By Gian Ellis-Gannell
Editor in Chief
Much debate on the effectiveness of democratic government has arisen in recent weeks given the absurdity of the US 2020 election, police brutality during BLM and climate change protests, disparity in Australian state legislation and an international failure to contain a pandemic as the second wave of COVID-19 approaches. During a normal year, the question of whether world issues reflect the flaws of democracy as an idea may not have passed a single person’s lips. However, uncertainty over the future has finally created a debate on if the whole system might need overturning; is democracy actually, unequivocally good?
The format of a democracy, a government in which all people have the authority to choose their governing legislation, has long been harshly criticised as a flawed system, starting as early as its birthplace in ancient Athens.
In his seminal work The Republic, Plato explores five forms of government, and provides insight into his thoughts on each: (Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny). It must be said that though democracy is not painted in a flattering light, none of the other forms of government are proposed as better alternatives. This is because admittedly, it may not exist. As humans are inherently flawed, it follows that our politics would be too. Plato admits as such. Still, democracy today is viewed as the most ‘enlightened’ government form, and non-democratic nations are encouraged regularly by the United Nations to instate it. The voice of the people is a strong force that can be used to create lasting change. In some circumstances.
Criticising the powerful ‘voice of the people’ narrative posed in the 21st century is democracies susceptibility to “tyranny of the majority” and rule by demagoguery.
Democracy for these reasons is poised as highly unstable by Plato- just one step away from being completely undermined by a single leader. Looking at historical patterns, this has occurred again and again throughout time; Adolf Hitler’s own political party was democratically elected. Through forming coalitions with other parties, he was able to gain control of the coalition, and then the country. Does this show that the system of democracy can be deeply flawed, based on how a misguided population has the power to derail an entire world order? There are many more factors that lead to such circumstances of course, however we often picture tyrants as wrangling power out of an unwilling population when this is simply not the case. Hitler was in essence a demagogue.
A demagogue is a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument. Hitler appealed to people’s financial insecurity, and to an initially lesser extent, an ingrained prejudice against Jewish people.
A more obvious contemporary political example may be current US President Donald Trump. Despite a lack of political experience or thought out policies, his ‘build a wall’ mantra in 2016 appealed to those who placed immigration as a scapegoat for their employment insecurity. The ‘problem’ still has not been solved coming to the end of 2020 despite Trump’s promises. We may only hear of negative coverage in Australia, and so it is easy to forget that the majority of US voters supported Trump in 2016. Plato poses in The Republic that the democratic city “cares nothing for the past behaviour of the man who enters public life. He need only proclaim himself a friend of the people, and he will be honoured.” Unironically. If democracy allows for the popular instatement of such an incapable leader, it may not be unfair to blame the system that allowed it. That same system was unable to impeach Trump despite members of his own party turning on him.
Confliction exists even for popular, less radical figures such as John F Kennedy, as Plato noted that democratic nations have the “propensity to elevate and glorify one man as the people’s protector and champion.” JFK attracted a cult following due to his charming, likeable demeanour and subsequent tragic end. Politically, descriptions of his abilities vary. However, to this day the Kennedy family dynasty retains strong political influence in the democratic USA, and many family members hold elected political office; The first 'Kennedy' family member elected to public office was Patrick Joseph "P. J." Kennedy in 1884, 35 years after the family's arrival from Ireland. In 2012, Joseph P. Kennedy III was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts's 4th congressional district. A dynasty of political leaders should not exist in a democratic nation, yet the people are complicit in this nepotistic tradition, thus demonstrating that democracy retains traditions of the monarchies that preceded it.
Another issue that arises with this point is that the effectiveness of a democracy depends almost entirely on the education of a population. Voters may not have been politically educated enough to exercise their democratic rights well; especially in nations were voting is not compulsory. Politicians can, and do take advantage of voters' irrationality, and choose to compete more in the field of public relations than sound policy; competing for which candidate can be ‘liked’ the most renders the national political stage as little more than a primary school captain vote. Geographic electorates, a feature of the modern day created to manage votes, are also deeply biased. If I, as a politically conscious student decided to hypothetically vote for a left aligned party in my home suburb of Cherrybrook, my vote would be overruled by the right aligned vote of most others in the area. The electorate vote would go to the right aligned party, and mine would not ‘count’, all because of my address.
Plato’s next point revolves around the very fairness of the ‘majority’ determining leadership. The idea of democracy rests on a party ruling by popular consent, increasing population satisfaction and loyalty with policies pitched at improving quality of life. In all technicality though, depending on the country the minority can be as large as 49.9%. Very rarely do elections result in a clear national preference. This group may receive very limited representation, and thus the ‘majority’ becomes tyrannical. Economists such as Meltzer and Richard have argued that democracy increases people's demands from the government due to a sense of entitlement- ‘I elected them’ etc. They then go on to explain that few people hold the balance of power in a country, and according to the median voter theorem, many are likely to be unhappy with the decisions of the few. In this way, democracies are hardly effective, as they perpetuate discrimination and wealth disparity.
Katherine Fierlbeck, professor of Political Science, insinuates that Plato’s criticism of democracy’s failing is not completely the blame of the process itself, but that "because democracy is responsive to the desires of a large middle class, increasingly willing to disregard the muted voices of economically marginalized groups within its own borders." The highest percentage of voters tends to reside in the upper economic classes, or as Plato described, the “drone class” who often receive a higher quality education, thus forcing the small, but still significant population of disadvantaged peoples to continue suffering. The democratic majority’s will may not always be in the citizens best interest.
Democracy is also deeply criticised for the instability of coalition governments. Coalitions are frequently formed after elections in countries where multiple parties must group together to form a viable majority, but this quantitative collaboration is rarely an ideological agreement. The basis of a coalitions’ alliance is fundamentally incompatible with being fully representative of the will of the people. In voting for the Liberal party in Australia for example, a vote was essentially in our last federal election also cast to the Nationals; a very different party with very different values to say the least.
These are just some critiques of democracy, and, ranging across a variety of political areas, it is clear that it is a deeply flawed system. However, leadership is a tricky business that not many get right. There have been many different systems over time, of which democracy is by far the most preferable. It allows for a population to feel heard, and will in the future provide the next generation with the opportunity to make change.