Achilles Heel of Democracies

I continue to follow the unfolding drama of Venezuela and Ukraine.  They have reached an unfortunate stage where there doesn’t seem to be any kind of deliberative solution.  In each case, some side needs to establish some calm and normalcy so that a peaceful economy can resume and allow for the return of more democratic government in the more distant future.

On an emotional basis, I think Venezuela should be a higher priority for our attention.   Venezuela is in the higher risk of things falling apart not only for the people but for the entire region.  Cuba’s interference in Venezuela is far more menacing than Russia’s interference in Ukraine.   This is just an impression of a casual observer with very little information and even less influence.

I am devoting more of my thinking on the topic of how both countries can get to this point.  The two cases are more different than alike.  They are related more by the coincidence in time than in underlying conditions.   One aspect that they share is that their democratic government has lost its legitimacy: the instrument that produces a solution for either of these situations will not be credibly democratic.

I see a cautionary lesson.  A stable democratic country should recognize its best interest is to avoid the situation that these countries are currently in.   It is not unique to these two countries that there are significant minorities who disagree with the government.   This kind of crisis can occur in any government.

What concerns me is the constitution oversight of not being able to adequately accommodate opinions of minority that are cut off from political power.   These political minorities have no access to power and thus no real input in the direction of the democratic government.  These political minorities or their coalitions can become concentrated in sufficient numbers to cause disruptions to the peace to the extent that they can destabilize the democratic government.

Democratic constitutions appear to ignore the potential power of groups that will never be represented in the majority.  These governments place all emphasis on the majority with legitimacy gained by a history of that majority changing over time.   There is no recognition that a minority may be completely cut off with any access to the democratic government at any time.   As long as such groups are sufficiently small and isolated, this is not a problem.

I see two things missing from constitution or laws managing democratic governments. 

The first is way to quantify and locate the political minorities who are shut out from any possibility of being in majority.  Random polling is not sufficient because what is needed is the number of people who are willing to commit themselves to prolonged protests to push for their causes.   Without knowledge of this number, the government is at risk of a surprise.   Venezuela and Ukraine are not unaccustomed to protests.  They were surprised by the commitment to sustain protests in large numbers over long durations.   There should be a way to see this coming.

The second deficiency is the lack of recognition of shut-out political minorities.   In our country, we have two parties that over time seem to shift in having majorities.  We assume that these two parties cover the range of political opinions.   We dismiss any opinions that do not fit neatly into either of these two parties.   I grant that there are perpetual minorities who will never have control of the government.  But the government can do more to recognize that they exist, that their ideas are legitimate though less acceptable on the whole, and that their intentions are in good faith (assuming absence of evidence of destructive intentions).   The government needs formal commitments to respecting all of the viewpoints that oppose the majority, not just the view-points of the largest minority.  Those with opposing views should be convinced that their arguments are recognized and that they offer these arguments are offered in good faith for the benefit of all.

All too often, marginal viewpoints are completely ignored or demonized if the viewpoints must be addressed.   The danger to a democracy is that the legitimacy of majority rule comes from super-majority consent.  Opposing parts grant consent to the majority when that are convinced they were heard and respected.   Governments should take precautions that the non-consenting population does not reach a level that can destabilize the government.


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