By Roland Watson
To continue with the mature democracies, their concerns can be separated as they relate to the general population and to the government itself. For the government, a common problem is the splitting of the political leadership into two competing sides: the party in power, and the opposition. Unfortunately, oppositions rarely exhibit a willingness to work with the party in power, to serve the interests of the nation. Instead, they focus their efforts solely on undermining the current government and forcing it from power, at which point they change sides. Similarly, in parliamentary democracies with multiple parties, any one party can rarely garner enough votes to govern on its own, and its efforts to form a coalition can easily fall hostage to splinter, extremist parties, which have only a few seats in the government, but which nonetheless are able to affect the balance of power.
De Tocqueville, in his commentary on early American democracy, expressed concern over the possibility of tyranny by the majority. Now, following our experience with its mature forms, we must add the possibilities of tyranny by the opposition or by a minority. De Tocqueville's other concerns regarding democracy, his other dilemmas, were the preservation of independence in a democracy, which can be considered as a restatement of the theme of this entire website; the problem of centralization of power (the already referred to pyramid issue); the role of the military (see the earlier article); and the contradictions in a society that has political equality yet social and economic inequality (see the next two articles).
Also, after two centuries of experience with democracy it is obvious that there are a number of other concerns that must be addressed as well, the first of which is: which majority? In an issue over which there is a conflict, and that affects numerous levels of society, such as a local community, a region, and the entire nation, whose voice should decide? For example, with a proposed dam the local community that would be affected by it 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. (Of course, environmentalists at all levels would likely oppose the project.)
So, what course should be taken? As a principle, those people who are most affected by the 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 community's interests are fully satisfied and their concerns fully addressed, they should be able to veto the dam.
This also fits well with our general goal to reverse the centralization of power, including to decentralize government to the greatest possible extent back to local communities. However, such a process raises 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, mafias and other types of special interests. The question then becomes, how can we safeguard against such localized dictatorship?
Special interests, of course, subvert far more than local government: in the U.S. it is commonly recognized that the influence of special interests has undermined our entire democratic system.
"Representative democracy in the United States has broken down. Our legislators do not represent those who elected them but rather the minority who finance their political campaigns and who control the organs of communication. ... Representative government ... represents money not people and therefore has forfeited our allegiance and moral support."
- Edward Abbey, from the Forward to Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. Ed. Dave Foreman and Bill Heywood, available from Earth First!
To counter this there must be a strong campaign funding law, and the regulation of institutional lobbyists. This is the only way to eliminate government for corporations and other moneyed interests.
This issue also extends more generally to the problem of governments that refuse to abide by the majority's interests (excluding when such wishes are unethical). For instance, the United States government will not:
- end the exploitation and destruction of the nation's remaining natural environments,
- require the labeling of genetically modified food and other products,
- and legalize the use of marijuana,
even though a majority of the public supports such moves. The reasons for this obstinacy include the protection of government power, government collusion with other institutions, and the preservation of a means of legal public repression. In addition, in many countries popularly elected government officials attempt to transform themselves into dictators, by ignoring the public's wishes, and their own election promises, and by working to destroy democratic institutions so that they cannot be removed.
Finally, to all of these concerns we can add the aforementioned failure of the system of checks and balances (the existence of an opposition can be viewed as another such check, and again, one that largely has failed), and the potential for the application of modern tactics of tyranny. As to this, there is great temptation, for the leaders of any government, to use the tactics of dictatorship to repress and silence dissent.
We already reviewed, with the widespread criminalization of young African American drug users (but not whites), and the police response to activists, selective and overly enthusiastic application of the law. The law is regularly used to quell dissent, and the specific provisions that are generally applied, in addition to those against illicit drugs, are the ordinances on the payment of income tax and the ownership of guns. If the government wants to get you, it will audit your taxes and find something wrong; or, as with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, it will use your possession of firearms as the excuse.
Other tactics that even the most modern of democracies use include the imposition of force, domestically (Kent State, Waco, Ruby Ridge), and in foreign settings; and also propaganda, secrecy and censorship, particularly concerning the government's own wrongdoings. For example, in the summer of 2000 the European Union adopted a new secrecy code, without allowing for public comment, stating that information pertaining to any of the following can be withheld: "public security, the security and defense of the Union or one of its member states, military or nonmilitary crisis management, international relations, monetary stability, court proceedings, inspections and investigations." Indeed, even the existence of such classified documents does not have to be revealed.
Furthermore, regarding the leaders of such democracies, they engage in corruption, directly, via bribery, and indirectly, through such things as accepting the contributions of special interests and other improper campaign funding practices.
In many cases, modern politicians function as a new aristocracy. They are above the law and stay in power for decades. Also, even mature democracies regularly have a disproportionate percentage of elected leaders from the elite, from the upper classes, including from special interests, particularly from special interests that are destructive of the environment. The government is not only influenced by - it is populated with - ranchers (George W. Bush!), timber barons, and the owners of mines and oil wells. In addition, with campaign funding practices as they now exist, this will always be the case.
The other set of problems with democracy relates to the general population, as with apathy. Democracy makes great demands on its participants, on its voters. For a democracy to be effective, to function at its optimal level, it requires that voters have the following characteristics:
- a well developed general education, to be able to grasp the basic complexities of life, and the need in social organizations for fairness, justice and ethics.
- effective defenses against form, such as the brainwashing perpetrated by special interests.
- education about the purposes, organization and functioning of government.
- education about currently important governmental issues.
- and a well-developed sense of personal identity and responsibility, and the exercise of discipline and free will through participating in the vote. (When a candidate, such as George W. Bush, offers as a lure a large tax cut, the public should understand that this is an attempt to buy their votes.)
As we can see, this is a very high standard, and it is obvious that in any given democracy a significant portion of the population will not be able to meet it. The question is, what do you do about them? You cannot take away their right to vote, and in any case a rational, and fair, means of measuring whether or not one meets the standard could never be devised. The problem is, such people are highly susceptible to form, to the aforementioned "masters," and to their influence and manipulation.
This is actually another type of tyranny of the minority, in this case the minority of the well educated. And, since such a distinction is usually based on class, it represents yet another means by which class structure is perpetuated.
Indeed, one can argue that humans are not up to the demands of democracy, that we do not have what it takes to make one work. When we are the subjects of an autocracy we strive for democracy, but once we get it our interest quickly wanes. And, it is quite possible that a new autocracy will be formed, because the people who were the leaders in the struggle for democracy, who fought the last regime, will assume positions of power and then be corrupted by them. Democracy works best with newly liberated populations, where advanced education is widespread, and where the newly elected leaders retain their ethics: in other words, nowhere.
© Roland Watson 2016