By Vexen Crabtree 2017
Democracy faces challenges from every level of society. These must be continually resisted on every front.
Voters themselves need to be educated and well-informed in order to vote wisely10,11 but they do not do so, often voting on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests12,13, making some worry if democracy at all can continue to function12. Many democracies witness a continual decline in the numbers of people who bother to pay any interest in politics, let alone to vote14. A constant threat is the 'majority rules' impule, that can lead to the 'tyranny of the majority' or 'mob rule' situations in which outisders and minorities become unfiarly persecuted15,16,17.
There are problems with political parties and governments. Short-term policies such as increasing spending keep governments in power18 whereas wiser, long-term policies are less popular with voters. Highly motivated activists can exert undue pressure on governments19. Dictators, bigots, fascists and separatists can all be voted in along the same lines as anyone else20. Some governments come to abuse power, and, single-issue-parties and ethnic/separatist parties prevent the equality-of-opportunity and balance that should come from government. Finally, politicians themselves are sometimes corrupt.
In short, constant vigilence is required to prevent "democracy´s own weaknesses lead[ing] to disaster"19 , and a system of balances and checks must be maintained, to ensure that the democratic system is not going astray.
Many feel dissuaged from discussing the negative side of democracy because of the fear of being seen as a detractor21 - but here, we dive into each of the issues mentioned above in more detail. Read on.
Modern large corporations can outmanouvre governments and therefore evade the law1. If one country tightens up quality control, industrial regulation or raises employee benefits, modern companies can easily move production abroad22. Governments are under pressure to not improve legislation.23. The heads of large companies have massive power over staff, employment, industry, national economies and the environment and yet are not elected nor publicly accountable for their actions (which are sometimes damaging to large numbers of people24). Supranational organisations like the UN and the EU provide a counterbalance. For example "the EU has taken on multinational giants like Microsoft, Samsung and Toshiba for unfair competition. The UK would not be able to do this alone"25. By encouraging governments to work in tandem, and because they are staffed by those on the pay roll of elected governments, such international politics can bring democracies back into power26,27.
“Nation-states, some argue, are too small to be able to influence global change, and too large to respond effectively to the pressures for increased flexibility and competitiveness, or as Giddens put it 'too small to solve the big problems, but also too large to solve the small ones'.”
We clearly need multinational governmental bodies to control multinational corporations. Not only will this bring capitalism back under the protective arms of democracy, but it will also solve the second problem identified by Held and Giddens: It will allow national governments to concentrate more on the small problems of national well-being.
Several industries have been caught out producing fake and heavily biased science reports, orchestrating so-called "grass-roots" movements whereby they cast doubt on medical science, producing endless reams of misleading public-relations material and manipulating news outlets with fake think-tanks. They have well-practised and efficient methods for manipulating the news and public opinion and the money and effort that goes into these channels of deception are great. They produce "manufactured doubt" using scientific-sounding organisations as fronts, to try and discredit the mountains of evidence that stand against them. They are expert at getting this 'fake news' on to broadcast media and in every success they cause harm, ill health and long-term problems for all.
The worst culprits in spreading mass-lies in this way are: (1) the tobacco and smoke industry5,6,7, (2) the fast-food and junk food industries28, (3) those who sell most nutritional supplements29 and (4) the petrol and oil industries3,4,5.The worst outlets for promulgating rubbish without checking sources are the sensationalist, downmarket and popularist news bodies.
Democratic nations needs to develop strong trans-national controls in order to reign-in those with the power to run such misinformation campaigns.
For more, see: Abusing News Outlets With Fake Science and Fake Lobby Groups.
The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people8,30. News media and journalism outlets influence public opinion and therefore democracy itself so their reach and power is not to be taken lightly9. The press has "responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals"31. Good journalism is good for democracy32,31, but, unfortunately the most popular news feeds in most Western countries have degraded into poor-quality sensationalism, which is effecting democracy and degrading society33. "Three-quarters of people identify television as the most important single source of information about politics"34 and yet in the UK 'media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed'35 and coverage is almost entirely negative and pessimistic.
The worst culprit of the last few decades has been the Murdoch empire's outputs, complete with secret political deals that have made and broken entire governments36. Already by 1985 historians warned that these "powerful engines [of] misinformation [have] "political implications [and] fears that an irresponsible trouble-making press, given enough rope, might become a danger to political stability and public order, seemed fully justified"37. One of the UK government's former chief scientific advisers, Sir David King, pointed out that 'the threat of terrorism is likely to be far less significant than climate change' but that climate change is too complicated and doesn't sell well, whereas terrorism 'fits the requirements of our news culture perfectly'30. The result is a populace that don't understand the risks facing them, and who vote accordingly on the issues that the press bother to report. Sensationalism, drama, shallow argumentation and a concentration on frivolity make it hard to appreciate the complexities of the world. The effect "is not merely to mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process"38.
For more, see: The Mass Media and Democracy.
The 'tyranny of the majority' refers to the unfortunate occasion where a majority of a population come to care mostly about their own concerns at the expense of others, and often support policies and actions that suppress minorities15. This can be accident through ignorance of issues, or, on purpose, through malice and intolerance. The solution is that 'majority rules' are not enough to ensure good governance and fair society40. There are "circumstances where the idea of majority rule has to be modified"41. The result of unchecked popularism is the loss of democracy and human rights followed by social instability, strife, sectarianism and national developmental degradation42,43. Additional checks and balances are needed in any democracy to ensure that popularist ideas that are short-sighted or biased cannot simply be shouted through by the loudest voices15,42. In history, human rights have proven to be the surest and strongest bulwark against such 'mob rule'.15,16 Other strong factors are good general education, a liberal culture of tolerance and the strong rule of law with limited powers for the executive.
For more, see: The Tyranny of the Majority: How Democracy Can Be Bad.
Most developed democracies countries have seen a continual decline in the numbers of people who vote in elections and referendums, and a loss of trust in politics in general14. Also "most Western European countries have seen large falls in party membership in recent decades"44. It is a "warning sign" when political parties do not attract support14 and low turnouts at polling booths is eroding their legitimacy12. It is possible that this isn't a result of malaise, but of progress: the 19th century political theorist Tocqueville followed the 18th century Montesquieu in predicting that as liberty and economic freedom become entrenched, people would become energized in the private sphere and no longer participate in public affairs45. But most analysts are concerned that the direct-vote mandate has been undermined by disinterest and disillusionment14. The decline since the 1960s in all European countries' voter turnout rates has followed the USA's lead, although some recent elections have seen this trend halted. It is unfortunate that those who are most often motivated to vote are those with very particular and sometimes extremist views. Their good voting record means that they bear undue and unfair pressure on the political system. The academic Frank Furedi pointed out in 2004 that it has become commonplace that more people vote to choose the remaining cast of Big Brother than who vote to elect our leaders for the next three years46. In an irresponsible and childish world, entertainment has become more important than good governance. To restore balance, more moderates and "ordinary people" need to vote.
For more, see: Democratic Disillusionment and Voter Apathy.
If democracy is to work, the electorate need to be informed decisions and evidence-based decisions10. Too often, mass delusion overwhelms good sense. Such problems undermined several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century48. Founding thinkers such as Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli taught that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy11. It is sensible to argue that if you don't understand a topic then you shouldn't vote on it49. But the problem is, many do vote on issues based purely on sound-bites, one-liners, sensationalist newspaper stories and anecdotal evidence12. A "race to the bottom" condition is created whereby parties come into power based on who has the most pithy reactionary statements rather than who has the best policies13.
Such are the issues referred to when commentators worry about "post-truth politics". In a world where reality-TV is orders of magnitude more popular than politician's policies most news reporting centres on interpersonal battles that ought to be kept private. News outlets report trash because it sells; and politics continues a nosedive into rash popularism. If the populace do not soon began to vote with deliberation, then, the entire democratic project runs the risk of failure12.
To govern well, long-term strategies need to be adopted. Some long-term goals (i.e. reducing sovereign debt) can have painful short-term consequences (i.e., higher taxes, public sector pay freezes). If those consequences are unpopular with voters, there is strong pressure for governments to simply ignore the long-term issue in order to maintain popularity with the electorate. In other words, the democratic system means that short-term gains can be prioritized in a way the delays (or prevents) good governance19.
“The stupidity of democracy is its frequent preference for taking the easy life by deferring that adaptation, beyond the next election, the next economic cycle, even the next generation. One day that stupidity might, he implies, prove democracy´s downfall. [...] It is the very process of democratic competition for power that produces the rigidities and distortions that hamper adaptation.”
“... adapting to ageing [populations] feels similar to the task of adapting to climate change. It is hard to persuade people to make sacrifices or adjustments today in the cause of gains in the distant future for the sake of later generations...”
|Press Freedom (2013)51|
|Pos.||Lower is better51|
|Press Freedom (2013)51|
|Pos.||Higher is worse51|
Scores are calculated according to indicators including pluralism - the degree to which opinions are represented in the media, media independence of authorities, self-censorship, legislation, transparency and the infrastructure that supports news and information, and, the level of violence against journalists which includes lengths of imprisonments. The index "does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted."
"The same three European countries that headed the index last year hold the top three positions again this year. For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country that most respects media freedom. It is followed by the Netherlands and Norway. [At the bottom are the] same three as last year - Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea".
It must be noted that press freedom is not an indicator of press quality and the press itself can be abusive; the UK suffers in particular from a popular brand of nasty reporting that infuses several of its newspapers who are particularly prone to running destructive and often untrue campaigns against victims. The Press Freedom Index notes that "the index should in no way be taken as an indicator of the quality of the media in the countries concerned".
One risk to democracy comes from small but activist groups called special interest groups. They do serve an important role in democracy (consciousness raising, free speech, defending human rights, freedom to lobby, etc), but they are also potentially subversive. Because too few moderate voters turn up on election day and during debates, often, the ideological battlefield is littered with those who are arguing steadfastly from more extreme positions than many people would be happy with. Single-issue parties are the loftiest expression of these movements:
“Single-issue-parties are political parties centred on activism surrounding a solitary topic (such as environmentalism, religion or race). They are infamously are poor at governance in general and most of them lack economic skills or have realistic knowledge of demographics or international cause-and-effect. Special interest groups are a benefit to democracy as long as they don't actually have any power because they shift the interest of mainstream parties. If they become popular in their own right they are dangerous to democracy and to national stability on account of their imbalanced approach to national governance. Single issue parties are too narrow and too specific to be able to cope with governance at large and are frequently intolerant towards those who don't subscribe to their particular ideology, making them poor powerbrokers and poor democrats. For example ethnically-based parties (who represent particular communities) are sectarian and very poor at engendering tolerance and peace throughout the country as a whole. The most effective governments are formed from parties that are not biased towards any particular community.”
Corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain52. There are many forms of corruption. Politicians can sometimes (1) steal money (theft or embezzlement), (2) accept bribes (such as backhanders for awarding government contracts to companies), (3) give bribes (i.e., for electoral support or support in the mass media), (4) improperly coerce others (extortion), (5) give positions of power to friends and family without fairly seeking other applicants for those jobs (cronyism), or (6) grant favours to friends and family (nepotism) such as buying services from them at inflated prices (graft). The least corrupt countries between 2012-2016 were Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Norway.
For more, see: Corruption - The Abuse of Power by Politicians.
Current edition: 2017 Nov 17
Last Modified: 2018 Jan 13
Parent page: Democracy: Its Foundations and Modern Challenges
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