I'm a professor of history, but my articles (like my classes) cover a range of topics, including education, politics, history, and culture.
Weaknesses of Democracy
It seems like an appropriate time to discuss the weaknesses of democracy. In the United States, it is sacrilegious to say anything negative about something as fundamentally American as democracy. But through much of history, this notion of people electing their leaders was a radical concept. Even in the United States, the Founders set up a republic in which the voters had a limited ability to choose their leaders.
Only members of the House of Representatives were directly chosen by voters. Senators were chosen by state legislators, people who were at least respectable enough to win state office. (God only knew who the voters might choose.) And the president was to be chosen through an Electoral College system that still functions today, although some states in early American history had state legislators choose electors instead of voters. Supreme Court justices, who today are arguably the nine most powerful people in the federal government, were to be nominated by the president and approved by the Senate, neither of whom were directly chosen by voters.
If you were to ask many of the Founders why they had their doubts about excessive democracy, they would likely make some of the following arguments:
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- Many voters are likely to be ill-informed or downright ignorant. This is particularly true in highly democratic societies that have no requirements for voting. In the United States, for instance, you only need to be at least 18, have U.S. citizenship, and still possess a pulse to be eligible. (Although there have been cases of dead people “voting” in the past.) But this has not always been the case. At various times, there have been voting restrictions based on gender, race, ancestry, property ownership, or one’s ability to pay a poll tax or pass a (so-called) literacy test. Most of us, I hope, don’t want to bring back those voting restrictions of the good old days. There are times however—such as when watching video clips of a Trump rally—when I think that requiring people to pass a well-written intelligence test would not be such a bad idea.
- What is popular is often not what is wise. This is particularly true when the general public is ill-informed. People may be more likely to tolerate an elected leader than a monarch, which makes popular insurrection less likely. But there is no correlation that anyone has ever been able to establish between public will and wisdom.
- The qualities that help someone win an election are not necessarily the qualities that help a person make wise political decisions. To a large degree, elections are marketing contests in which each side attempts to display the most effective image. Good looks (preferably involving an impressive head of hair), speaking ability, charisma and other traits or talents can feed into this image, but it also an issue of political technique. Effective slogans, well-crafted political ads (especially attack ads), and the strategic targeting of voters and resources can also make a difference between winning and losing. This ability to market effectively, however, says nothing about the core character traits of the candidate or the effectiveness of the policies he or she intends to pursue. Some voters try to get beyond the style in an attempt to get at the substance. It can be difficult to cut through the image, however, and many voters never really try.
- Democracy seems to lead inevitably to factions, with factions generally evolving into political parties. In addition to leading to simplistic worldviews in which the actions of the other party (or parties) are always wrong because the other party did them, devoted partisans can often become people who care more about the success of their party than of the country in general. When the other party is in power, the opposition doesn’t want things to go too well because it hurts its party’s prospects in the next election. At all times, a significant portion of the country’s leadership may therefore be consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the efforts of the dominant party. Needless to say, it is a sad state of affairs when so many people want things to go badly.
- In countries that choose leaders through elections, there is very little long-term thinking. Because voters tend to focus on the here and now, politicians hoping to get reelected will focus on actions that have immediate results. And more importantly, they will be unwilling to propose policies that ask the general population to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. This is why few politicians are willing to propose meaningful reforms to Medicare and Social Security, pursue ideas that can make a significant dent in the budget deficit, or take actions that protect the environment at the expense of short-term economic growth. Plus, even if a politician is able to get something done that is focused on the long-term, future elected leaders may come along and dismantle everything. Given how quickly leaders can come and go, it is almost impossible to lay out any coherent, long-term strategies for dealing with big problems.
- The world is filled with foreign leaders who don’t have to worry about any future elections. If they don’t like a particular president’s approach to foreign policy, these dictators know that they can wait the president out. They also know that any agreements they reach with the current American administration can be dismantled by the next one. President Obama has taken some major foreign policy actions recently: steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, a nuclear agreement with Iran, and signing an international agreement to fight climate change. It is possible that all of these could become irrelevant if Trump wins in November. As with domestic policy, it is difficult to present to the world any coherent foreign policy when the leadership is changing all of the time.
- Whenever you have leaders chosen by majority vote, there is the possibility that the government can become a tool whereby the majority oppresses those in the minority. This is why deeply entrenched laws and constitutional principles must be in place to defend individual rights. Often, in a society with elected leaders, the courts can be the last resort for those who are weak and/or different. It makes one wonder about the wisdom of choosing judges through elections at the state and local level.
Given all of the clear problems with choosing leaders through elections, we are left with a simple question: what’s the alternative? In theory, the best government would be run by a wise and noble dictator. Of course, the worst government would be a bad dictator, and if you get stuck with a bad one, that man or woman could be around for a while. So given all of the alternatives, choosing leaders through elections seems better than leaders coming to power by inheriting it or seizing it by force.
Our Founders, however, seemed to realize that there were options other than total democracy or absolute dictatorship. This is why they wrote a Constitution that blended elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. They would likely be surprised by how much the growth of democracy in the United States has disrupted these checks and balances. Senators are now elected by voters, men and women of all races and social classes can vote, and the people have much more of a direct say in choosing presidents than they once did. Many of the Founders might be relieved by how much the power of the Supreme Court has grown over the course of American history, with nine educated, non-elected elites able to check somewhat the power of the masses and their elected leaders. Many of the Founders might also understand why the Democratic Party still has superdelegates in order to give the party elites some ability to check the will of the voters when choosing their nominee. Given what has happened in the Republican Party in recent years, I would not be surprised if the GOP brings back similar mechanisms in the future.
But in spite of the many weaknesses of a system where most of the leaders are chosen through elections, most of us Americans figure that it is the best way to go. Of all the options, it seems to suck the least.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Paul Swendson