Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Democracy's Shortcomings*

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

― Winston S. Churchill

The above is clearly not in accord with the thinking of our 'betters,' aka the corporate elite, who are now lamenting the terrible things that democracy can bring about.

Billionaire CEO Steve Schwarzman first sounded the alarm in January at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
"I find the whole thing sort of astonishing, and what's remarkable is the amount of anger, whether it's on the Republican side or the Democratic side," he said, in a slow cadence that served to highlight his confusion. "Bernie Sanders, to me, is almost more stunning than some of the stuff going on on the Republican side. How is that happening? Why is that happening? What is the vein in America that is being tapped into, across parties, that's made people so unhappy?"

"Now," he concluded, smiling, "that's something you should spend some time on."
Schwarzman's bewilderment gave way to introspection and analysis, leading some to conclude there is too much democracy, thereby paving the way for demagogues like Donald Trump, who 'prey' on the emotions of the masses.

James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy, goes further:
It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”?
Such an assertion provoked a strong response from Jake Johnson:
It is elites — including Traub himself — who have for decades cloaked devastating wars in the soaring rhetoric of "humanitarian intervention." It is elites who have forced upon crumbling economies austerity that has served to prolong and worsen already dire circumstances. It is elites who have peddled the fantasy of neoliberalism, which has created a system that lavishly rewards the wealthiest while leaving everyone else to compete for the rest. It is elites, political and corporate, who have devastated the environment in the name of profit. It is elites who have crashed the global economy.

The masses, for their part, are always there to pick up the costs.

And they're sick of it.
Writing in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi says,
"Voters in America not only aren't over-empowered, they've for decades now been almost totally disenfranchised, subjects of one of the more brilliant change-suppressing systems ever invented.

People have no other source of influence ... Unions have been crushed. Nobody has any job security. Main Street institutions that once allowed people to walk down the road to sort things out with other human beings have been phased out. In their place now rest distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies.

Elites, by forcefully eliminating avenues for democratic progress, have cultivated the environment in which anti-establishment sentiment now thrives.

And the major political parties of the wealthiest nations on earth, in order to curry favor from big business, have pushed aside the needs of the working class, often disregarding workers as racists unworthy of attention. And the punditry has dutifully followed suit.
And so the schism between the elites and the masses continues. What is left unspoken, however, is the role that all of us can play in counteracting this alleged debasement of democracy.

We have a choice. We can choose to go along our merry way, content and narcotized by the trivial diversions available to us, or we can speak forcefully whenever the occasion demands that we do, and we can refuse to cede authority to the uninformed and the ignorant by turning out in droves during elections, debates, etc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with our democratic institutions. It is its potential participants who need to be regularly reminded of their responsibilities in facilitating their effective discharge. To say that there is no real choice in our political leadership may be true to some extent. But to use that as a reason for withdrawal will only serve the interests of a minority at the expense of the majority.

Anger is justified, but it must be tempered with reason. Otherwise, all will indeed be lost.

*Thanks to Kev for bringing this to my attention.


  1. Liberal democracy is in decline today in most corners of the world. Europe, certainly, where the negative expression of populism and xenophobic nationalism is taking hold, especially in the old Warsaw Pact states. The same phenom is manifested in Trump in the US.

    Years ago, CBC's legendary Patrick Watson produced an excellent series on democracy that revealed what a loose concept that truly was and how it could be shaped by the cultural reality from one place to the next.

    In my view, democracy achieves its ultimate expression in liberal democracy, the most nuanced form of the institution. Liberal democracy, reflected in progressivism, embraces the balancing of state power versus the general public and the individual citizen. It regulates and moderates majority versus minority rights and the constant struggle of labour versus capital. Behind it lies some constitutional structure to restrain government excess and enshrine the rights and freedoms of the individual.

    Sweep all of these trappings aside and you may still have a form of democracy but it may be susceptible to either mob rule or political capture by special interests. This is the dark path down which the United States seems to be travelling over the past decade or two.

    1. It is a shame, Mound, that unfettered capitalism does not seem to fear the consequences of what it has sown. I remember its humbler incarnation, before the fall of the Soviet Union, when it restrained its worst impulses because there was a countervailing ideology extant. Once that was gone, the gloves were off.

  2. Liberalism used to stand for progressive policy, Lorne. The policies changed and they called it Neo-liberalism.

    1. Only knowledge and passion can be bulwarks against this sad state, Owen. However, that responsibility is one too few seem to be willing to discharge, something the neo-liberals count on.