Let’s start this off with a cliche.
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
(Winston Churchill, House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)
This post is not about answers. It’s about enumerated problems, skewed to an American perspective.
The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
(attributed to Winston Churchill)
1) Not everyone will get engaged in the system. Those that do, perhaps shouldn’t.
a) Dan Carlin had an episode where he questioned the value of not only encouraging people to vote, but also demonizing them if they don’t. I disagree with his implication that perhaps there is a natural conclusion to limit voting to certain people, but I don’t think it helps the system or the public at large when people who don’t know about the issues or the candidates end up voting party line, or as instructed on what to vote by a TV ad. And with all of the over-simplifying and fear-driving of issues, people can end up voting for or against something/someone that doesn’t have the effects that they might think it does.
b) You can talk about education and involvement as much as you want, but it’s a difficult sell when there are so many hurdles to go and vote, such as needing to take off from work, etc. and people’s legitimate feeling that not much changes, no matter who is in office. (Why? See #3.)
c) In the U.S., there is an idea that there is a problem with “special interests”. The problem with this idea is that everyone has “special interests” that distinguish one person from another. People love to decry the “special interest group” of trial lawyers, but are less willing to be upset about the “special interest group” of firemen. With the money that goes into the American political system, “special interests” with more money are able to put the same fear-driving tactics into an issue where they (arguably) have no business being, such as the out-of-state money that went into supporting a successful California Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
(no consistent attribution)
2) People don’t always work in the best interests of themselves (and certainly not others).
a) For democracy to work, you need majority rule with minority rights. The problem is that with majority rule, minority rights can be neglected. This can be seen as more of a problem in other parts in the world. (Look at Turkey, definitely a republic, wherein there is a sizable Kurdish population that as recently as 1991 were not allowed to speak their language in public.) But even in the United States there has been a long history of ignoring the rights of minorities, treating them as second-class citizens, which continues now for racial and sexual orientation minorities.
b) The United States has a particular problem with short-sightedness that does not allow it to solve its own problems. Americans want services with no taxes, an impossible task that makes the United States a worldwide military and foreign aiding entity which provides retirement and medical benefits without nearly the level of taxes that it would take to sustain such efforts and provisions.
People want immediate results. No longer will the American public tolerate any level of pain. Recession? End it instantly. War? Don’t let any American troops die.
It doesn’t behoove politicians to seriously address reality because no American wants to hear that their cake isn’t free. And when politics is your job, your first priority is keeping it. So campaign on absolute bullshit, because the American people love their cake and will only look at the frosting on your bullshit.
Democracy has turned out to be not majority rule but rule by well-organized and well-connected minority groups who steal from the majority.
(Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr)
3) Democracies will inevitably become gridlocked.
The saddest problem in all of it, is that even if you have the best of intentions, it takes a Herculean effort to get anything done.
Recently, the Democrats had a filibuster proof majority. If the U.S. political system was truly based on majority rule, then they would have gotten whatever they wanted through. Even without all of the Republican obstructionism, the Democrats couldn’t do what they wanted, because the Democrats were as much a coalition government as what can be found in parliamentary countries. There are vast differences in ideology between a liberal West Coast Democrat and a conservative Heartland Democrat.
To succeed at health care legislation, there were necessary internal party compromises. And those compromises were the ugly politics that is essential to getting a congressman’s vote. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson worked it out that his state would receive federal aid for Nebraska’s Medicaid program. Wonderful for Nebraskans on Medicaid, but not something that seems very helpful to anyone else. And it was necessary to do this, along with a changed abortion coverage policy, to get his vote.
The health care vote process is what happens for nearly every piece of substantive legislation, it just was highlighted in a way that the American public (or press) rarely takes the effort to see. Trading support to be able to get what you want/need for your constituents is a given in Washington. If lengthy negotiation is necessary within one party, imagine the time and effort that goes into multiple party talks. That, along with the effort that goes into campaigning every 2-6 years, will slow down any process.
People look to the human rights violating behemoth that is China and are sometimes jealous of its politicians’ ability to make instant decisions without worrying about getting voting back in, such as displacing 1.3 million people to create the Three Gorges Dam.
When you have to be concerned with a fickle public voting you out, you can’t make the long-term projects that the country might need. Dictatorships don’t worry about this.
Conclusion: It’s hard for me to blame people for not getting involved in a system that doesn’t feel like it changes, no matter what you do. Also, Americans work longer hours than most people in the world. They are concerned with making sure they are doing their work to provide for themselves and their families, which takes up enough time that being engaged in politics is something that they do in a cursory way or in the fashion of a calling or a hobby.
The people that are most invested are politicians and the businesses that feel the impact of tax benefits, opening up of markets and less oversight. They will always be involved in the process and can dedicate employees to being solely focused on politics. The public will only get involved in changing any system, democratic or not, when they really feel like they’re getting bit. When Chinese babies were getting killed by tainted milk, the Chinese government acted quickly. No one will keep a government in that lets your babies die from lack of oversight. Outcry in America (and elsewhere, other than perpetually protesting France and Greece) happens along the same lines.
As long as Americans have a high standard of living, even if it is impacted a bit, they will grumble, but not go out and protest en masse. And without indignation and involvement, there is no change. So hats off to the “special interests” that stay involved. They’ll get what they want in a system that is designed to give you exactly that.
Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. (attributed to George Bernard Shaw)