This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Limits of Democracy

It’s a wholly remarkable thing that, generally, the more religious someone is, the less that person understands the tenets of his or her own religion. I have met a number of very religious people, from different traditions, and I have found that very few of them dwell on the meaning of what they believe their god has said, even if that meaning is obvious. Take Christian fundamentalists in this country for instance; as a political group, they embrace values that are outrageously contrary to what Jesus preached. Yet pointing this out to them neither produces an explanation nor makes them reconsider their own philosophies. Passionate belief in an ideal is invariably reductive, to the point where one possessed by it cannot even intelligently articulate what it is he believes. Belief, after all, lies at the intersection of rationality and impulse; and when we aren’t careful, impulse takes over.

It is unfortunate, but the idea of democracy in our society is treated like a religion. This is why people seem to have so much trouble defining and describing it, apart from it being some kind of combination of peace, friendship and bubble gum. (Or, alternatively, “small government”, Randian-style capitalism and flogging gays and unwed mothers in the town square.) I am especially ticked off when the Athenian democracy — assumed to be “the original” — is held up as an example of some kind of democratic purity. However one defines democracy, it seems to be treated as a matter of belief: things can’t go wrong if we believe in democracy, and if things do go wrong, it’s because we do not believe in democracy enough.

And thus, many forget that democracy is a man-made system that, understandably, has its flaws, weaknesses and limits. Like these, for example:

  • Democracy works best in small, religiously and culturally homogeneous societies. Democracy, as we all know, originated in Greece, a country cut-up by natural borders which made the relatively insular city-state the ideal community form there in ancient times. By contrast, communities in Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt opted for monarchy. We tend to distinguish between these areas somewhat in hindsight, but they were all part of the greater Mediterranean world and interacted with each other a great deal, so the fact that they went such different ways politically is indeed striking. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, civilization was inextricably tied to those regions’ great rivers. To sustain agriculture there, an elaborate and expensive irrigation infrastructure had to be built and maintained, which required many different groups of people to band together — which, in turn, was a major factor in the rise of the nation-state, especially in Egypt. And monarchy seemed to be the most effective form of governance for holding such a state together. The whole point of democracy is to decide major issues by a vote, thus satisfying at least the majority. However, this only works if the minority is still able to acquiesce in an adverse result. And that, in turn, requires shared values. It is a myth that democracy allows people with starkly different ideas to co-exist and work together. A successful democratic society is one whose members, despite differing on certain particulars, think very similarly about the big picture. America’s culture wars are particularly disturbing because the gulf between the values of its two major groups grows wider by the day; and the more it does so, the more we will see stalemate and lack of accomplishment in Washington.
  • The more competing interests there are surrounding an issue, the more likely is the end result to satisfy none of them. Say your ordinary major city needs to build a new bridge. To start, there will be a group of people to claim that no bridge needs to be built at all at taxpayers’ expense, and those who need to cross the river can just build their own goddamned bridge. There will be a group of people who will want an architecturally beautiful bridge, one that will serve as a landmark and raise the city’s profile; once it is decided that the bridge will be built, wrangling over architectural plans can take years. There will be a group of people who will want the cheapest possible bridge, at the expense of beauty and safety, and a group of people who will want the safest possible bridge, at the expense of beauty and frugality. There will also be a group of people who will want the most environment-friendly bridge, and various groups of people warring over what neighborhoods will be displaced by the new bridge and approaches to it. Twenty years, a dozen committees and seventeen lawsuits later, the city will most likely get an ugly, expensive, inconveniently placed bridge, that’s neither particularly safe nor environmentally friendly. And not until every other means of crossing the river is in a state of near collapse. In other words, no one will be happy. We have seen it again and again, the latest and biggest example of this phenomenon being the construction project at Ground Zero in New York City.
  • Democracy makes it hard to pursue major, long-term public endeavors. As a mass of voters, people tend to prioritize short-term goals over long-term ones. Politicians, for their part, worry about getting re-elected. Add to that the endless cycle of public reaction to any set of policies, and you have a situation where it is exceedingly difficult to pursue a project that takes longer than a few election cycles to complete — or at least to do so competently. Of course, very often, where the state is powerless to undertake a project, the power vacuum is filled by private entities — in other words, governmental impotence in a democracy creates a fertile environment for corporatism.
  • Classical democracies had very small electorates.To be a voter in ancient Athens, you had to be male. You had to be free. You had to be an Athenian citizen — a status which could be acquired only through birth to an Athenian father, at least, and after Pericles’ reforms, only if both of one’s parents were Athenian. Even if you were all of those things, there would still be a minimum property qualification to meet. To be a voter in Sparta, you would also have to fulfill some very substantial military obligations. As a result, only a very small fraction of the population comprised the voting “demos”. Later, in merchant republics of the Middle Ages, membership in a voting guild was a prerequisite to having the right to vote, and that membership was very difficult to achieve in the first place. Keeping the electorate small remained a feature of democracies until the turn of the twentieth century, when women began to gain the right to vote and property qualifications began to be repealed. One of the rationales behind limiting the right to vote so severely relates to what I mentioned earlier — it was a way to keep power in the hands of a cohesive, homogeneous group of like-minded individuals who would usually be in agreement about goals, if not the means to achieve them. Expanding the electorate is socially just, but from a practical standpoint, it makes democracies more chaotic and less effective.
  • Slavery was a major factor in making ancient democracies work. If you asked an ancient Athenian about the reason for the property qualification, he would probably say that it does not make sense to give the vote to anyone who does not enjoy the leisure and the means to devote himself to politics full-time. Ancient Greek economies were very heavily dependent on slave labor, and at the same time, Greek legal systems created some of the most brutal forms of slavery in history. In ancient Egypt, by contrast, slaves actually had certain legal rights and possessed far greater opportunities to achieve freedom. We now know that, contrary to a long-held belief, major public works in ancient Egypt were done by a well-treated citizen force, not by slaves; this was, in part, I think, because the Egyptian society neither had enough slaves nor did it have the legal and social traditions that would allow it to build up a large enough slave labor force. Which segues into the next point, and that is that
  • A democracy is not necessarily liberal or inclusive. This is not a “weakness” in and of itself, as much as it is a weakness for people to confuse democracy with justice. History shows that democracies are perfectly capable of promoting oppression, bigotry and mass violence. Today, I look at Arab Spring and I don’t share the exhilaration of most Westerners over it. I don’t know if the democratic governments that these countries establish will be better, in practical terms, than the ones that have been overthrown — for their own countries or for the rest of the world. Islamists are very popular in Egypt, for instance. Forget that it’s bad for the West, it’s bad for Egypt, if for no other reason than that by driving away tourism, the fundies will obliterate that country’s already exceedingly fragile economy. It is a big mistake to think that, now that people are free to elect their own government, they will elect progressives. They can just as well elect fundamentalists, terrorists, genocidal maniacs, whomever. Democracy is not a panacea. A triumph of democracy is not a triumph of liberalism.
  • Voters get distracted by secondary issues and things like sex scandals. A politician may promote outrageously destructive policies and still have his defenders. He may rehabilitate his reputation even if his policies make him wildly unpopular. But if it’s discovered that he cheated on his wife, or if he makes himself look momentarily silly for reasons that have nothing to do with his politics — he’s done for. It is not as if I sympathize with people like Newt Gingrich — not at all, and far from it — but it is dismaying that his history of cheating seems to be more of an issue with voters than his politics (although I will concede that to the extent he is a “moral conservative”, they are connected). What voters want to see in their leader varies from culture to culture, but it is invariably a specific set of personal and superficial qualities — with competence, intelligence and political convictions being far less important.
  • A belated disclaimer: Despite everything that I’ve just said, I am still a republican (small “r”). I just think that understanding and critical analysis are far more important to preserving and improving our democracy than simple belief.

    Can anything be done about all this? The Founders established a democracy, but they introduced certain elements of oligarchy into it to make sure that the mostly popular government also had some members who attained their place more through merit and independently of the whims of voters. These elements have been eroding over the past centuries and probably will continue to do so.

    Perhaps until the next big political upheaval. Pressure has certainly been building lately.


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    3 thoughts on “The Limits of Democracy

    1. Pingback: 12 Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart « This Ruthless World

    2. Pingback: Five Issues American Politics Should Confront, But Won’t « This Ruthless World

    3. Hello! I would like to propose a vital distinction between “passionate belief” and “strident ideology,” if only because I am a pretty devout and orthodoxyish religious-type-person, but I could mull the underpinnings and consequences of my beliefs all day every day for a year, if necessary, and consider it a necessary duty to check up on the reasonableness of the real-world applications of my beliefs as often as possible.

      Also, you are great! Everything you say on this blog is like a breath of well-reasoned fresh air. Thank you for writing!

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