By Vexen Crabtree 2017
Democracy is rule for the people1. The democratic process is designed to avoid dictatorships and totalitarianism by making government accountable for its actions through voting and legal sanctions. There are different ways to implement democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis. The separation of powers means that no particular government organ has unfettered control. The rule of law applies to all: politicians from the ruling party and from other parties, rich businessmen, and poor citizens, are all subject to the same equalities and restrictions. Human rights are protected by allowing reporters, watchdogs and civilian concern groups to scrutinize government. The principal of secularism requires that Government must not come to represent a sole ethnic or religious group (i.e., it should be secular and unbiased), and there should be no laws that grant particular freedoms to particular ethnic or religious groups, and likewise, no laws that specifically prohibit them.
Democracy faces many challenges. Large multinational companies can outmanoeuvre and ignore local governments, which sometimes places them above-the-law. Therefore regional and international agreements are now an essential part of maintaining the rule of law - bodies such as the UN and EU answer this call. Special interest groups and single-issue lobbies (as well as parties) can, through their hearty activism, undermine democracy. Mass stupidity and voter apathy means that the people normally vote (if they vote at all) on short-sighted, shallow and unimportant issues, hindering the ability of government to overcome long-term problems. Nationalism, ethnic divides, religious impulses and mass intolerance can all pressurize a democratic government into allow the 'tyranny of the masses' to overcome human dignity and freedom: new ways of curbing populism need to be tested and implemented.
Democracy needs to be actively watched and defended against these challenges. Despite weaknesses, its democracy has proven itself to be the superior method of governance and facilitates personal freedom, human development (technological and moral) and human rights. Good national governance is not a simple affair, and those in power should be dedicated to their job, highly educated and capable.
“Lord Acton's warning: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Much of the apparatus of democracy is designed to protect the people from whoever wields the greatest physical power. The government alone is given the authority to decree the use of violence: Citizens cannot imprison people, wage wars, confiscate property, but the state can. Or it can empower others to do it in its name. This monopolizing of power into a single body has led to massive stability across the world: Where a strong central power is in control, petty feuding, tribal wars and local militias all have to either conform to the new legal proclamations, or they will face physical consequences. But, this centralisation opens up a de-stabilizing weakness: totalitarianism all-too-frequently turns into oppression. For this reason, constitutions and legal frameworks restrict what governments can do.
For a lengthy exploration of the negative effects the press is having on democracy, see:
There are different ways to implement the "voting" aspect of democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis.
One major positive restraint of party-based politics is the fact that power is held by a particular party, and parties can be voted out of power. So, if a government infringes too much on the people's civility, it will lose power. This makes parties naturally avoid outright oppression, and because the entire party is effected, it results in social pressure and formal pressure from party members to curn the antics of those who do things that threaten the status of the party as a whole.
“The press has long served as an important part of democracy. Its role is to investigate the truth when politicians try to hide it, and to uncover government's failings. It is a protector of the people against those with power. Without effective mass media the populace cannot cast informed votes. Good journalism is good for democracy3 - when journalism operates "properly and in the public interest [it] is one of the true safeguards of our democracy"4. 'Research shows that the information that news provides becomes the building blocks for our political attitudes'5. The Economist looked at the decline in sales of newspapers and worried about the collapse of the newspaper industry:
“News is not just a product: the press is the fourth estate, a pillar of the polity. Journalists investigate and criticize governments, thus helping voters decide whether to keep them or sack them. Autocracies can function perfectly well without news, but democracies cannot. Will the death of the daily newspaper [...] damage democracy?”
That all depends on how well the press is performing now. When the Fourth Estate is broken, the issue of its worth becomes somewhat complicated. Given its importance, the push for improved quality in news reporting and journalism is still a high priority endeavour, but one which governments find it very difficult to pursue.”
“[John Dewey (1859-1952)] believed that the emergence of a modern mass media had the potential to improve the conditions and operations of American democracy, if structured with those ends in mind, but he worried that the particular shape of the American media system, governed primarily by commercial interests, would have a much more negative influence.”
The philosopher Machiavelli wrote on democracy, and in his book "The Discourses" "the doctrine of checks and balances is set forth explicitly"8. This means that the processes of government are divided; the legislative body writes the laws but has no physical power (so it cannot become totalitarian), whilst the police enforce the rules but do not write them. Parliament cannot pass laws that the police won't enforce, and the police cannot enforce illegal laws.
This ancient doctrine, which can be traced back to Aristotle, was perhaps most thoroughly explained by the French jurist, Montesquieu, who based his analysis on the British constitution of the early 18th century.
The doctrine is based on the notion that there are three distinct functions of government - the legislative, executive and judicial functions. According to the doctrine in its basic form, these three functions should be vested in distinct bodies so that excessive power is not concentrated in the hands of one body.”
“Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions.”
Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, in his address to the [annual Secular Europe Campaign] rally on 17th Sep 2013 explained:
“What does it mean to live in a free and liberal secular democracy? It means if you don't like abortion, you don't have to have one. If you don't like gay marriage, you don't have to have one, or be a guest at one. If you don't like assisted dying for the terminally ill, you don't have to opt for it. But it also means that you can't enlist the state to force your preferences and prejudices on all your fellow citizens. Secularism guarantees our freedom of conscience and our freedom of belief, humanist and religious alike. But all over Europe there are groups of all religions lobbying [...] to impose their own values on us all.'”
Voters themselves need to be educated and well-informed in order to vote wisely21,22 but they do not do so, often voting on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests23,24, making some worry if democracy at all can continue to function23. Many democracies witness a continual decline in the numbers of people who bother to pay any interest in politics, let alone to vote25. 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 persecuted26,27,28.
There are problems with political parties and governments. Short-term policies such as increasing spending keep governments in power29 whereas wiser, long-term policies are less popular with voters. Highly motivated activists can exert undue pressure on governments30. Dictators, bigots, fascists and separatists can all be voted in along the same lines as anyone else31. 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"30 , and a system of balances and checks must be maintained, to ensure that the democratic system is not going astray.
For more, see the full page on this topic: The Internal Challenges Facing Democracy.
A democratic government is one run for the people. There are many forms of stability, justice, fairness and progress that can only be achieved via sensible oversight and a strict rule of law. National education, health, the prevention of the breaching of human rights and the ensuring of equality all require a body that monitors and fairly assesses the requirements of various strata of society. Organised groups of criminals, powerful commercial interests, monopolies and the short-term thinking of industry all need to be tempered by a powerful body that looks to the future and not unduly influenced by any particular concern. Democracy, in other words, is about established governance that represents all people - not just business, not just the rich or powerful, not just trade unions, not just one particular race, one particular religion or one particular worldview: a good government enables all of those groups to complete and dispute, side by side, on a predictable and stable platform.
Some of the destabilizing and destructive influences are those that are dealt with poorly by free-market-capitalism and party-based politics, both of which are popular in democracies. Capitalist concerns do not span generations - there are strong incentives for short-term growth and some longer-term growth, but, "long term" never means more than 30 or 40 years of foresight. Some issues which grow very slowly, such as the dwindling of planetary resources, the slow increase in pollution and climate change, are all simply so slow that no individual board of governors need ever to address them. Likewise, some national problems such as gradual overpopulation, are too slow for party politics to get to grips with either. Every party, and every commercial board of directors, finds itself advantaged by not stifling growth for very long-term benefits. Hence, it is only short- and medium-term issues that are properly tackled by either free-market systems commercially or multi-party systems politically.
Because much of the populace is far more easily persuaded by public-relations drives by large, complicated and powerful commercial organisations, there is much less that can be done against short-term and planet-harming practices in the private sector. For many people, profit really is a bigger reward than the investment in the welfare of future consumers that are not yet even born.
The solutions to these problems must be born from independent campaigns, organized by concerned citizens, in order to keep government on track with long-term issues. Bodies such as the United Nations is a key player in this kind of meta-politics, being able to very publicly muster international co-operation of key issues. But eventually, it is the co-operation between national governments that hold the master hand in restraining unsustainable and harmful practices of industry and commerce.
The success of good government can be measured by its results via the comparison of international statistics, with a slant to selecting data sets that reflect on the policies that aid human community across the longest-possible timeranges. See: "What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life" by Vexen Crabtree (2019), and its menu, which reveals the data sets:
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation.
(2014) Burning Desire: The Seduction of Smoking. A two-part television documentary first shown on 2014 May 29 featuring the veteran journalist and investigator, Peter Taylor. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045qf9q.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. An e-book.
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. 2nd edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Seven Stories Press, New York USA. A paperback book.
ESRC. The Economic and Social Research Council
(2009) Britain in 2010. Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council.
Grim & Finke. Dr Grim is senior researcher in religion and world affairs at the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C, USA. Finke is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
(2011) The Price of Freedom Denied. Subtitled: "Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Cambridge University Press, UK. An e-book.
Leveson, Lord Justice
(2012) The Leveson Inquiry. Subtitled: "An Inquiry Into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press". Published by The Stationary Office, UK. Dated 2012 Nov. Official UK government document. Available for download from www.official-documents.gov.uk . The full report is spreadh across 4 volumes, totalling 2000 pages. I've used the 48-page Executive Summary which contains numbered paragraphs and these as referenced directly. Accessed 2016 Nov 09.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK. A paperback book.