debate, productively.
Transparency and accountability also requires more bureaucracy as decisions and processes need to be recorded and made available for the general public to access, debate and discuss, if necessary. This seems easy to forget and so it is common to hear concerns raised about the inefficiency of some governmental department.
Efficiency, however, should not necessarily be measured in terms of how quickly a specific action is completed or even how much it costs (though these can be important too). The long-term impact is often important and the need to be open/transparent may require these extra steps.
A simple comparison on procuring a service may help highlight this:
- A responsible government may request a tender for contract. An open process to document these and how/why a final choice was made is important so that there is openness, understanding, and accountability to the people. For example, the media, and citizenry can use this to determine whether or not decisions have been made with the best interests in mind. Some of the higher profile issue may require sustained public discourse and expensive media coverage, too.
- With a private company, the same process could be followed, but all workers (especially in a large company) and shareholders are not equal, and the company’s board is usually entrusted to make many decisions quickly. They do not have to record every single detail or even request an open tender for contract if they don’t want to. The “market” and the shareholders will presumably hold the company to account.
Even when companies are subject to these same requirements of openness (to shareholders, to whom public companies are accountable), governments may have requirements that companies do not have, such as providing universal access to a service such as health care. Companies, however, can chose what market segments they wish to go for.
A government may therefore incur costs and expenditures that are not needed by a private company. This raises legitimate concerns about excessive drives for privatization being led by misguided principles, or the wrong type of efficiency. Conversely, one could hide behind the excuse of democratic accountability if accused of not acting quickly and decisively enough. Openness, transparency, independent media, etc. are therefore key to assuring such processes are not abused in either direction.
[Side note: To avoid claims of inefficient government being just based on ideology, perhaps the cost of being open and transparent in all decision making could be more thoroughly factored into these economic calculations. This is something not typically required in private companies and organizations, for example, which can then appear more efficient. There is also the counter point that some things cannot be efficiently done or developed by committee, but instead by specialized groups that get to focus on the task at hand.
There are, of course, many legitimate concerns and examples of unnecessary/wasteful bureaucratic processes in government, as well as in the private sector which do require addressing. A look at works by William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, or J.W. Smith’s World’s Wasted Wealth II would give many detailed examples of this.]
Challenges of democracy
Low voter turnouts
There have been numerous cases where democracies have seen leaders elected on low voter turnouts. In the US for example, in recent elections, the President has been elected with roughly 25% (one quarter) of the possible votes because a full 50% did not vote, and the “close” election race saw the remaining 50% of the votes split almost equally between the final Democrat and Republican candidates. Other countries, such as the UK has also seen such phenomenons.
Does an “elected” official represent the people if turnout is too low?
What does it mean for the health of a democracy if 75% of the electorate, for whatever reason, did not actually vote for the “winner”?
Such a low voter turnout however, represents a concern for a genuine democracy as a sufficient percentage of the electorate has either chosen not to vote, or not been able to vote (or had their votes rejected).
Some countries mandate voting into law, for example, Belgium. Others require a clear percentage of votes to be declared a winner which may result in the formation of coalitions (oftentimes fragile) to get enough votes in total.
As far as I can find, there are no countries that entertain the thought of negative votes, or voting for a list of candidates in order of preference that may help provide some further indications as to which parties are really the popular ones.
For example, many accused Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s loss to George Bush in the infamous 2000 US elections—ignoring for the moment accusations that Bush never won in the first place. If there had been the ability to list your preferred candidates in order of preference, would many of Nader’s supporters put Gore as their second option. Many right-wing alternatives may have put George Bush as their alternatives too, but perhaps this would have encouraged those who do not normally vote—such as those believed that their vote for a third candidate would have been pointless—to vote?
Why a low voter turnout?
There are numerous reasons for low voter turnout, including
- Voter apathy
- Parties not representing people
- Voter intimidation
The common criticism leveled at those who do not vote seems to be to blame them for being apathetic and irresponsible, noting that “with rights come responsibilities.” There is often some truth to this, but not only are those other reasons for not voting lost in this blanket assumption of apathy, but voting itself isn’t the only important task for an electorate.
Being able to make informed decisions is also important. In many nations, including prominent countries, there is often a view that the leading parties are not that different from each other and they do not offer much to the said voter. Is choosing not to vote then apathy or is it an informed decision? In other cases, the media may not help much, or may be partisan making choices harder to make.
In some countries voter intimidation can take on violent forms and discourage people to vote for anyone other than a militia’s favored group. (A recent example is that of Zimbabwe where the leading opposition felt they had to withdraw from the election process as voter intimidation by militias supporting Robert Mugabe was getting too violent. Mugabe’s government decided to carry on with the elections anyway, which seemed pointless to most but not to him; as he obviously would—and did—win.)
These concerns will be explored further later on.
Paradoxes of Democracy
Democracy, with all its problems, also has its paradoxes. For example,
- People may vote in non-democratic forces
- Democracies may discriminate the minority in favor of the majority
- Those with non-democratic political ambitions may use the ideals of democracy to attain power and influence
- More propaganda may be needed in democracies than some totalitarian regimes, in order to gain/maintain support for some aggressive actions and policies (such as waging war, rolling back hard-won rights, etc.)
- Regular elections lead to short government life-time. This seems to result in more emphasis on short term goals and safer issues that appeal to populist issues. It also diverts precious time toward re-election campaigns
- Anti-democratic forces may use the democratic process to get voted in or get policies enacted in their favor. (For example, some policies may be voted for or palatable because of immense lobbying and media savvy campaigning by those who have money (individuals and companies) even if some policies in reality may undermine some aspects of democracy; a simple example is how the free speech of extremist/racist groups may be used as an excuse to undermine a democratic regime)
- Those with money are more able to advertise and campaign for elections thus favoring elitism and oligarchy instead of real democracy
- Deliberate confusion of concepts such as economic preferences and political preferences (e.g. Free Markets vs. Communism economic preferences, and liberal vs authoritarian political preferences) may allow for non-democratic policies under the guise of democracy
- Democracies may, ironically perhaps, create a more effective military as people chose to willingly support their democratic ideals and are not forced to fight.
Some of these are discussed further, here:
Voting in non-democratic forces
Two examples of this paradox are the following:
Hitler and his party were voted in. He then got rid of democracy and started his gross human rights violations and genocidal campaigns as a dictator.
Hamas was also recently voted in by Palestinians. The “International community” (really the Western countries) withheld funds and aid because Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization (though most Palestinians would seem to disagree). The lack of aid, upon which the Palestinians have been quite dependent contributed to friction amongst Palestinians who support Hamas and those that do not and this has been amplified by the worsening economic situation there. The Israel/Lebanon conflict also affected the Gaza Strip contributing to the in-fighting between various Palestinian factions.
The Hitler example highlights the importance media and propaganda play and the need for continued open self-criticism to guard against these tendencies.
The Hamas example is complicated by the general Middle East situation and the view on the one hand that American/Israeli power and influence in Palestine is undermining peace between Israel and Palestine, while on the other hand, the terrorist activities of Hamas and other organizations push American and Israel to even more authoritarian reactions.
That the majority of Palestinian people would vote in Hamas suggests that they have not seen the fruit of any recent attempts at a peace process (which has long been regarded by the “international community” – minus the US and Israel – as one-sided) and this has driven people to vote for a more hard line view.
Minorities losing out to majorities
Another criticism of democracy is that sometimes what the majority votes for or prefers, may not necessarily be good for everyone. A common example plaguing many countries which have diversity in race and religion is that a dominant group may prefer policies that undermine others.
Some quick examples include Nigeria which has large Christian and Muslim populations; some Muslims there, and in other countries, want Sharia Law, which not all Muslim necessarily want, let alone people of other faiths. If only a very slight majority can override a very large minority on such an important issue as how one should live, then there is a real chance for tension and conflict.
Another example is India, often help us an example of pluralism throughput the ages, despite all manner of challenges. Yet, unfortunately an Indian government report finds that its claims to religious integration and harmony are on far shakier grounds than previously believed. Muslims in India, for example, a large minority, are also under-represented and seem to be seen as India’s new ‘underclass.’
Wealthier countries also have similar problems, ranging from France with its challenge to integrate/assimilate a large foreign population, to Spain which struggles with a large Basque population wanting independence, to the US where large immigrant populations are struggling to integrate.
To address such potential issues requires more tolerance, understanding, and openness of society, such that people are not insecure due to the presence of others (and so that they do not, as a result, turn to more extreme/fundamental aspects of their own beliefs). This can come through various outlets, including, a diverse mainstream media, institutions such as religious and legal ones, schooling, family upbringings, etc
Equally important are the underlying economic conditions and situations of a country. Generally, it seems, where economically people are generally doing well, where the inequality gap is not excessive, people have less of a reason to opt for more defensive, reactionary or aggressive policies that undermine others.
At the same time, concerns of undesirable social engineering would also need to be addressed, and it is likely that in different countries there will be different “formulas” for this to be successful, for the historical context within which people live, the specific circumstances of the day and various other factors will differ amongst and within nations.
The fear of the public and disdain of democracy from elites (while publicly claiming to supporting it)
People often see democracy as an equalizing factor that should not allow the elite or wealthy in a society to rule in an autocratic, despotic, unaccountable manner. Instead they have to respond to the will of the people, and ultimately be accountable to them. Furthermore and ideally, it should not only be the wealthy or elite that hold the power. There should be some form of equality when representing the nation.
However, this has also meant at least two accompanying phenomena:
- Democracy is seen as a threat to those in power, who worry about the masses, referring to them as a “mob”, or some other derogatory phrase (“tyranny of the majority” is another), and
- To get votes, parties may appeal to populist issues which are often sensational or aim for short-term goals of elections.
Interestingly, leading up to the 2006 US mid-term elections, amidst all sorts of allegations of corruption coming to light, in an interview by Democracy Now!, writer James Moore, provided a classic example of political utility: Karl Rove, the influential, but controversial, advisor and strategist for President George W. Bush, despite actively campaigning to get the “Religious Right” to support Bush was not religious at all (and possibly despised the evangelical Christian extremists that he actively worked to get the votes of) and Bush himself apparently called them “wackos” years earlier:
This is just one example, where parties have simply targeted people to get votes for power. And yet, many in the religious right believe that Bush represents them and some even see him as an instrument of God, showing just how effective political utility and manipulation has been.
Noting that different people refer to, and think of democracy in different ways, (even some despots have called themselves democratic!), Bernard Crick concedes that,
Democracy requires more propaganda to convince masses
In a democracy, people are generally accustomed to questioning their government, and should be empowered—and encouraged—to do so.
In some countries, healthy cynicism has given way to outright contempt or excessive cynicism at anything a government official promises!
What this does mean, however, is that those with ambitions of power and ulterior agendas have to therefore resort to even more propaganda and media savvy manipulation, as Crick notes:
Media co-opting is one strategy that may be employed as a result, as Australian journalist, John Pilger notes:
(This site’s sections on the mainstream media and propaganda looks at these issues in more depth. The buildup to the Iraq invasion is also an example of the lengths that governments of two democracies, the US and UK, would go to to gain support for their cause.)
Limited time in power means going for short term policies
Many democracies have rules that elections must be held regularly, say every 4 or 5 years. The short life span of governments is there for an important reason: it prevents a party becoming entrenched, dictatorial, stagnant or less caring of the population over time. Competition in elections encourages people to stay on their toes; governments knowing they must deliver, and potential candidates/parties knowing they can participate with a chance.
Yet, at the same time, the short-termism that results has its problems too. As Crick also notes, in two of the world’s most prominent countries, democracy has almost become a mockery of what it is meant to be:
[Side note: Noam Chomsky also details many times how the “national interests” have been used as a euphemism for the interests of only certain groups, such as some industry group, the government, a military industrial complex, or some other elitist/influential/powerful group.]
Anti-democratic forces undermine democracy using democratic means
In a number of countries, governments may find themselves facing hostile opposition (verbal and/or physical/military). Some governments find this opposition has foreign support, or, because of their own failures has created a vacuum (either a power vacuum, participation vacuum or some other failure that has allowed people to consider alternatives seriously). When a legitimate government is then deliberating, or taking, stronger actions, that government can easily be criticized for rolling back democracy, acting dictatorially or in some way undermining the rights of their people. This can then strengthen the non-democratic opposition further.
There are unfortunately countless examples of such foreign and domestic interference with potential and actual democracies to be listed here. It is common for example, to hear of say the former Soviet Union doing this. Unfortunately, while less common to hear about it in the mainstream, western governments have also been complicit in overthrowing and undermining democracies in other parts of the world in favor of puppet regimes, be they dictatorships or pseudo democracies. Two useful resources to read more about these include J.W. Smith’s Institute for Economic Democracy and the Noam Chomsky archives.
One recent example worth highlighting here is Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez managed to reverse a coup against him. This coup was aggressively supported by many in the Venezuelan elite media and also by the US. After the coup, news channels that actively supported the coup in 2002 to oust Chavez, were still allowed to remain in operation (which many democracies would not usually tolerate).
The main media outlet, RCTV, aggressively anti Chavez, was denied a renewal license in 2007, not because it was critical of Chavez policies, but because a pre-Chavez government law did not look too kindly on broadcasters encouraging coups (after all, what government would!). RCTV and their supporters tried to insist otherwise; that this was an issue of free speech. The US mainstream media has generally been hostile to Chavez (as has been the Bush administration itself), and this was therefore added to the other mis-characterizations often presented, lending credence to the view that Chavez is a dictator. In essence a law enacted during the previous dictatorial regime (backed by the US and others) is now being turned around and used against Chavez as another example of power-grabbing.
If and when nations such as the US want to further undermine the democratic processes in Venezuela, such incidents will be brought back into the mainstream, without these caveats, and a more favorable/puppet regime may likely be the aim.
Chavez is not helping his own cause by his often vocal and inflammatory antics, but it should not be forgotten how much foreign influence may be contributing to the undermining of democracy tendencies. Venezuela has been through a succession of dictatorships and many supporters of the previous regimes are in the anti-Chavez groups. Regardless of whether one is pro- or anti- Chavez, it certainly seems that democratic participation has increased during his tenure, given all the increased political activity, both pro- and anti-Chavez.
In another example, for a number of years now, in the US, a number of Christian groups in various Southern states have been campaigning hard to get schools to either reject teaching subjects such as the theory of evolution in science classes, or to “balance” them off with things like Creationism stories from the Bible or Intelligent Design ideas, in the name of free speech and academic freedom. In mid 2008, Louisiana became one of the first states to pass a religiously motivated anti-evolution “academic freedom” law that was described by Ars Technica as being
remarkably selective in its suggestion of topics that need critical thinking, as it cites scientific subjects
including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
(On this particular issue, the point is not to ban stories on Creationism; they are better taught in religious classes, not science classes. Instead, religious views of the world have been pushed forward arguing that scientific theories are just that, ideas without proof, and so religious-based ones should compete on a level field allowing people to make more “informed” decisions. Yet, often missed from that is that scientific theories are usually based on a well-substantiated explanation that gets tested whenever possible, whereas religious ideas usually are required to be accepted on faith. More generally in the United States, there is however, a growing concern at the rise in an extreme religious right that wants to replace the democratic system with a Christian State.)
Although we are accustomed to hear about Muslim extremists pushing for relgious-based states in various Middle East countries, this example is one in a democracy where despite the principle of a separation of Church and State, Christian religious extremists push forward with their agenda, anyway.)
Those with money are more likely to be candidates
It is a common concern in many democratic countries that those with sufficient funds, or fund-raising capability are the ones who will become the final candidates that voters choose from. Some criticize candidates for “selling out” to mega donor, who then expect favors in return.
Others, who may be more democratic, but are either poor, or lack the finances of the leading contenders, or will not likely support policies that influential mega donors support, will often lose out.
In the US for example, “campaign finance reform” has long been a concern. It has been common to hear leading candidates only wanting themselves to appear on television election “debates” because of concerns about technicalities such as the time needed to accommodate other candidates with no realistic chance of winning. Yet, one would think in a democracy, time should be afforded to make all popular voices hear, not just the leading four from the two main parties, as that just results in the leading four becoming unfairly popular at the expense of the rest, and makes the concern they raise into a self-serving argument.
Understandably, finding time for all candidates might not be practical if there are many, but always limiting it to the four from the two leading parties results in the same choices people have to chose from each time, limiting diversity (especially when many feel the two leading parties are quite similar on many issues).
Attempts to suggest caps on finances of any sort to address this undue influence are met with support from those who have little, but ferocious resistance from those who stand to lose out.
Newspapers and other media outlets are often less than impartial in election campaigns. The high concentrated ownership of major media outlets does not always bode well for democracies as it puts a lot of influence into a handful of owners. For example, Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of the Sun tabloid in the UK and the paper’s switch from being a long time Conservative supporter to Labour supporter was described by many as a key reason that Tony Blair first came into power in 1997.
In the US, it can be argued that the differences between some Democrats and Republicans are quite small in the larger context, and the media owners come from the same elite pool, thus reinforcing the impression of vast differences and debate on major issues. The result is that many get put off and the remaining who do want to vote have access to just a few voices from which to make any notion of informed decisions.
Confusing political ideology with economic Ideology
As discussed on this site’s neoliberalism section, and explored in more depth at the Political Compass web site, the mainstream often mixes concepts such as democracy, authoritarian/totalitarian regimes, with free markets and communist economic ideologies. The terms of “left” and “right” wing politics is a gross oversimplification:
See the neoliberalism section for various other graphs that show how most major political parties and leaders of major countries are more neoliberal/right wing, even if they may be considered left (e.g. the Labour Party in UK).
In summary, democracy does not automatically require free markets and free markets does not automatically require democracy. Many western governments supported dictatorships during the Cold War that practiced free market economics in a dictatorial/fascist manner, for example.
Leading up to World War II, a number of European nations saw their power determined by fascists, often via a democratic process. Today, many European democracies attempt a social model of economic development ranging from socialist to somewhat managed markets.
To the alarm of the US which considers the area its area of political influence, Latin America has been flirting with various socialist/left wing economic policies and direct/radical democracy.
In the Indian state of Kerala, for example, a party was voted in that has put communist practices in place with some reasonable success. Of course, many communist regimes in reality have also been accompanied by dictatorships and despots in an attempt to enforce that economic ideology.
And during the beginnings of free markets, the major European powers promoting it were themselves hardly democratic. Instead they were dominated by imperialist, racist, colonialist and aristocratic views and systems.
The point here is that by not making this distinction, policies can often be highlighted that appear democratic, or even could undermine democracy (depending on how it is carried out) as many African countries have experienced, for example. As a recent example, as South Africa came out of apartheid, it was praised for its move to democracy, its truth and reconciliation approach and other political moves. Less discussed however, were the economic policies and conditions that followed.
A report describing a conference celebrating 10 years of South African independence from Apartheid noted how difficult a democratic system is to establish when combined with factors like regional and international economics (i.e. globalization) which were identified as being “responsible for some of the problems” in the region:
One irony noted by John Bunzl of the Simultaneous Policy Organization (Simpol) is that the world’s leading democracies have, through the lobbying by corporate-friendly think-tanks, governments and companies, unleashed a corporate-friendly form of globalization that even they can’t fully control. As a result, even these countries are finding pressures on their democratic systems, resulting in unpopular austerity measures and cutbacks in cherished services and rights, such as health and education (though nowhere near to the level that has happened in the developing world, under the benign phrase “Structural Adjustment”).
How this has happened is detailed by many people. One detailed source to go to might be the Institute for Economic Democracy and the work of J.W. Smith.
Democracies may create a more effective military
It may seem ironic to many, considering that one principle underlying democracy is the desire for freedom, but democracies may create a more effective military.
Unlike a totalitarian regime, or, in the past, systems that used slaves, democracies that do not have forced military service, might create a more effective military because people have to willingly chose to participate in military institutions, and may have sufficient pride in protecting their democracy.
Of course, in reality it is more complex than that and democracy may be one ingredient of many, but potentially an important one that is hard to fully measure quantitatively. For example, sufficient funding, technology, skills and so on, are all required too, to transform an eager and enthusiastic military to an effective one.
Crick, quoted above, noted Plato’s observation that often a democratic system of rule would need to allow the few to govern on behalf of the many. This is what modern democracies typically are. But, as Crick notes, this has historically meant “rule by the few always needed to placate the many, especially for the defense of the state and the conduct of war.” (Democracy, p.17) In other words, propaganda is needed. This occurs today, too, as discussed earlier.
In some countries, the military will offer lots of incentives to join (good salary, subsidized education, etc.) which may appeal to poorer segments of society, so “defending” one’s democracy may not be the prime reason for joining the military; it may be an important way for someone in poverty to overcome their immediate predicament.
People may also be free to chose not to participate in a military, and/or reduce the money spent on it. Hence, a lot of fear politics and propaganda may be employed to gain support for excessive military spending, or to wage war, as the build-up to war against Iraq by some of the world’s most prominent democracies exemplified.
Many political commentators have noted, for example, that since the end of the Cold War, the US has struggled to fully demilitarize and transform its enormous military capacity into private, industrial capacity, and still spends close to Cold War levels. (This has been observed way before the so-called War on Terror.) Many regard the US as a more militarized state than most other industrialized countries.
Democracy, extremism and War on Terror; people losing rights
Fear, scare stories and political opportunism
The use of fear in a democratic society is a well known tactic that undermines democracy.
For example, the US has also been widely criticized for using the War on Terror to cut back on various freedoms in the US, and often undermining democracy and related principles. By raising fears of another terrorist attack it has been easy to pass through harsher policies ranging from more stringent borders, to snooping on citizens in various ways.
Another example is the US military commissions act in 2006 which has increased already formidable presidential powers further, rolling back some key principles of justice such as habeas corpus (the traditional right of detainees to challenge their detention), allowing the President to detain anyone indefinitely while giving US officials immunity from prosecution for torturing detainees that were captured before the end of 2005 by US military and CIA. (It is also an example of how a seemingly non-democratic bill is passed in through a democratic system. The previous link goes into this in a lot more detail.)
Fear, scare stories and political opportunism have also been a useful propaganda tools during election time. For example, A November 6 Democracy Now! interview noted that the US government had long ago predetermined when the sentencing of Saddam Hussein would take place: conveniently just before the 2006 mid-term elections so as to try and get extra votes through the appearance of a successful action coming to a close.
Another example comes from the Iranian hostage crisis where Iranian students held some American hostages for over a year: A documentary that aired on a British cable channel (cannot recall details unfortunately) explained how Reagan, challenging Carter in the US presidential race, used a propaganda stunt that also helped him achieve popular support: Reagan and George H. W. Bush had struck a deal with the Iranian mullahs to provide weapons if they released the hostages the day after he was sworn in as President, rather than before, during Carter’s term.
This would allow Reagan to be sworn in with a very positive and triumphant view, and provide an image of him that could be used again and again in the future to help bolster him and his party, even though, as Robert Parry commented,
The American people must never be allowed to think that the Reagan-Bush era began with collusion between Republican operatives and Islamic terrorists, an act that many might view as treason. [Robert Parry, The Bushes & the Truth About Iran, Consortium News, September 21, 2006]
Cynics will note (rightly) that such tactics are not new and they happen all the time. The problem is that many people (often cynics themselves) believe it, or importantly, believe it at that time. Because these things have happened throughout history does not automatically mean it should also happen in the future too.
Supposedly, society becomes more sophisticated and improves its knowledge of how these aspects work. We are supposed to be able to learn from past experiences, and if that were true, knowing that such things can happen, and yet they continue to do so all the time also signals a weakness or problem in the democratic institutions if such actions are not held accountable for they deceive the public into mis-informed decisions.
This is an overly complex situation as it goes to the heart of society and questions whether a society suffering this problem is truly democratic if systemically the mainstream media fails to hold those in power to account, either through fear of criticism that they are not being patriotic or through being part of the same elite establishment that reinforces each others views and perspectives, etc. The point is, perhaps regardless of whether this is easy to address or not, there may be a fundamental problem: not enough democracy, openness, transparency and accountability, thus letting these things happen, repeatedly.
Weak democracies and hostile oppositions
It seems that where democracies are weak (e.g. through government corruption, favoritism, or incompetence, or just because a nation is newly emerging, or only recently moving out of dictatorship and towards democracy) there is a greater risk in the rise of hostile opposition.
Sundeep Waslekar is president of the Strategic Foresight Group, a respectable think tank from India. He captures these concerns describing how this can pave the way for extremism:
As Waslekar also argues, the forces of extremism can be more dangerous than the forces of terrorism:
Waslekar notes that extremism often takes a religious face, and is not just in parts of the Middle East and other Islamic countries (Islamic extremism), but growing in countries and regions such as the United States (Christian extremism), Europe (racism and xenophobia of a small minority of White Europeans, and Islamic extremism by a small minority of Muslim immigrants), India (Hindu extremism), Israel (Jewish extremism), Sri Lanka (Buddhist extremism), Nepal (Maoists), Uganda (Christian extremism) and elsewhere.
Furthermore Waslekar finds that “a closer look at the patterns of terrorism and extremism around the world reveals that there are some common drivers—grievances and greed leading to supply and demand.” There is “clear evidence that young people are drawn to the terrorist or extremist mindset because they feel excluded by the society around them or by the policy framework of the state.”
And it is not necessarily absolute poverty that has the potential to breed new recruits for terrorist organizations, but more likely inequality and relative poverty. People suffering absolute poverty are generally struggling for their daily lives, and less likely to have the leisure to think about their grievances and injustices.
Another issue that Waslekar summarizes well is how terrorism is understood and reported:
What do these issues have to do with democracy? A functioning, democratic society is ideally one that is able to take inputs from different segments of society and attempt to address them. Issues such as inequality and social/political differences may have a better chance of being resolved without resort to violence in a process that actually is (and is also seen to be) open, accountable and inclusive.
Lack of inclusiveness undermines democracy, strengthens extremism
Democracy by it self is no panacea as the various issues here have shown, but is a crucial part of the overall process. A functioning mainstream media has a democratic duty to inform citizens, but around the world the media repeatedly fails to do so, and often reflects its regional biases or perspectives of an established elite few. If concerns and grievances are not addressed, or if they addressed through violence, Waslekar warns of “an age of competitive fundamentalism” and is worth quoting again, this time at length:
Democratic choice: parties or issues?
Democracies seem easy to manipulate in some circumstances. It may be during election campaigns when issues are oversimplified into simple slogans (e.g.
education, education, education), and emotive issues (which may be hyped and exaggerated, such as immigration). Or it may be during fund raising for political parties (often from influential contributors with their own agendas), or it may be when running government where corruption, lack of transparency and unaccountability affects even the wealthiest of nations who are proud to be democratic.
The free press should act as a natural check against these issues in a functioning democracy, yet intertwined interests and agendas result in them often being mouthpieces of parties or just a press-release machine that unwittingly follows an agenda set by others resulting in limited analysis outside those boundaries.
Perhaps the way parties are voted into power is an issue?
Representative and Direct Democracy
Most democracies are representative democracies, whereby votes are usually for parties who propose candidates for various government positions. By their nature, representative democracies these days require lots of funding to get heard, which opens itself up to corruption. There are usually constitutions to check the power of representatives, but even this can be open to abuse.
One alternative is known as direct democracy where instead of voting for intermediaries, votes should be cast on issues themselves. Direct democracy may help prevent the perversion of democracy by those with power interests through the financing of parties and their various machines to garner votes. On the other hand, a possible risk with direct democracy may be that there is much more emphasis on voting for issues, which may mean minority groups do not get represented fairly, depending on the issues.
There is also the challenge of scale. Direct democracy may be ideal for small organizations and communities, including thousands of participants. But what about tens of millions? Referendums in various countries on all sorts of issues have shown that direct democracy is possible, but how can this be applied to a more “daily” routine on more routine and complex issues? Is it even possible, and how would issues come to the fore? The risk of demagogy is therefore a concern.
In either case, informed opinion would be paramount, which places importance on news media outlets to be truly impartial and broad in its diversity of issues covered. With globalization today, and the accompanying concentration of media in many countries, often owned by large global companies, the diversity and variety of views are suffering.
An interesting aside is an Internet-based project called the global vote, to allow direct voting on global issues, which go beyond national boundaries, or allow people to vote on aspects of policies in the countries of others.
This is interesting in a few ways. For example, voting beyond the nation state is something new, ironically perhaps afforded by globalization which some see as undermining democracy. It is also enabled by modern technology (the Internet in this case).
On the issue of technology, attempts to introduce other types of technology into voting, such as e-voting machines have been plagued with problems of insecurity, difficult usability for some people, lack of open access to the underlying source code, and even incorrect recording of votes, or possible manipulation. This is discussed further, below.
What makes voting meaningful?
Voting in a democracy is based on the assumption of a free and informed decision.
Without these you end up with an autocratic system pretending to be a democratic system while people believe they have made a free and informed choice. Over time, as a population becomes accustomed to living in such a system a self-perpetuating belief takes hold where the population believe that the system is democratic, even as informed opinion, political diversity and choices are reduced. Such a system is then able to sustain itself, having grown from the initial illusion of free choice.
The crucial challenge therefore is how to ensure the decision is free (and not influenced unduly by propaganda or some other form of manipulation) and informed (how does one get a full range of information? Is it even possible?).
Ensuring free decisions and informed decisions are of course are clearly interlinked, and political scientist Stephen Garvey thoroughly argues that voting the way it is typically done is so flawed that a more evaluative approach to democracy would be a better way to judge progress, determine leaders, and ultimately achieve a better (and real) democracy. This, he argues, is because an evaluative democracy
- Minimizes the role of political influence and manipulation by making the focus of political determinations on citizen evaluations which are based on the collective interest.
- Minimizes political campaigning.
- Minimizes or eliminates the role of political organizations.
- Minimizes the role of money.
- Establishes accountability of political and governmental decision-making through the standard of collective interest.
In essence, democracy (and the various issues raised for debate) would then driven by the people, not by leading political parties who decide the agendas based on their interests (which also results in a very narrow set of issues being discussed, and often contributes to low voter turnout). This has the potential, then, to be a much more people-driven (i.e. democratic) approach.
For more information see Garvey’s book, Anti-Election:Pro-Determination (Inexpressible Publications, 2007) and the web site, Evaluative Democracy.
In countries that have representative democracies a problem with election campaigning is that it requires a lot of money, and raising it often means appealing to those who have sufficient money to donate.
In the US, this has led to the criticism that both Democrats and Republicans have had to court big business and do not necessarily represent the majority of the people, as a result.
Such enormous campaign financing has meant that other potentially popular candidates have not been able to get further because they have not been able to spend as much on advertising and marketing.
This means that not only do political parties court big financiers but that these large entities/businesses and wealthy individuals can use the media to push their own agendas and interests which may not necessarily represent majority views.
Numerous calls for limits are welcomed by those without money, but resisted by those with it, for clearly one set of people would gain, while another would lose out.
This very much sounds more like a system of oligarchy, rather than democracy, as Aristotle had long warned of, quoted near the beginning of this article.
In the US, activists have been trying to raise the issue of campaign financing for years, but it recently took on another dimension as limits to campaign financing were removed. Kanya D’Almeida recently summarized this in an article in Inter Press Service:
This has also meant it has been hard to find out specific details about campaign financing:
In addition to using the media to push their agendas and equally important, the US mainstream media also stands to gain:
In a country that has a lot of concentrated ownership of media, is there a potential conflict of interest; the mainstream media may not have as much interest in discussing these issues in too much depth for they stand to benefit from it.
In the US, this is just one of many other issues that affect the nation’s democracy, which this site’s section on the media in the US looks at further.
Electronic voting: efficiency or easier for corruption?
In a Democracy Now! broadcast on November 6, 2006 (just before US mid-elections) the issues being discussed were various ways that people were being prevented from voting. New York Times editor, Adam Cohen, who had been following this also talked about the problems with electronic voting machines, summarizing that they “are really not very good at making these machines” because they had all sorts of problems, even registering the wrong vote (e.g. some people put down a Democrat candidate and the summary page asking for confirmation showed it said a Republican candidate).
An HBO documentary Hacking democracy exposed numerous problems with electronic voting software/hardware in the US from a leading company, Diebold.
The documentary described how easy it was to tamper with the software and hardware. The initial question it asked was how do you know if the vote count is correct and accurate? How does America count its vote?
What they found was “secrecy, votes in the trash, and how to change the course of history” through things like extremely easy manipulation of electronic voting.
An example they noted was during the Al Gore/Bush campaign, a computer counted Al Gore’s votes backwards in Volusia County, Florida; he had negative votes. An investigation established that it could not have been through a computer glitch. Instead, it was thought it might have been tampering, but no-one will know for sure; It is against the law to look at the software used in electronic voting systems.
Furthermore, the documentary noted you can’t necessarily rely on the vote produced by the voting machines; As Democracy Now! had discussed above, this documentary had footage showing that when a vote was cast for a certain candidate, another candidate was repeatedly selected!
A concerned citizen-turned-activist discovered the code for “GEMS” the computer software code for some 40% of Diebold’s electronic voting software in use. Passwords, specifications, etc were all available. That was when the “wall of secrecy” around how these systems work, began to fall.
Computer Science PhDs at John Hopkins were shown the software code, and found:
- You could hack into the system without having to know how it works
- Security holes allowed serious manipulations
- It was not a problem limited to just Diebold
- $55 million was supposedly spent on security, accuracy and other critical features, a Diebold representative told Channel 4 News in UK. Yet the computer scientists broke into the system in 10 seconds.
There were countless more examples showing just how problematic electronic voting software has been even though the use of technology usually gives the impression of sophistication and accuracy.
The problem is not limited to the US. The Open Rights Group, a technology organization in the UK that works on civil liberties issues in relation to digital technology reported on e-counting of votes cast in the 2008 London Elections. They found that independent election observers were unable to
state reliably whether the results declared in the May 2008 elections for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly are an accurate representation of voters’ intentions.
When the independent observers tried to actually observer the votes being counted, they could not and were hampered by the technology put in place. Furthermore, they found that an audit of the software used to count the vote could not be published because of commercial confidentiality. As they noted, for a public election these are very serious concerns because transparency in the election process is crucial. And yet, the election software company is to be paid some £4.5 million for delivering this “solution” (approximately $9 million).
Media manipulation and ownership
As discussed earlier, a free and impartial media is important for a functioning democracy. However, as also detailed in other parts of this web site, a lot of mainstream media suffers from concentrated ownership by a handful of companies that usually results in less diversity of views being aired, as those owning companies have their own interests to protect and promote.
In the US and UK for example, there have been various cases of media outlet parent companies contributing to election campaigns or candidates/parties. Famously, Tony Blair got support by Ruper Murdoch and the Sun tabloid, usually a right-leaning paper, which helped him come to power in 1997.
In Italy when Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister (on more than one occasion), he was a powerful media mogul and was able to use that to good effect to promote his agenda and sometimes controversial views. As one of Italy’s richest men he was also embroiled in various allegations of corruption, including from the influential Economist magazine. Berlusconi has been able to use his influence in business, media and politics to avert much criticism and charges in various ways.
In Venezuela there has been both an intense anti-Chavez mainstream media, but also a state run channel where Chavez has had is own TV program. (As an interesting aside, Chavez’s recent election win—an overwhelming win—has been described by some foreign media as an example of amassing more power. The irony here may be that he may have won a popular democratic vote, but because he is not looked at favorably by nations such as the US, and because many of the mainstream media outlets of those other nations often follow the government/establishment position on such things, the reporting by the mainstream media from there reflected that government position. Had Bush or any other US presidential candidate won US elections with such a majority it is unlikely to be described as amassing more power, but rather an example of democracy and overall success and popularity of that candidate.)
Danny Schechter, a media expert, wonders out aloud why we see some repeated good quality analysis (after an election) of why election reporting may have been problematic, and yet those problems occur again the next time:
While Schechter is specifically commenting on US elections, these similar concerns often apply to many other countries, rich and poor.
Campaigning on personalities and sound-bites
Schechter above commented on the negative ads in US. This involves a lot of excessive and pointless attacking and degrading of opponents, rather than focusing on issues. It often involves a form of spin and slanting just to make the other candidate look bad, and both Democrats and Republicans get involved in this.
In the UK recent elections have been accompanied hype on populist issues such as immigration which, while the have issues, have been exaggerated and blown out of proportion to the issue itself.
The “image” of the candidate is often paramount, in that they must “appear” to support or not support a particular issue. Some media reports will try to make the most out of some minor issue such as appearance on a particular day and see if they can read any signals from it. The personality of the candidates themselves also become major issues.
Such tactics are arguably a waste of resources, and divert attention away from real issues which then get less time to be debated. Unfortunately these tactics will always be pursued because some of these do affect people’s views and opinions. It is well known that appearance, for example, does affect people’s opinions, regardless of whether it should or should not.
Threats of violence and intimidation
For developing countries in particular, the road to democracy is often fraught with dangers. In some cases militias threaten violence if their supported leaders are not voted for, or if some people choose to vote at all.
In East Timor militias supporting (and some accuse, supported by) the Indonesian ruling regime at the time resorted to enormous levels of violence, killings and intimidation to prevent people voting. Nonetheless in this case, the majority did vote, and achieve independence. Democracy has not automatically solved all the problems since, but it is a start.
In Burma/Myanmar, the military junta simply imprisoned/house-arrested the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as inheriting elements of brutal colonial past, the nation’s rich resources have been a curse. Numerous neighboring countries and corporate interests (e.g. diamonds, mineral companies) have interacted into what has became numerous wars. Attempts at meaningful peace have proven largely unsuccessful.
Sierra Leone and many other countries going through conflict have militias that intimidate people to vote a certain way.
Zimbabwe has had similar problems of militias intimidating, even killing opposition supporters leading to the June 2008 elections, as noted much earlier.
It is extremely difficult in countries whose borders have been artificially imposed in recent decades. Countries such as the United Kingdom have had centuries to eventually integrate peacefully (Northern Ireland perhaps being an exception, as it is also a more recent struggle). Poorer countries, that have been around mostly only since a decade or two after the Second World War not only have had a shorter time span to consider, but also have another major factor affecting them: foreign influence and interference in democratic decision-making and election processes.
Disenfranchisement of voters
In a Democracy Now! broadcast on November 6, 2006 (just before the US mid-elections) the issues being discussed were various ways that people were being prevented from voting. The broadcast interviewed New York Times editor, Adam Cohen, who had been following this concern in detail and gave various examples of attempts to try and use rules that appear fair but are actually designed to prevent a certain group of people from voting so that a certain party will win. If parties can do it, they will try, he implies.
if you look back at the history of voting in the United States, there has always been an attempt to use rules of various kinds to stop certain people from voting. It’s always been a partisan thing. One party realizes if it stops a particular ethnic group or racial group from voting, it may win, and they adopt rules that appear to be neutral, but actually aren’t neutral at all.
As shocking and concerning as some of these tactics are, these issues of course are not limited to the US, and in some countries, attempts to prevent groups of people from voting are far worse, including use of violence as noted above. The US was chosen as an example here because of the high regard people have for its democratic process. If democratic principles are easy to violate in the US, then many other countries will have even worse problems.
Democratic governments and the military
In a truly functioning democracy, the military has to be subservient to the people. The US and most other industrialized democracies are a good example of this. The military pledges to serve the purpose of protecting democracy. (Ignore for the moment the issue of democratic governments waging war on other countries, sometimes against the wishes of their population.)
There are times when we witness military coups in a country where the generals coming into power claim it is in order to route out corruption that has made a mockery of their democratic systems, or some other such reason. The rule, they say, is temporary and necessary, but only until conditions are okay to restore democracy.
Yet, many times this has either been an excuse, or, even when intentions may have been genuine, dictatorship lingers on. One example is Pakistan. Enormous corruption in the democratic government was a reason cited by by General Musharraf when he lead a military coup. He promised a restoration of democracy as soon as possible. Many years later, the world was still waiting. Finally, rather than keeping to his promise, it was intense pressure (and miscalculation by his group, or those who favor him, by assassinating opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Benezir Bhutto) that led to Musharraf to give in, allowing elections in February 2008.
During this time, numerous other democracies looked the other way, as Musharraf was useful in the “war on terror” and some Western media eventually started to refer to him as President Musharraf, even though originally he was referred to as General Musharraf (which is what the media will often use when reporting on such rulers in in hostile countries. Ironically in Venezuela, former General, Huge Chavez, has occasionally been referred to as “General Chavez”, to give the impression that the country is a fake democracy being run by a military person. That would be equivalent of say someone like General Wesley Clark becoming President of the US and referring to him as General Clark).
Thailand has also seen a similar situation to that of Pakistan. And time again will have to tell if the military dictatorship is genuine in its desire for establishing democracy or not.
Another major factor for military coups and dictatorships that have overthrown fledgling governments is because of external factors, such as when the US, during the Cold War, overthrew many fledgling democracies in favor of puppet dictatorships.
Powerful countries: democratic at home; using power, influence and manipulation abroad
Foreign policy issues hardly feature in election campaigns of countries such as UK and US, and yet their influence around the world is immense. Recall the 2000 elections between Bush and Al Gore, where both virtually agreed with the other in a televised debate on foreign policy matters. (Admittedly, many parties feel their target audiences are not as interested in foreign policy. Perhaps that will change in near future as issues such as the war on terror, the rise of Asia, climate change, and other issues become more prominent.)
Elections are typically local and national events. Foreign involvement in a national election, however, does happen, and depending on the circumstances and perspective, it can be seen as anything from providing assistance and support, to political interference and undermining of the democratic process (if it is seen at all).
There are countless examples in recent decades, too many to list here, but some recent ones include the external funding of “democratic” parties often by some Western countries in parts of the developing world.
For instance, in Iran one of the opposition groups to the ruling regime is a monarch descendant and not necessarily democratic as such, but gets Western backing nonetheless.
In Nicaragua leading up to the 2006 elections, the US actually warned Nicaraguans not to vote for for Ortega. (In the mid 1980s, the US had actively supported Contra guerrillas in a war against the Nicaraguan government. Ortega was leader of Nicaragua at that time.) The US went as far as threatening economic sanctions and withdrawal of aid if Ortega won. Even Oliver North and Donald Rumsfeld went there to tell people not to vote for Ortega (though Rumsfeld denied he went for political reasons). North was one of the main people involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, the US deal to sell weapons to Iran and use proceeds to fund the bloody contras against Ortega and the Sandinista movement there, despite a congressional ban to do this (i.e. being against both US and international law).
A scandal caused around 2000 was when there was feared Chinese influence in US elections – at that time the media and politicians were (rightly) outraged at foreign interference, but ignored the immense number of incidents (and sometimes far worse) foreign interference their own country had taken part in, in other countries, before and since.
Recently, Russia has also been accused of interference with some of its former satellites (sometimes unsuccessfully such as with the the Ukraine “velvet revolution”).
By its very nature, it is hard to detect this kind of interference. Sometimes it is visible but accompanied by so much subtle propaganda that it seems benign, while other times it is only years later that the information comes out, by which time the damage has been done (and many people’s lives have been affected).
Yet, nations and organizations doing these things will often feel they have to for their own agendas and “national interests.” Of course the more powerful and influential countries will be able to pull this off far better than poorer ones, and is yet another tool in the arsenal of more powerful countries to try and maintain their position of advantage in the international arena. While it is easy to say and hard to do, transparency in all parts of a democratic process is key to help minimize or avert this kind of perversion of democracy.
(For far more detailed examples, including in particular the history of Western companies and front organizations funding groups to overthrow governments in the name of democracy but really to achieve various foreign policy interests, see the works of J.W. Smith from the Institute for Economic Democracy, and the various writings from Noam Chomsky. Whenever some of these things come to light, the mainstream and politicians of these interfering nations often claim these were mistakes that should not have happened, but Smith, Chomsky and many others show how systemmatic this has often been, implying it is part of a foreign policy agenda to shape the world, where possible, with governments that are friendly to their interests, democratic or not.)
Can democracy be forced upon a country through military means?
One part of the US neo-conservative movement’s ideology was highlighted in the buildup for war on Iraq: the use of military force, if necessary, to extend or maintain is super-power status in the world. The Middle East clearly suffers from ineffective, or no democracy. The American neo-conservative movement felt the US should use its military might selectively to enforce democracy where it wants.
Yet, as experience in Iraq has shown, and what many scholars and activists had long-predicted, democracy cannot be enforced from the outside; it has to be home-grown. Not only must it be home-grown, but must be genuine and seen to be genuine.
(As noted earlier, the US has also funded many supposedly democratic movements in various other countries, often for ulterior motives. In so many of those cases it has turned out that those groups have become puppet regimes or pseudo democracies. In many other cases, the US has actually supported the overthrow of a democratic government. As more and more people around the world have become aware of this, the legitimacy of such overt foreign influence has often been met with suspicion and domestic elections and democratic processes then suffer through the perception of them being tainted and not genuine. In worst cases, the consequences can include political instability and conflict, so it is a dangerous game to play. It is often done unaccountably too, as interference can be justified with that overloaded term “in the national interests.”)
Democracy of Nation States in the age of Globalization
As noted further above, the international arena has an affect on most countries today. Both democratic and non-democratic forces may be voted in that then institute policies that are in some way affected by globalization (for example, supporting aspects that are described as overly corporate friendly at the expense of local people, while benefiting a few wealthy elite, or reacting negatively to some of the effects of globalization such as whipping up hysteria against economic migrants, etc.)
In the case of Africa noted earlier, many countries have found themselves subject to harsh conditions for debt relief, which on paper sound fair, but in reality leads to an undermining of democracy.
When globalization challenges national borders and is international in scope, how meaningful are some national elections? Even when a party is voted in based on some sort of criticism on the way globalization is affecting their nation, there are numerous times when those very parties have been unable to do much other than go with the pressures globalization brings (e.g. poor countries opening up to foreign investment, mostly by large western companies, thus undermining any local sector which cannot compete against such established actors or breaking some promises made to electorates).
Some time leading up to the November 2000 US presidential election, I recall hearing on radio (can’t recall details, unfortunately) how a farmer in an African nation lamented how he could not vote in the US elections for what happens there has far more effect on his country than whatever vote he could make in his own country.
The challenge will remain; richer nations, supported by the wealthy and powerful companies that come from their territories are pushing for others to open up, as this will benefit their companies and possibly their own nations more generally (or at least the wealthier segments of their own society). Poor nations are open to the idea of globalization and international institutions to discuss these processes, but repeatedly find that international meetings at the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization are far from democratic.
British economist John Maynard Keynes, is considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and one of the fathers of modern macroeconomics. He advocated an interventionist form of government policy believing markets left to their own measure (i.e. completely
freed) could be destructive leading to cycles of recessions, depressions and booms. To mitigate against the worst effects of these cycles, he supported the idea that governments could use various fiscal and monetary measures. His ideas helped rebuild after World War II, until the 1970s when his ideas were abandoned for freer market systems.
Keynes’ biographer, professor Robert Skidelsky, argues that free markets have undermined democracy and led to this crisis in the first place:
Furthermore, he argues that the democratic process has been abused and manipulated to allow a concentration of power that is actually against the idea of free markets and real capitalism:
Despite Keynesian economics getting a bad press from free market advocates for many years, many are now turning to his policies and ideas to help weather the global economic crisis.
Rich nations have long felt the pressure from the business sector and elsewhere to reduce spending on various social programs, and in most democratic elections the sound bites are about parties promising to uphold those social programs as best they can. If rich countries are struggling with this question, the challenge for emerging/developing nations is greater.
International institutions: democratic or representing those with the most power?
International institutions such as the WTO, IMF, WB, UN (or more specifically the UN Security Council) are themselves far from democratic even though most of them give the impression of being an international forum where nations can be fairly treated. But many of them prescribe policies on poor countries in such a way that it undermines those countries, even if they are democratic ones. Under such conditions, corruption is not uncommon.
The IMF and World Bank have come under criticism lately for their long non-democratic leadership, and are now beginning to address that balance. This has not come about because of democratic tendencies of the leading contributors (all Western democracies), but because a handful of developing nations, such as China, India and Brazil, have now become politically strong enough to gather sufficient backing to demand these Western-backed/influenced institutions open up and let them in and share power more fairly if they are to be truly international organizations that they want/claim to be.
It is very early days to see what will happen; will the emerging nations just become another group leaving the poorer ones still under-represented, or will they be able to fight for better global representation?
The World Trade Organization is another such problematic organization in this regards, while the UN, generally universal, suffers from the problem of the non-democratic UN Security Council with its handful of veto-power nuclear powers.
For example, during various rounds of WTO talks, developing countries frequently complained that rich nations keep circumventing established procedures or just prevent developing countries taking part or even produce documents and drafts so late in the process (e.g. the night before they are discussed) that they do not have time to analyze them sufficiently. Any of these things undermine negotiation processes for countries already limited by resources. The “Green Room” antics whereby rich countries selectively invite a few poor countries to closed door meetings, telling them how things will proceed, smells of divide and conquer. In the meanwhile industrialized country officials will celebrate these talks as being open and transparent, blaming developing countries for some unexplainable reason for being unreasonable when things go wrong.
(And when mainstream media outlets of wealthy countries rarely report these meetings, let alone the concerns and perspectives of poor countries, their officials, who sound like they genuinely want to help the poor but cannot understand why they won’t accept their offer, get away without being held to account as to why their offers to poor countries were actually so harsh and unfair in various ways.)
Although sounding boring for most of the public, these talks are some of the most important in the world, for they affect the lives of all citizens. Promises by wealthy countries of openness, transparency and other democratic like behavior are just that; promises. In reality this is politics, dirty negotiation tactics and doing anything that one can get away with in order to push one’s own interests in the international arena (which, unfortunately is somewhat understandable from the perspective of those individual nations doing it; they are trying to get the best for their own interest, even if they often present it as being best for everyone). [For additional details, see also this site’s page: WTO Meeting in Hong Kong, 2005]
Of these international institutions, the UN is perceived to be far more democratic and inclusive in comparison. However, it too is tainted, this time by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council who have veto powers over many decisions, thus giving them more power, regardless of any overwhelming international opinion or even votes by the UN General Assembly.
These 5 are permanent members with excess powers because they have nuclear weapons, helped form the UN (in the case of US, UK and France), or were invited in for Geopolitical balance (in the case of the former Soviet Union, now Russia, and China).
Military power, it appears, is the final arbiter of justice. This is ironic when key democratic principles include an independent judiciary and a military subservient to the people.
But what recourse do poor countries have? To whom can they complain and go to when wealthy countries violate the principles upon which they make grandiose claims of following?
Reality of foreign policy
Of course, as history also shows, any desire for democratic like behavior between nations is wishful thinking, perhaps naïve; powerful nations will always do what they can to preserve or extend their power. Democracy at an international level would reduce their advantage so it would not be in their interest to extend power and privilege to too many others (a few are needed).
Perhaps desire for democracy at the international level should be dismissed as a waste of time. Poorer nations would surely understand this more than people from richer nations who have not had to typically face the full brunt of someone else’s power and influence for a long time.
Yet, they still take part in the international arena. Some of that might be because they hold on to democratic ideals, but there may also be an understanding that as some powerful nations emerge such as Brazil, China, India, and some others, such nations may (for now) be useful allies in international political negotiations.
This may be one reason why the developing world as a whole was able to derail parts of the WTO “Development Round” talks in 2003 when the wealthy countries tried to unfairly impose extra issues and actions onto poorer countries without agreeing to almost anything themselves.
However, the diverse interests of poor nations also meant that at the follow up 2005 WTO round, rich countries were able to manipulate poor nations by appealing to some of the more powerful ones such as Brazil and India and get them to agree to weak drafts on behalf of the rest for a few small concessions of their own, while doing away with any pretense of a democratic, open and transparent process in the way the talks were held.
The other reason they may still be involved is that they have little choice; like it or not, their nations are more vulnerable to the forces of globalization. They almost have to try and get involved, even if it is an unequal system, just in case they can get some concessions or have their voice heard.
Why is democracy at the international level so important?
There may clearly be cases where at all levels a committee/consensus type approach may be inefficient (e.g. to respond to a natural disaster, where some command/control approach may help immediately), but even there, a democratic process can be useful to feed back into the decision making so that the command/control structure does not become close-minded.
Clearly though, a more democratic set of international institutions is one way to try and address inequalities caused by projection of power. Furthermore, understanding our commonalities, not just differences may help solidify humanity, which currently seems on a trajectory of distrust and violence. Sundeep Walsekar, mentioned earlier is worth quoting again to show just one seemingly small, but perhaps significant example:
Dwelling a bit further on this notion of humanity with more similarities than differences, a common Euro-centric view of world history describes ancient Greek democracy as Western democracy, with ancient Greece as part of that Western/European identity.
Yet, as John Hobson writes in the excellent anti Euro-centric book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), ancient Greece and Rome were not considered as part the “West” until much later; that is, Greece and Rome were part of a whole Middle East center of civilization, in some ways on the edge of it, as more was happening further Eastward.
Western Europe adopted or appropriated ancient Greek achievements in democracy as its own much later when it needed to form a cohesive ideology and identity to battle the then rising Islam and to counter its defeats during the Crusades.
The point here is that democracy is perhaps more universal than acknowledged and that there is a lot of propaganda in how history is told, sometimes highlighting differences amongst people more than the similarities and cross-fertilization of ideas that Waslekar alludes to. This better understanding, which would take a long time to permeate into mainstream society, would contribute to creating a more tolerant, hence eventually a more democratic, society.
The dangers of apathy in a democracy
Though it is ancient wisdom, Aristotle’s warning against concentrated power and wealth—in which democracy can be perverted into oligarchy—is applicable today. The more excessive this power, the more this oligarchy will tend towards monarchy and rule by individuals not laws:
All citizens of democracies should watch out for this. Even in the richest countries in the world, if citizens do not continue to hold on to their democratic tendencies, unchecked power and use the platform of democracy to concentrate wealth, power, decision-making, and ultimately, the future of the citizenry.
How can democracy be safe-guarded?
Some feel that occasionally, a government may need to suspend democracy in order to save it. For example, a rollback on fundamental rights and decision making may expedite decision-making at times of threat and danger.
Governments may hand over power to the military, or more commonly, some in the military may take it on themselves (sometimes with pressure/support from outside) that their country needs saving from their government, and will step in accordingly (a coup).
It is hard to know if such coups were ever with the best intentions in mind, because it seems most coups have resulted in long term military dictatorship. The “stability” sought in such cases appears not to have been to ensure democracy, but perhaps to ensure stability for those with money and power, and ulterior agendas.
In other situations, the US War on Terror being perhaps the most obvious in recent times, the government has decided to roll back power of the people itself, and assume a stronger and more disconnected ruling regime.
Perhaps when a nation faces a direct threat of invasion, or some other pending disaster, a more efficient system of decision-making is needed, but in all these other circumstances to “save” democracy, is a temporary roll back of democracy warranted?
What about strengthening democracy, by increasing it? If a democracy is struggling due to corruption, a faltering economy or various social, political or other economic woes, or a threat of terrorism, is less democracy a cure? Could more democracy be better, by increasing accountability, participation and transparency?
As mentioned earlier, the idea of voting as it is practiced today might be flawed because of the potential for so much misuse, abuse, and people’s lack of access to full information, free from manipulation. Alternatives such as the Evaluative Democracy approach described earlier, and others, need far more mainstream discussion (which is hard to get when so much of the mainstream media and political establishments benefit from the current arrangements).
Just as Aristotle warned of apathy, another bit of ancient wisdom might be appropriate here, summarized by Professor Steve Muhlberger recounting a situation whereby a king of Maghada in ancient India, who wished to destroy the Vajjian confederacy, sent a minister to the Buddha to ask for his advice and whether his attack would be a success or not? In his response, the Buddha said the people of Vajjia could avoid decline if they continued their open and inclusive tradition.
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