The trouble with democracy

Democracy has always been central to my political philosophy. For all other modes by which some person or group rules, one must ask: by what right? By what right, for example, does China’s Communist Party reign? “The mandate of Heaven,” China’s ancient concept justifying rulership, is a mystical affront to reason. Citizen acquiescence might be invoked, but what can that mean without real choice? China’s reality — demonstrated in 1989 — is rule at gunpoint.

This is the problem of legitimacy. Another is accountability. Without it, you get the arrogance of power, corruption, oppression. All this undermines societal cohesion. We evolved for social cooperation because that boosted group survival. But communal loyalty is eroded when people are governed without consent.

However, what if voters themselves act to undermine society, by making terrible choices? As they have lately done in Britain, Turkey, Poland, and America of course. Philippine voters elected a murderer president, who has sanctioned thousands of extra-judicial killings. In France’s presidential first round, the one sensible choice (my opinion) managed less than 24% of the vote.

Philippine President Duterte

This wasn’t always such a problem. Sure, demagogues and bad ideas are nothing new. But, especially in advanced countries at least, voters used to take their civic responsibilities somewhat seriously. Extremism was shunned. Fringe parties remained on the fringes. And character counted. America’s first 44 presidents were not all great, but number 45 would, in past times, never even have passed the laugh test.

So has something important changed in modern society? We’ve long heard a lot about “anomie,” modern life divorcing people from the wholeness of harmony with nature — or some such folderol. Rubbish, I used to think. But maybe something of the sort does underlie this voting behavior.

“Social capital” refers to the intangible ways people relate to one another that make society work. Trust is a key element. It’s trusting that the stranger on the street won’t pull a knife and rob you. That when you buy something you’ll get what you pay for. That societal institutions, government most importantly, will function more or less as they’re supposed to. Of course none of this can be infallible. However, these are the default assumptions of underlying trust that shape our participation in society.

But surveys show people’s trust toward others is declining. Note that it’s not people being less trustworthy than in the past. It’s just that many of us think they are. Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it makes folks behave in ways that contribute to an overall atmosphere of lesser trust. Meantime, social trust is partly learned. With repeated positive interactions with others, you build up a basic attitude of trustingness. But modern life is reducing face-to-face interactions, with social media, video gaming, and people staring at screens cutting down time spent in the physical company of others.

People also used to be more willing to trust and, frankly, defer to the judgments of those they acknowledged as being their betters, including public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists, and other elites. But that kind of deference has been eroded not only by less trust in general, but also by a reigning ethos of egalitarianism. The idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it leads many people to imagine their own opinions (no matter how ill-informed) should carry weight equal to anyone else’s. Especially when opportunistic politicians flatter those opinions.

It all comes together. Declining social trust makes people less willing to defer not only toward elites but toward what is seen as the greater communal good. Social solidarity is impaired by an egalitarianism that exalts the individual and validates one’s own needs, desires and, yes, prejudices. Falling trust in institutions extends to sources of information, with society no longer having widely accepted arbiters of truth. Now everybody can have their own truth. No wonder voting behavior has changed.

This includes less voting, too, worldwide — especially by younger people. At fault may be disappearing civics education, and politics turning them off. Polls show declining belief in the value of democracy. Perhaps it’s also growing solipsism. People today expect to be entertained. Voting is not a fun thing, but a communitarian act; you know one vote won’t determine the outcome, but represents participation. Declining participation undermines democratic legitimacy, contributing to a vicious circle of disengagement. Trump’s vote was only 27% of the eligible total. (And he would not have won, nor would Brexit, had younger people voted equally with older ones.)

Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. This is being tested. But I’m not ready to give up. And Venezuelans today are battling to save their democracy. At least some people still get it. Elected governments, alone, still have a good answer to the “by what right” question.

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One Response to “The trouble with democracy”

  1. Lee Says:

    Never give up on democracy! (Not that I think you or Winston would.)

    But within the realm of democracy there are variations with pros and cons. Would we better off with proportional representation, which might significantly thwart gerrymandering? Would we better off with a parliamentary system and a prime minister, subject to votes of no confidence? Would we better off without the Connecticut Compromise, which protects low-population density areas via the Senate, but not any other class of people who could be worth protecting?

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