Editor’s Views

Critics of Faltering Democracies:
Blaming the Victims Instead of the Root Causes

Critics of faltering democracies are becoming increasingly strident in their misdirected accusations of who they think is to blame. The New York Times recently published a remarkable article whose American author claims the problem with “participatory democracy” in the U.S. are the participants!

On June 29th, the author wrote:

Our politics are broken because of ordinary people who are doing it the wrong way.

This view is reflected in a recent article in The Guardian entitled, “Lies, fearmongering and fables: that’s our democracy”.  A well-known British journalist questions basic assumptions regarding democratic forms of government when he asks:

What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?”

He cites the findings of recent research that quite erroneously conclude:

In reality . . . most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement . .

“the ‘folk theory of democracy’ — the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act — bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work.”

In a similarly pessimistic vein, another recent critic puts the blame on voters themselves and objects to the basic premise of democracy that ordinary people can and should decide how a nation is governed. He even takes the extreme position of asserting in the title of an article he authored that

“the right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge”.

Such critics are rejecting the fundamental premise of democracy, which is that ordinary people are capable of democratic self-governance. Extremists among these critics even argue they are inherently incapable of directly deciding what should be their governments’ legislative priorities, and electing lawmakers to enact them.

They are bolstered in their claims and fears by fellow travelers who see in increasing electoral upsets of established political parties and their leaders ominous signs of “populism” and dangerous ultra-nationalist sentiments.

Prospects of social unrest and fears of domestic political turmoil by dissatisfied populaces have long motivated attempts by political parties, ideological partisans and special interests to limit the scope of voters’ influence.  For example, instead of reflecting and advocating the priorities and needs of ordinary people, many political parties have traditionally sought to limit the ability of their supporters and voters at large to determine party agendas, electoral candidacies, and legislative actions.

Note only have they circumscribed voters’ substantive roles, but they have adopted a whole spectrum of interferences with the ways and means by which votes are cast and tallied, such that lawmakers elected to legislative bodies are quite disconnected from the disempowered constituents they are supposed to serve, and unaccountable to them.  Among the consequences of this disconnect is that government has become the least trusted institution worldwide due to the inability of so many to meet the needs of their constituents. Significantly, many observers attribute increasing inequality of income and wealth to this failure, as well as electoral and political backlashes around the world seeking to overturn the status quo.

If recent electoral upsets in established democracies are any indication, so many  voters are becoming so dissatisfied with their governments, lawmakers, political parties and politically influential special interests that they prefer to vote for unpredictable candidates far outside traditional mainstreams.

While these unexpected political upsets have elicited resounding promises of increased attention to the priorities and needs and wants of ordinary people, they promises have yet to bear fruit.  Politics as usual, especially political in-fighting among the political powers-that-be, appears to be in full swing along the same ideological, highly partisan lines pursued by traditional political parties and the legislative bodies they continue to dominate.

In my view, if we look below the surface of what is taking place in these political “hot spots” of electoral upsets amidst widespread voter dissatisfaction, the root causes are quite likely to be far deeper than the political parties, candidates and special interests involved in these contests.

As I will suggest in editorials and blog posts, the proclaimed “democratic institutions”, and the electoral and legislative processes that have long been the bulwark of democratic self-governance “by and for the people”, possess inherent weaknesses amongst their renowned strengths. These weaknesses include underlying vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to anti-democratic re-engineering that subverts popular sovereignty. These institutions and processes can and must be re-invented.