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.”
Julian McDougall (2012)7
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.'”
One risk to democracy comes from small but activist groups called special interest groups. They do serve an important role in democracy (consciousness raising, free speech, defending human rights, freedom to lobby, etc), but they are also potentially subversive. Because too few moderate voters turn up on election day and during debates, often, the ideological battlefield is littered with those who are arguing steadfastly from more extreme positions than many people would be happy with. Single-issue parties are the highest-up expression of these movements:
“Single-issue-parties are political parties centred on activism surrounding a solitary topic (such as environmentalism, religion or race). They are infamously are poor at governance in general and most of them lack economic skills or have realistic knowledge of demographics or international cause-and-effect. Special interest groups are a benefit to democracy as long as they don't actually have any power because they shift the interest of mainstream parties. If they become popular in their own right they are dangerous to democracy and to national stability on account of their imbalanced approach to national governance. Single issue parties are too narrow and too specific to be able to cope with governance at large and are frequently intolerant towards those who don't subscribe to their particular ideology, making them poor powerbrokers and poor democrats. For example ethnically-based parties (who represent particular communities) are sectarian and very poor at engendering tolerance and peace throughout the country as a whole. The most effective governments are formed from parties that are not biased towards any particular community.”
On the page this is quoted from I discuss special interest groups, ethnic parties, religious parties and single-issue parties in more depth.
Apart from the risk from small elitist groups as discussed above, another risk comes from the opposite side of the spectrum: Massive multinationals.
“Modern large corporations can outmanouvre governments and therefore evade the law12. If one country tightens up quality control, industrial regulation or raises employee benefits, modern companies can easily move production abroad13. Governments are under pressure to not improve legislation.14. The heads of large companies have massive power over staff, employment, industry, national economies and the environment and yet are not elected nor publicly accountable for their actions (which are sometimes damaging to large numbers of people15). Supranational organisations like the UN and the EU provide a counterbalance. For example "the EU has taken on multinational giants like Microsoft, Samsung and Toshiba for unfair competition. The UK would not be able to do this alone"16. By encouraging governments to work in tandem, and because they are staffed by those on the pay roll of elected governments, such international politics can bring democracies back into power17,18.
“Nation-states, some argue, are too small to be able to influence global change, and too large to respond effectively to the pressures for increased flexibility and competitiveness, or as Giddens put it 'too small to solve the big problems, but also too large to solve the small ones'.”
We clearly need multinational governmental bodies to control multinational corporations. Not only will this bring capitalism back under the protective arms of democracy, but it will also solve the second problem identified by Held and Giddens: It will allow national governments to concentrate more on the small problems of national well-being.”
Both issues discussed so far - special interest groups and multinationals - have been due to the concerted actions of intelligent, active individuals. In these cases, political action, unions and reason can restore the balance between enterprise and democracy. But this next issue is the most important, difficult and serious problem that democracy faces. It is not, inherently, a political problem but a social one.
If democracy is to work, the electorate need to be informed decisions and evidence-based decisions20. Too often, mass delusion overwhelms good sense. Such problems undermined several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century21. Founding thinkers such as Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli taught that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy22. It is sensible to argue that if you don't understand a topic then you shouldn't vote on it23. But the problem is, many do vote on issues based purely on sound-bites, one-liners, sensationalist newspaper stories and anecdotal evidence24. A "race to the bottom" condition is created whereby parties come into power based on who has the most pithy reactionary statements rather than who has the best policies25.
Such are the issues referred to when commentators worry about "post-truth politics". In a world where reality-TV is orders of magnitude more popular than politician's policies most news reporting centres on interpersonal battles that ought to be kept private. News outlets report trash because it sells; and politics continues a nosedive into rash popularism. If the populace do not soon began to vote with deliberation, then, the entire democratic project runs the risk of failure24.”
“Most developed democracies countries have seen a continual decline in the numbers of people who vote in elections and referendums, and a loss of trust in politics in general26. Also "most Western European countries have seen large falls in party membership in recent decades"27. It is a "warning sign" when political parties do not attract support26 and low turnouts at polling booths is eroding their legitimacy24. It is possible that this isn't a result of malaise, but of progress: the 19th century political theorist Tocqueville followed the 18th century Montesquieu in predicting that as liberty and economic freedom become entrenched, people would become energized in the private sphere and no longer participate in public affairs28. But most analysts are concerned that the direct-vote mandate has been undermined by disinterest and disillusionment26. The decline since the 1960s in all European countries' voter turnout rates has followed the USA's lead, although some recent elections have seen this trend halted. It is unfortunate that those who are most often motivated to vote are those with very particular and sometimes extremist views. Their good voting record means that they bear undue and unfair pressure on the political system. The academic Frank Furedi pointed out in 2004 that it has become commonplace that more people vote to choose the remaining cast of Big Brother than who vote to elect our leaders for the next three years29. In an irresponsible and childish world, entertainment has become more important than good governance. To restore balance, more moderates and "ordinary people" need to vote.”
“The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people32,5. News media and journalism outlets influence public opinion and therefore democracy itself so their reach and power is not to be taken lightly33. The press has "responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals"4. Good journalism is good for democracy3,4, but, unfortunately the most popular news feeds in most Western countries have degraded into poor-quality sensationalism, which is effecting democracy and degrading society34. "Three-quarters of people identify television as the most important single source of information about politics"35 and yet in the UK 'media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed'36 and coverage is almost entirely negative and pessimistic.
The worst culprit of the last few decades has been the Murdoch empire's outputs, complete with secret political deals that have made and broken entire governments37. Already by 1985 historians warned that these "powerful engines [of] misinformation [have] "political implications [and] fears that an irresponsible trouble-making press, given enough rope, might become a danger to political stability and public order, seemed fully justified"38. One of the UK government's former chief scientific advisers, Sir David King, pointed out that 'the threat of terrorism is likely to be far less significant than climate change' but that climate change is too complicated and doesn't sell well, whereas terrorism 'fits the requirements of our news culture perfectly'5. The result is a populace that don't understand the risks facing them, and who vote accordingly on the issues that the press bother to report. Sensationalism, drama, shallow argumentation and a concentration on frivolity make it hard to appreciate the complexities of the world. The effect "is not merely to mislead its readers about the state of the world but to distort the whole political process"39.”
Modern journalists work at breakneck speed to process stories as fast as possible. Much of this news comes from trusted wire agencies, but these also rely on public relations (PR) material, as do the news outlets themselves. Most news services rely heavily on PR material in order to rapidly produce a stream of news. Because of these pressures, public relations firms and commercial companies are having a heyday and find it easy to insert material into news media. News outlets get cheap, professional-looking news at no cost. In general, over half of all news stories are mostly PR or contain substantial PR-sourced material41. Journalists themselves do not check the facts or figures of such inputs, nor admit in the articles themselves that PR material is the true source of the information, so the news often appears unbiased41. For example in 1991, CBS Evening News, USA, aired a video source from the Institute for Injury Reduction showing that cars' safety belts are actually unsafe and cause more damage than they prevent - an idea which managed to catch the attention of the public. Did the journalists of that news station check the source of this video to see who it was that was passing them the information? No. They didn't. And it turned out that the Institute for Injury Reduction is actually a lobby group supported by lawyers who make money from clients who were suing automobile companies for crash-related injuries42. Too many journalists are engaged in an unthinking, uncritical conveyor-belt of news, and old journalistic practices such as fact-checking and critical thinking have proven to get in the way of corporate efficiency. Powerful commercial lobbies use this weakness to pervert public opinion.
“Vice President Dick Cheney complained in an interview with conservative media commentator Armstrong Williams about bias in the press. Cheney was absolutely right about bias in the press. The Bush administration had paid Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in broadcasts and in print. Williams lost his job with Tribune Media Services when it was revealed that he was a hired propagandist producing covert puff pieces for the Bush administration. [...] Many bloggers and websites that appear to be independent are actually fronts.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)43
In the 1950s the smoking lobby created a range of innocent-sounding and scientific-sounding groups in order to discredit government information about the dangers of smoking. Oil and petrol lobbies have spent fortunes on the same PR tricks, as have food industry lobbies. They produce scientific reports engineered by their own scientists, which serve to boost their own industries by deceiving the public. The Global Climate Coalition was founded in the around 1990, and funded "scientists and writers who would provide disinformation regarding climate change to anybody who would listen. For more than ten years they supported research that would cast doubt on scientific reports" about the dangers of burning fossil fuels43. Basically, their reports were distorted lies, pretending to be science. Who funded this maverick outfit, which received a lot of media coverage each time it produced a report? "Exxon, Ford, Texaco, General Motors, British Petroleum, and DaimlerChrysler"43 yet there was no indication in the mass media that these "scientific" reports were funded by the oil lobby - it was all presented as unbiased research, and has damaged the USA's population knowledge of climate change in the long-term.
In short, don't trust the news media directly even when they are reporting on scientific-sounding research groups. Always check facts with long-standing scientific bodies such as the Royal Society. Rich and activist commercialist lobby groups have a set of well-practised and efficient methods for manipulating the news and public opinion. The scientists and welfare groups who wish to get real scientific worries about certain industries out into the open are not funded or equipped to run public relations campaigns. Only multinational information campaigns, legal agreements and inter-national political bodies such as the EU have the oomph to be able to fight back against such powerful industries.
Edward Bernays is often described as the founding theorist of modern public relations. He had no doubts about the objectives of those with the money and power to influence the media:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
While what he says is true (that it is important in a democracy) because the populace must be informed, when the information flow is abused by commercial interests, democracy suffers because the truth suffers. I suspect that the quantity of PR in the news would have worried even Edward Bernays - although, given the material that Naom Chomsky digs, I am not sure. Chomsky is an incredibly articulate and intelligent opponent of the way democracy works in practice, and much of that centres on the ability of those with money to manipulate those without:
“The leading figure in the public relations industry, Edward Bernays [...] went on to develop what he called the "engineering of consent," which he described as "the essence of democracy." The people who are able to engineer consent are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it - the business community.”
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda" by Naom Chomsky (2002)45
Scores are calculated according to indicators including pluralism - the degree to which opinions are represented in the media, media independence of authorities, self-censorship, legislation, transparency and the infrastructure that supports news and information, and, the level of violence against journalists which includes lengths of imprisonments. The index "does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted."
"The same three European countries that headed the index last year hold the top three positions again this year. For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country that most respects media freedom. It is followed by the Netherlands and Norway. [At the bottom are the] same three as last year - Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea".
It must be noted that press freedom is not an indicator of press quality and the press itself can be abusive; the UK suffers in particular from a popular brand of nasty reporting that infuses several of its newspapers who are particularly prone to running destructive and often untrue campaigns against victims. The Press Freedom Index notes that "the index should in no way be taken as an indicator of the quality of the media in the countries concerned".
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 (2017), and its menu, which reveals the data sets:
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..
Alston, Philip. Professor of Law at New York University and Director of its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Editor of the European Journal of International Law since 1997.
(2005, Ed.) Non-State Actors and Human Rights. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press. Academy of European Law. European University Institute in collaboration with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University School of Law.
Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
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!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Seven Stories Press, New York USA.
Coles, Joanne & Reynolds, Jane
(2003) Constitutional and Administrative Law (Key Facts). Published by Hodder & Stoughton. Part of the Key Facts series. UK law.
(2001) "Satanic Government and the Distrust of Human Nature" (2001). Accessed 2017 Feb 23.
(2006) "Multinational Corporations Versus Democracy: The Fight Between Commercialism and Nation States" (2006). Accessed 2017 Feb 23.
(2006) "Single Issue Parties are Dangerous: Against Nationalist and Ethnic Parties" (2006). Accessed 2017 Feb 23.
(2009) "The Worst of the Modern Mass Media" (2009). Accessed 2017 Feb 23.
ESRC. The Economic and Social Research Council
(2009) Britain in 2010. Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council.
(2004, Ed.) A Globalizing World? Culture, Economics, Politics. Paperback book. 2nd edition. Originally published 2000. Current version published by Routledge for The Open University.
(2003) Political Ideologies. Paperback book. 3rd edition. Originally published 1992. Current version published by Palgrave MacMillan.
(2004, Ed.) Politics UK. Paperback book. 5th edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Pearson Education Ltd. With Dennish Kavanagh, Michael Moran and Phillip Norton.
(2004) No Logo. Paperback book. Originally published 2000, HarperCollins, London, UK.
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. Paperback book. 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.
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