Dr Vusi Shongwe. File Picture
Dr Vusi Shongwe. File Picture

Democracy is fragile yet an enduring form of government

By Time of article published Oct 28, 2021

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By Dr Vusi Shongwe

Michael J. Abramowitz is of the conviction that democracy has been is facing a serious crisis for decades.

Democracy’s basic tenets – including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under siege around the world. In his piece, ’Democracy in Crisis’, Abramowitz, observes that democracies remain the world’s wealthiest societies, the most open to new ideas and opportunities, the least corrupt, and the most protected of individual liberties.

When people around the globe are asked about their preferred political conditions, they embrace democracy’s ideals: honest elections, free speech, accountable government, and effective legal constraints on the police, the military, and other institutions of authority. In the 21st century, however, argues Abramowitz, it is increasingly difficult to create and sustain these conditions in one country while ignoring them in another.

In her book, ’Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective and Intelligence, and the rule of the Many’, Helene Landemore, a professor of political science at Yale University, challenges the idea that leadership by the few is superior to leadership by the masses.

Another of her books, titled, ’Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century’, she envisions what a true government by mass leadership could look like. Her model is based on the simple idea that if government by the people is the goal, the people ought to do the governing. Put differently, Landemore asks, if government is for the people, why can’t the people do the governing? In his advocacy and belief of mass participation in government, Aristotle, who was Plato’s student, in Book III of his Politics, posits ed that, “although each individual separately will be a worse judge than the experts, the whole of them assembled together will be better or at least as good judges”.

As quoted by Nathan Heller, in her book, ’The Future of Democracy: Politics without Politicians’, Jane Mansbridge, a professor of political leadership and democratic values at Harvard’s Kenny School believes “democratic governments are losing perceived legitimacy all over the world,” and that the “beauty of open democracy is that it has a firm understanding not just of the complexity of democratic principles but of how to makes those principles cohere in a way that meets people’s deepest intuitions”.

In ’Democratic Reason’ Landemore pokes at the long-standing knot of disdain for mass decision-making. Heller, however informs us that 20-century theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter and Symour Martin Lipset saw democracy as a way for people to select leaders, not to take the wheel themselves. Many supposed democrats diagnose citizens as apathetic, irrational, and ignorant.

Thus, voters are regarded not as agents but as consumers to whom something – a candidate, a platform – must be sold. Democracy, Landemore noted, had become a paradox: it was said to be guided by citizens voting according to their interests, and yet voting according to their interests was what they were thought to be incapable of doing. Landemore thought that the confusion arose in part because people were talking about two different kinds of democratic benefits without reconciling their causes.

Some arguments for democracy, argues Landemore, have a “deliberative” basis – they flow from the idea that the coming together of the people as a group, as in a town hall, brings varied viewpoints and styles of thought into conversation, resulting in broader, finer problem-solving. Other arguments, Landemore further states, are majoritarian in nature, based on statistical principles of good mass decision-making.

At first glance, these seem mutually exclusive: you can’t have the benefits of people debating issues in a room and the benefits of large numbers of people simultaneously going to the polls. Heller points out that critics of open democracy tend to fall into three categories. Some are unconvinced by the premise that something is structurally at fault in electoral representative democracy as it is currently performed.

Our troubles might lie elsewhere: in the educational system, or in rising inequality. Some dispute the theory that there exists a “better” outcome in politics, and that we should judge democratic models by how well they help us get there.

And some doubt the practices itself and thus assert questioningly: it sounds great on paper, but can it work? As quoted by Heller, Christopher Achen, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and one of Landemore’s collegial critics, said, “human history is full of attractive ideals that turned out to be unworkable or profoundly dangerous when tried. But it is also full of ‘implausible ideals’ that came to be everyday common sense a century or two later”.

In her piece, ’Why Democracy Produces Incompetent Leaders – And How to Fix it’, Claude Forthomme, begins her piece by saying democracy doesn’t work. She believes democracy appears to produce an abundance of incompetent and dishonest political leaders, who exploit people’s credulity and prejudices and thrive on emotion-driven discourse and fake news.

Forthomme is of the conviction that believe most people don’t trust democracy to deliver. Her argument is supported by a Pew survey of 2019 which recorded that 27 countries in the world revealed that the majority (51%) are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. She points out that anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left on the political spectrum. It is ironic to note though that most people in developing countries find authoritarian figures more trustworthy than democratically-elected politicians and hence the success of the “Chinese a model”.

She asserts that after a honeymoon period between voters and their winning candidate, often as short as a month, he or she always disappoints. Why? Is it the fault of the voters, do they expect too much? Or don’t they understand what is going on – how complex the job of governing can be, how campaign promises can’t be kept?

According to Forthomme, it has been convincingly argued that it is the voters’ fault. Dambiso Moyo, for example, the well-known Zambian economist and author of ’Dead Aid’ (2009) in which she famously argued that foreign aid made Africa poorer, places the blame squarely on voters: “voters generally favour policies that enhance their own well-being with little consideration for future generations for long-term outcomes”.

Moyo’s quote comes from an article she wrote in 2018 for Foreign Policy when her new book came out ’Edge of Chaos Why Democracy is Failing to deliver Economic Growth – and How to Fix it’.

The article sums up her book’s arguments. In a nutshell, it is asserted emphatically that “because democratic systems encourage such short-termism, it will be difficult to solve many of the seemingly intractable structural problems slowing global growth without an overhaul of democracy. So, asks Forthomme, what are the obstacles to good governance? She lists the obstacles she and Moyo have identified.

Too many elections: She sees “the short-term electoral cycle embedded in many democratic systems” as a major problem. She is of the conviction that frequent elections taint policymaking, as politicians, driven by the rational desire to win elections, opt for quick fixes that have a tendency to undermine long-term growth.

Interest group lobbying: Something Moyo highlights, politicians respond to the demands of their funders instead of their voters and this has the potential of destroying democracy, resulting in the one percent governing the 99 percent; or, “it is the use of wealth to influence political outcomes that helps inequality to take root. Until democracies push back on the use of wealth to influence elections and policies, initiatives to address inequality will be blunted”.

Voter ignorance and disinformation: As quoted by Forthomme, Peter Coy, the economics editor for Bloomberg, despairingly noted in a review of Moyo’s book that, “votes can be tribal and poorly informed’. In Moyo’s words: “the proliferation of personalised media diets increasingly means that voters cling to their own facts, assumptions, and beliefs.” By “media diets”, she means how people live in their own “bubble”, only listening to like-minded people.

According to Forthomme, it raises the question of fake news which is a complex subject. The ignorance of one voter in a democracy, John F. Kennedy argues, impairs the security of all. 1986 Nobel Prize winner and public choice economist James Buchanan points out that most voters are too busy to cope with daily political machination so they are “rationally ignorant”.

Incompetent political leaders: Forthomme argues that in a democracy there are no requirements for running for office, none at all; anyone can wake up in the morning and decide he or she wants to run for elections.

Among the solutions that Moyo lists to fix democracy and get competent political leaders are:

Prioritise policy continuity: “First, policy makers should bind current governments and their successors more firmly to policies once laws have been passed,” she writes.

Restrict the financial power of the One Percent: She suggests that “democracies must implement tighter restrictions on campaign contributions to reduce the disproportionate impact of wealthy voters in determining election and policy outcomes”.

Public sector salaries should match the private sector’s: the idea is to ensure quality public services. Moyo reminds us that “large pay differentials between the private and public sectors can harm the public sector’s efforts to attract and retain the most talented people.” Indeed, poor pay attracts losers, and worse, because politicians are poorly paid, they are easy to corrupt.

Politicians’ terms in office should match the length of the business cycle: the idea is to encourage politicians to think ahead and pursue more long-term policies that would deliver growth; on the other hand, Moyo warns, multiple terms in office should be discouraged as they will necessarily blunt dedication.

On mandatory voting: Moyo writes, “voters are ultimately responsible for the politicians they elect and the economic decisions those politicians make which is why voting must be mandatory.”

Re-introduce weighted voting: the idea is to give more influence to the educated. Moyo suggests making a ballot count more or less in function of a voter’s qualifications that could be determined by a civics test or maybe by one’s profession or education. Democracy, argues, Coy as quoted by Forthomme, has its flaws, but “elitism isn’t the way to cure them”.

Establish stringent requirements regarding who is eligible to run for office: Moyo believes aspiring politicians should be educated and experienced with demonstrable managerial abilities and knowledge of public administration.

Notwithstanding its imperfections, democracy is, in my opinion, still the better way of governance.

One of the earliest television commentators stated that reason well: “democracy is a means of dealing with the human imperfections of society. It recognises that no form of government is perfect, no administration can be faultless, no legal system beyond improvement, no economic order as good as it might be. Where there are is imperfections, there must be change, and to produce change, unless it is imposed tyranny, there must be difference of opinion; there must be opposition; there must be pioneer thinking; there must be freedom to criticise; there must be unremitting conflict and testing of ideas”.

Martin Luther King once averred that, “when an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied, when culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation – perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society.”

Dr. Vusi Shongwe is the Chief Director for Heritage Resource Services in the KZN Department of Arts and Culture.

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