Is democracy becoming extinct?

· Government policy
Author

Winston Churchill said the following in 1947:

“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 for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Today, democracy is being attacked on two fronts. Firstly from within. People say it is broken and democracies are grinding to to a halt. Trump was elected by people frustrated with democracy. They wanted someone to clean out the swamp. Instead, Trump set loose the crocodiles of war who tried to devour one another.

Externally it is under attack by creeping autocracy. Governments are moving to the right in Europe and Asia as well as South America. It is not happening in the US only because enough people voted for the only option available to get rid of Trump.

Contrasts are drawn between China and the US. Centralised control in China means that when they say something like wear masks. nobody is going to go maskless. When the government says jump, you not only ask how high. You ask permission before you come down.

I worked for a multi-national once in the 80s that had stagnated for decades. A new CEO was brought in who was an autocrat. He knew what needed to be done and did it without consultation. In three or four years he turned the company around from a static, moribund organisation into a dynamic market leader. Autocracy worked.

The problem was he kept going. Changes were imposed without support from other management. Within a few years the company culture was “do as you are told, and don’t ask questions”. The dynamic market leader was struggling to maintain market share.

Head office understood and moved the CEO on. They brought in another person who could work with people and bring them along on a journey that was not just his vision. It was a collective vision.

The lesson from all this is that sometimes autocracy is needed, and works, and other times democracy is the way to go.

So, given democracy has limitations, what are those limitations?

Foot in many camps

Most government actions can be judged using the two dimensions of economic impact and social impact. If the government makes a decision, how does it impact people, groups and the country in an economic sense? Will we be richer or poorer? In a social sense, we look at how it impacts the lives of individuals, groups and the country as a whole. Will our life be better or worse following a government decision.

Unfortunately, there is a third dimension. Politics. How will the decision impact the political fortunes of the people making the decision? In an autocracy, it is not so important how a decision is received by the people. If they object, Just shoot them when they object too loudly. Democracy by nature has a short term focus. It is all about the next election. This creates decisions that may not be in the best interest either economically or socially to the country at large. They are aimed at a specific voting bloc. An autocrat may make the best decision. A democratic leader will probably make the most beneficial decision for the party.

Consistency

Someone made the comment that the US could not be taken seriously on climate action. The reason. Clinton was supportive of limiting carbon pollution and put in place regulation to limit emissions. Bush was elected and rolled them back. Obama reinstated the limits. Trump rolled them back. Biden is working to reintroduce limits. Where is the consistent long term view?

China has a long term plan which does not waiver much. It may be tweaked to respond to external influences like Covid, but where China is aiming for now is pretty much where it was going ten years ago.

Democracy is characterised by inconsistency and lack of long term goals.

Short term focus

Here is an offer. You can have $100 now or I can give you $150 in a year. 99% of people will take the money and run. But can you run a country this way. In an autocracy they can do what is best for the long term. In a democracy it is all about instant gratification. How can we redistribute money to make the electors like us.

It ties in with consistency. If a government can throw money at something that will be popular that will always beat something that is for the long term good.

Military

Every country wants to have a military force to defend it against external attack. In reality, only a few have a force that actually can. Imagine if a country such as China or Russia attacked Australia. Our military would not last a month. We would be totally overwhelmed.

Now what if you do not need a military force just to make a token effort at defending yourself. What if you have to defend both internal and external enemies. An autocratic system has to manage aggression both inside and out. Look at the size of the North Korea military. Look at some South American armies. They are large to stifle Internal dissent. In a democracy we let people protest and let off steam. Police manage most internal disputes. The government is generally not too concerned with a movement to overthrow the elected body. That happens at the ballot box.

An advantage of having a democracy is that you can have less of a military presence. Of course there are the world police nations such as the US and NATO but most democratic countries have less military than autocracies.

Funding and lobbying

Democratic institutions have become heavily reliant on raising funds for election campaigns and paying back those favours with lobbying. On one account, an typical US federal politician spends two days a week on fundraising. That involves either getting funds or meeting with those who have donated to hear what they might want in return.

This is a ridiculous workload on a job that can be 24/7 anyway. The cost of elections is out of proportion to their importance. If spending money is the criteria for success, why not just compare bank accounts and save us all the wasted time campaigning?

In addition to the fundraising, the last few months before an election are lost in terms of governing. It is speeches and handouts. At least and autocrat can devote all the time he or she has to running the country.

There are actions that can be taken. In some European countries they do not allow electioneering until three months before an election. There is always the possibility of a cap on spending but how it is determined, and how it is enforced is hard to work out.

Vote rigging

Australia has been one of the few countries to stop vote rigging by parties to favour themselves. By chance or design, we implemented an independent electoral commission to set voting districts based on a formula involving number of residents and land area. The act under which it operates dates back to 1918. It is also responsible for maintaining the voter rolls and managing elections. It is rare to hear of electoral fraud or bias in this country.

Contrast Australia with the US which has a decentralised system. Where there are 13,000 independent local entities managing electoral proceedings. There are bound to be claims of fraud during elections. It culminated last year of course with Trump claiming fraud without proof. It was so plausible, people believed him. The trust level in the voting process was already cracked.

On top of this is the decades of rigging electoral boundaries to favour one side or the other. Give politicians the right to create electorates, and they will try and game the system.

The middle ground

Most democratic parties have worked out that to win power, they have to win the middle ground. Not too conservative and not too progressive. In other words, no boat rocking. This leads to inactivity and trying not to offend anyone by not doing anything.

Such an approach leads to tweaking rather than making substantive economic or social change. We have long delays making changes everyone knows will one day happen. Think gay marriage, women’s rights, workplace reform, aboriginal recognition and climate policy. The aim of the party in power is to delay the change until almost no opposition exists. It is not about the will of the majority. It is about reducing the minority to nothing.

The swing voter

As frustration with the lack of progress delivered within a democracy grows, the group described as “swing voters” has increased. Party A one election and Party B the next. They don’t understand that they are perpetuating the problem. When Party A is in power with a slim majority, they are too scared to do much. They get voted out. Party B gets in power with a slim majority and is equally scared. They do little and get voted out. And so it goes.

When parties do not have the confidence of a big majority they will always be looking first at the next election before implementing policy. In years gone by, parties held power for decades and could implement a long term change with short term pain in the full knowledge that they would still be elected. Now, most democratic governments hang on by a thread with possibly the exception of Germany. Angela Merkel has dominated German politics and been able to advance Germany in a way a short term government never could.

Conclusion

So am I saying democracy has run its race? Not at all. There are modern aspects of government that need to be understood. That is the purpose of this post. In some cases, changes to the democratic process would make democracy work in a way that delivered more benefit to the population. For example, independent electoral commissions and limiting campaigning. Perhaps there is a way to limit expenditure. There is a good argument for 6-year terms of office so that longer-term thinking might prevail.

  • On a more radical level, having an independent body provide a scorecard on government promises would better inform voters, and limit the promises.
  • Laws passed with quantifiable outcomes and automatically repealed if they were not achieved.
  • Using electronic voting by the population on alternative budgets or components of the budget. For example “Should we maintain the current budget for the ABC, reduce it by 10% or increase it by 10%?” You would have to nominate where the savings or additional money was to come from.
  • Unaligned politicians who support a surveyed set of policies from their electorate. They are not allowed a personal view. Their role is more that of a shareholders representative.

This is not a criticism of democracy. I agree with Churchill’s comments. It is the worst form of government except for the others. I think the democratic world would be a better place if we all understood the limitations and didn’t expect so much from out political system. After all, they redistribute money. They don’t create it.

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