17. THE DILEMMAS OF DEMOCRACY
As Alexis de Tocqueville first observed, in his seminal work, Democracy in
America, democracy is subject to a series of risks or challenges. These may
also be referred to as dilemmas, or situations where every option for action has
potential negative consequences. They include:
- The risk that democracy will become a tyranny of the majority.
- The problems that arise from centralization of power.
- The risks under democracy to personal freedom.
- The role of the military in a democracy.
- The contradictions that exist in a society that has political equality yet economic
and social inequality.
Democracy is government by the people. Ideally, this means that everyone in a
society works together to achieve its and their goals. In practical terms, though,
because humans do not yet evidence such a cooperative spirit, democracy has come
to be associated with majority rule. Any group or coalition of groups that can
achieve an electoral majority can impose its will on everyone else.
This is the first dilemma. There must be checks on the freedom of action of any
such majority. One of the reasons for this is that majority rule is often associated
with discrimination. Groups that are in the minority are discriminated against
by the majority, and in many different ways. Indeed, the will of the majority,
even a majority equal to the entire population less one, becomes a tyranny if
it is directed at forcing that one person to act in a way that deprives them of
their rights or which causes them injury.
The checks against tyranny of the majority include bans on certain types of behavior,
both government and social (for example, discrimination), and also the requirement
for higher than majority votes to authorize particular types of actions.
A related issue is the question: which majority? On a subject over which there
is a conflict, and that affects numerous levels of society, such as a local community,
its region and the entire nation, whose voice should decide? For instance, suppose
that the government wants to build a dam. The local community that would be affected
by it (and also environmentalists) would almost certainly be opposed to it. But
the region could desire it for the water it would provide, and the nation for
the electricity that would be produced.
So, what course should be taken? We saw earlier that a principle of democracy
is that those people who are most affected by a decision should have the final
say. (In many cases this would be the smallest group.) Otherwise, such democracy
is actually a form of dictatorship. In this example, then, unless the local communitys
interests are fully satisfied and their concerns fully addressed, they should
be able to veto the dam.
Similarly, this argument can be used to justify separatist movements. A region
that wants to secede has a valid case if it is the subject of systematic discrimination
within the nation.
In addition to tyranny of the majority, there are democratic systems where a minority
may have disproportionate influence. Also as mentioned earlier, in parliamentary
democracies small, fringe parties may exert great influence when opposing large
parties compete to form coalitions. More generally, though, tyranny of the minority
is a common condition in all democracies, both formative and mature, through the
influence of class and wealth. The upper classes have always had power far beyond
their actual numbers.
The second dilemma is the issue of centralization of power. This also relates
to privilege government by and for the wealthy as well as the problems
that have been observed with leaders. It further extends to social institutions.
All of the difficulties that different institutions cause fall within this area
The general check on this dilemma is to keep the institutions as small as possible,
and to decentralize power back to local communities. However, decentralization
does raise an additional risk. Simply because a national government is democratic
does not mean that all of the local levels of government will be so as well. Local
governments are actually more subject to dictatorial forces: to the control of
strong men, warlords, and mafias. The question then becomes, how can
we safeguard against such localized dictatorship?
The next challenge is preserving personal freedom. In new democracies, the people
often are not free. They remain subject to traditional authoritarian systems.
Further, they commonly have inadequate education relative to democracys
demands. This makes them particularly prone to manipulation through the use of
The leaders in turn tend to come from the class, or may even be the descendants,
of former rulers. As such, they remain exalted in privilege and think only of
themselves. On the other hand, a different type of problem occurs if an established
dictatorship has just been defeated militarily. In this case the individuals who
are elected are often the revolutionary generals. But, the characteristics that
enabled them to succeed in times of war are unsuited to democracy and times of
In mature democracies, the people are generally not subject to institutionalized
repression. Ironically, though, this freedom has a cost. They take what they have
for granted. The leaders in turn make a big show during the elections of being
populist and respecting public concerns, but once elected abuse their power when
the opportunity presents itself.
The fourth problem, the role of the military, is discussed in more detail in the
next lesson. A related issue is the support given by democratic countries to those
that are still dictatorial, as this is often initiated through military-to-military
agreements including arms transfers.
The last problem is the contradiction, or hypocrisy, of a democratic society where
the people have political equality yet there are great social and economic differences.
As the arguments throughout this series of lessons demonstrate, under democracy
equality is not meant to be a partial condition. This recalls the
old contention of racists that African-Americans could be separate but equal.
Ending the privilege of wealth is democracys greatest challenge. With the
possible exception of the nations of Scandinavia, no one has effectively confronted
privilege. But, if it is unchecked this has incontrovertible consequences. Society
becomes depraved, and subsequently breaks down. There is dissent, then unrest,
then anarchy and finally revolution.
An additional challenge with democracy, which underlies all of the above dilemmas,
is the existence of competing non-democratic values. Human society has a legacy
of non-democratic structures, and their associated values. Further, these values
permeate society through being disseminated by the educational system and also
the popular media.
One such structure is theocracy, or domination by a particular religion. Democracy
and theocracy are as water and oil: they cannot coexist together. Secondly, there
are the many different forms of institutionalized discrimination, including economic
(the existence of rigid classes, castes, feudalistic patron/client systems, and
still extant forms of slavery); on the basis of tribe, ethnicity or race; and
by sex, including sexual preference. Thirdly, many nations are colonial overlays,
and which grouped together antagonistic tribes. While democracy is a system that
is designed to supplant tribalism, there are limits to its ability to accomplish
If a society is still dominated by such structures, it is not ready for democracy.
Even if the democratic system is installed, it will not function well. But, in
reviewing democracy as it is now practiced around the world, one can conclude
that this is the situation that prevails. We have not successfully left our past
Democracy must be tailored to a particular society, including such things as population,
cultural mix, prevalence of resources, and state of development. The system is
flexible, and it can accommodate wide-ranging differences in these factors. But,
it is not omnipotent. For democracy to work well, non-democratic social structures,
and also the traditions, values and belief systems on which they are based, must
An interesting question is if you can install democracy at the same time that
you end such traditions. This is unlikely. The second is the predicate of the
first. Only after a society has won its freedom from all authoritarian traditions,
is it truly ready to move forward with democracy.
© Roland O. Watson 2008