In recent years, I’ve been noticing an increasingly exaggerated promotion of democracy as an ideal for government. Clearly, the concept of democracy has always been a central motivation behind the american experiment known as the United States. However, the recent advocacy uses democracy as a criticism: that the US is not democratic enough.
I’m just speaking from my own perspective. Admittedly, my recollection may be flawed, but I think I have always had some level of skepticism about democracy, even the democratic republic that defined the initial US government. The evolution of our government over the past century has moved most of government into bureaucratic control outside of reach of democracy. For the most part, this seems to be accepted as a preferred approach, with very little objection by the population.
The alternative would be to have congress write and pass each of these numerous rules and regulations. The majority seems to accept that this is neither practical nor wise. In other words, the democratic consensus is that rules and regulations, laws we all have to live under, are best kept as far as possible from democratic influence. For such laws, the role of democratically elected representatives is to fund the bureaucracies and to define the limits of their jurisdiction.
Despite this acceptance of separating substantive rule making from democracy, there remains a call for increased democracy. If we are going to continue to transfer government authority to bureaucrats, what do we need more democracy for.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve always been skeptical about whether we live in a democratic government. More specifically, I struggled to understand the meaning of the word given the evidence of my experience.
A frequent refrain in public demonstrations goes something like “this is what democracy looks like” referring to a bunch of people yelling slogans in a street. In most cases, the assembled crowd are demanding many different priorities some of which are mutually incompatible. If this is what democracy looks like, it does not look anything like a government. A government would have some coherence either through some overall policy objective or through a firm leadership. Democracy demonstrated in public assemblies is something else.
As I have lived through multiple cycles of leadership by one party or the other, I tried to take each transition in spirit of being a democratic citizen. No matter how I voted in any election, I took as my duty to accept the results of the election and to cooperate with the new powers. I reasoned, the ideal of being a good democratic citizen is to accept the outcome of the elections, to accept the wisdom of the democratic process as being the best path forward. I did what I could to do my part in helping the current government proceed.
My approach leads to a very different definition of democracy, one that is not about government, but about being governed. There should be a different word for it: this is not about government by the people. Instead, this is about how a people should behave toward whatever government is in place. This attitude is of deference to the wisdom of elections to direct how I should adapt my word view so that I am represented by the people who the election chose to represent me.
This idea of democracy turns the concept backwards. Instead of the people having a say in their government, this process tells people how they need to behave in order that their new behavior is consistent with their democratically selected representative. I have specific people who represent me in various levels of government, and for the duration of their term, I am among the individuals they represent. If I disagree with their decisions, it is I who needs to change my mind, at least for the duration of their term. I have an option to try to influence the next election, but by the time that occurs, I ought to have changed my perspective to at least be a little more accommodating to the incumbent.
My attitude toward what it means to live in a democracy is more about consent to be governed instead of having some say into how I am governed. In this view, the periodic opportunity to vote is primarily a confirmation of consent to be governed by the result, and secondarily a commitment to be governed by the results. There is no expectation that my vote will have anything to do with the resulting laws that I will have to live under. My vote equates to volunteering to live under the government that results from the election.
This idea of democracy is fundamentally about people volunteering to be ruled. People can volunteer to be ruled by any form of government. This “democracy” ultimately is just an expression of consent. The success of such a government is to get a large number of people to participate. What matters is not how people voted but only that they do vote. Even with the vote splits nearly in half, the total participation in the process leads to a super-majority of people who consent to being governed.
With this view of democracy as merely being a periodic reconfirmation of consent, it is probably inevitable that there would be evenly divided electorates. People consent to being governed despite their electoral loss because they have good reason to expect that someday it will be their turn to win. Peace is maintained by the super-majority consenting to be governed at any time even if that requires enduring penalties of being under rule of the opposing party.
This idea of democracy is about choosing to be governed, not about choosing a government.
I contrast that with the first example of people in the street claiming widely separate demands for change as being democracy. The primary coherence is their demands is that they are objecting to some aspect of the current government. This is not the same thing as withdrawing their consent to being governed. For the most part, they are careful to not break serious laws or to rebel. A major objective of their demonstrations of discontent is to motivate like-minded people to vote in the next election. As a result, this is still consistent with my definition of democracy as being an expression of consent: they are just striving to get their chance to rule.
Even so, this attitude toward democracy is different from my own. I strive to adapt my life to conform to being consistent with my representation, or I do my best to stay out their way. When I voted I reconfirmed my consent and commitment to be governed by the result. In contrast, the protesters are taking a very different approach of expressing their dissent either to persuade their current representatives or to influence the outcome of the next election. I am not denying that their approach is democratic, it is just different from my approach.
My definition of democracy centers around the idea of consent, adapting an elected government and either cooperating or staying out of its way. The alternative definition centers around contempt, rejecting the current government either avoiding it or actively undermining it. Both are consistent with the idea of people’s participation in government but neither is really a democracy as a form of government.
It seems we resort to the word democracy when we are talking about how people respond to their government. My concept of cooperative consent or the alternative concept of disrupted contempt are not methods to implement and execute governance. Instead, these are how people respond to their government. There is a need for an alternative suffice to “cracy” to describe a range of people’s reactions to their government. These responses are “of the people” and they have direct influence on the effectiveness and quality of their government, but the government could be any form of government. There must be a different galaxy of words to describe forms of people’s responses to their government. It would help with our discourse if we were to use those words instead of democracy to describe what people do between elections.
Using more appropriate words would help with our considerations of improvements to government. I prefer a republic of representatives over a direct democracy, but we have a government of career bureaucrats whose participation is often a consequence of growing within their jobs instead of being selected as best qualified from the general population. Meanwhile the population is asked to participate in a process we want to call a democracy. This process involves infrequent elections of representatives and occasionally referendums written by bureaucrats. In between such votes, the population responds to their government cooperatively or disruptively. So long as they agree to participate in the next election, we call the process democracy. It would be helpful to distinguish the different relationships the people have to their government.
The discussion so far places an emphasis on voting. The justification for calling our government a democracy is that periodically we have elections open to all eligible citizens. People who participate in the voting to some extent consent to being governed by the results. That leaves the people who do not vote, and this population is very large and generally growing.
My major concern is whether we have a super-majority consent to being governed by the current system. I want to see voting as a measure of this consent. From this perspective, it only matters that people vote: the vote itself is less important. I feel that a government is strong only if it has super-majority consent. I define such a super-majority as being sufficiently broad to support the government in suppressing any attempts at insurrection.
We generally have low voter participation. Many people eligible to vote do not register, many who are registered do not vote. We can be optimistic that these are the result of apathy or inadequate incentives, but at least some of these are actively withholding their consent to being governed. Lacking a means to measure this kind of consent accurately, we will not know whether this consent exists in sufficient proportion to rally to the support of the government the next time there is a rebellion.
There will be a rebellion at some point. This rebellion may advocate any type of government, possibly another variant of a democracy but possibly not. The question is whether the current government has the support to survive the rebellion. That support needs to be broader than the partisan divide that characterizes simple elections. To survive, the government needs the support and cooperation of a number of people at least equal to the proportion that voted in the last election, and probably a lot more.
In addition to my earlier definitions of democracy as being about the government itself or about how people allow themselves to be rules, there is another definition about the defense of the government against enemies seeking its overthrow. I misuse the word democracy to refer to how people accept the rule of whatever government they are subjected to. Another misuse is to refer to how people will support and defend the authority of their government to rule. It is likely that people who consent to being ruled will not come to its defense, and that people people who would come to its defense do not consent to its rule. There is an aspect of people’s rule that is neither about making laws nor about consenting to its government: people also choose to defend their government or allow its overthrow either passively or actively.
Again, this is just my impression. Our use of the term democracy is much more than the mechanics of making and enforcing laws. In fact, I have trouble describing our current government as being in any way a democracy, even a democratic republic. I don’t feel any elected official represents me, and even if they did, I don’t feel they have any significant influence outside of setting budgets and perhaps some jurisdictional boundaries on bureaucracies and agencies. Despite that, I feel there is a democratic spirit in how people behave toward their government though voting that positively grants their consent to being governed, and through some type of cooperation or protestation during the periods between elections.
There is also a democratic spirit in terms of willingness to come to the defense of the government should the government be confronted with an existential threat. Of all these ideas of democracy, I think the strongest is this latter. Our government is only barely a democracy and the public’s consent is barely adequate. But I suspect that there people will come out in force to defend the government from overthrow no matter what they think about the current office holders or bureaucracies.
In my thinking it does not really matter what the form of government is. Ultimately what matters is whether people voluntarily consent to its rule, and most importantly whether they will volunteer to actively defend it from overthrow. It is in this sense that the people rule. When we speak of democracy, I think we are mostly talking about this aspect of voluntarily cooperating and defending the government, not the form of government itself.
Under this perspective, there is an opportunity to consider alternative forms of government that could have a similar level of voluntary consent and defense from the population. Given what we have available today in terms of technology and economy, we should be able do much better than the form of government devised by 18th century enlightenment thinkers. I suspect this form of government may be hampering good governance as we force the outdated concepts that votes should matter and that elected officials should interpret their elections as a mandate to act. Such a government is resulting in bloated government and laws that discourage more voters than they satisfy. The current government is growing more feeble and irrelevant as its age advances.
At some point, we should free ourselves to ask whether we can make a more modern form of government. We need a more modern form of government that better accommodates the modern challenges of the diverse populations and global influences and consequences. It is highly unlikely that a democratic (or democratic republic) can ever have the authority to make these optimal decisions that will inevitably result in condemnation by the majority.
Our current governments have direct impact on the lives of everyone on the planet. This is true of most of the large governments in the world. We need governments that can make difficult decisions that best balances the costs and benefits where many such options will negatively impact a majority. Most of these challenges are consequences of our great success: longer lifespans, increasing productivity leaving many people unable to find work, advanced technologies that are essential to modern life. At the same time, we have accumulated debts and obligations of such magnitudes that our current forms of government can not possibly honor.
Solutions may be possible with a form of government freed from the ideals of being democratic. The government can be something else entirely. Our democracy is in our voluntary consent and defense of the government.