Voters themselves need to be educated and well-informed in order to vote wisely12,13 but they do not do so, often voting on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests14,15, making some worry if democracy at all can continue to function14. Many democracies witness a continual decline in the numbers of people who bother to pay any interest in politics, let alone to vote16. A constant threat is the 'majority rules' impulse, that can lead to the 'tyranny of the majority' or 'mob rule' situations in which outsiders and minorities become unfairly persecuted17,18,19.
There are problems with political parties and governments. Short-term policies such as increasing spending keep governments in power20 whereas wiser, long-term policies are less popular with voters. Highly motivated activists can exert undue pressure on governments21. Dictators, bigots, fascists and separatists can all be voted in along the same lines as anyone else22. 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 vigilance is required to prevent "democracy´s own weaknesses lead[ing] to disaster"21 , and a system of balances and checks must be maintained, to ensure that the democratic system is not going astray.
Many feel dissuaded from discussing the negative side of democracy because of the fear of being seen as a detractor23 - but here, we dive into each of the issues mentioned above in more detail.
Modern large corporations can outmanoeuvre governments and therefore evade the law3, leading to weaker governments23,24. If one country tightens up quality control, industrial regulation or raises employee benefits, modern companies can easily move production abroad25. Governments are under pressure to not improve legislation.26. 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 people27). 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"28. 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 power29,30.
“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.
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Several industries have been caught out producing fake and heavily biased science reports, orchestrating so-called "grass-roots" movements that cast doubt on science, producing endless reams of misleading public-relations material and manipulating news outlets with fake think-tanks. They have well-practised and efficient methods for influencing the news and swaying public opinion, and the money and effort that goes into these channels of deception are great. They produce "manufactured doubt" using scientific-sounding organisations as fronts, to try and discredit the mountains of evidence that stand against them. They are expert at getting their content on to broadcast media. In every success they maintain their own profits, but cause long-term harm.
The worst culprits in spreading mass-lies in this way are: (1) the tobacco and smoke industry7,8,9, (2) the fast-food and junk food industries31, (3) those who sell most nutritional supplements32 and (4) the petrol and oil industries5,6,7.The worst outlets for promulgating rubbish without checking sources are the sensationalist, downmarket and popularist news bodies.
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Democratic nations need to develop strong trans-national controls in order to reign-in those with the power to run such misinformation campaigns.
The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people10,33. News media and journalism outlets influence public opinion and therefore democracy itself so their reach and power is not to be taken lightly11. 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"34. Good journalism is good for democracy35,34, but, unfortunately the most popular news feeds in most Western countries have degraded into poor-quality sensationalism, which is effecting democracy and degrading society36. "Three-quarters of people identify television as the most important single source of information about politics"37 and yet in the UK 'media monitoring of Parliament has collapsed'38 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 governments39. 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"40. 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'33. 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"41.
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In politics, popularism is the effect of uninformed mass opinion on governance. It can transpire through the government being too sensitive to the loudest voices of the masses, through grassroots movements that are too narrow in scope to represent the entire population, through nasty forms of nationalism and jingoism. Popularist slogans are often catchy policies based on simple one-line policies that do not have a proper depth of research or meaning; hence, they appeal to 'the masses' and it is the job of politicians to convince the populace to pursue wiser courses of action than they would if left to their own devices. In the modern world, Internet-based and social media campaigns are becoming the most important source of public pressure on governments43 and this is giving enemies of democracy powerful new tools of interference44. The worst aspects of popularism are a disregard for minorities17 and any unpopular subcultures (wherein popularism becomes 'the tyranny of the majority')19 and the other main disadvantage is the pursuit of shallow and short-sighted policies that harm the nation in the long-run45,46,47; issues that require strong international co-ordination and long-term planning such as environmentalism and protecting biodiversity are suffering as the result of selfish nationalism48. The solution to popularism is to ensure the politicians are professional, well-trained, well-educated, and who are not afraid to engage in long-term strategy that is unpopular in the short term.
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The 'tyranny of the majority' refers to the unfortunate occasion where a majority of a population come to care mostly about their own concerns at the expense of others, and often support policies and actions that suppress minorities17. This can be accident through ignorance of issues, or, on purpose, through malice and intolerance, and often results from overly nationalist movements. The solution is that 'majority rules' are not enough to ensure good governance and fair society45. There are "circumstances where the idea of majority rule has to be modified"50. The result of unchecked popularism is the loss of democracy and human rights followed by social instability, strife, sectarianism and national developmental degradation46,47. Additional checks and balances are needed in any democracy to ensure that popularist ideas that are short-sighted or biased cannot simply be shouted through by the loudest voices17,46. In history, human rights have proven to be the surest and strongest bulwark against such 'mob rule'.17,18 Other strong factors are good general education, a liberal culture of tolerance and the strong rule of law with limited powers for the executive.
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Most developed democracies have seen a continual decline in the numbers of people who vote in elections and referendums, and a loss of trust in politics in general16,51. In a survey of 10 large European countries in 2017 found that of 42 main political parties nearly all were viewed mostly negatively by everyone52. Only 5 done well53. Also "most Western European countries have seen large falls in party membership in recent decades"54. It is a "warning sign" when political parties do not attract support16 and low turnouts at polling booths is eroding their legitimacy14. 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 affairs55. But most analysts are concerned that the direct-vote mandate has been undermined by disinterest and disillusionment16. 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 years56. 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.
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In modern times, populations in the West have forgotten how difficult it was to attain the civil life, based on the rule of law and human rights. People's votes have slid towards a series of demagogues, who lead by force of personality, by attacking others, and whose understanding of the complexities of governance is worryingly shallow: in too many countries, it is again necessary to revisit the textbooks of The Enlightenment and prove the need for compassion and tolerance, for experts, for well-formulated policies based on tested theories, and for maintaining the tone of civil discourse that prevents schisms.
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If democracy is to work, the electorate need to be well-informed, and therefore to support parties and lobbies on the basis of good evidence and sensible argumentation12. Too often, mass delusion overwhelms good sense. Such problems undermined several early attempts at democracy in Europe in the 18th century59. Founding thinkers such as Aristotle, Fortescue and Machiavelli taught that deliberation (which requires intelligence and knowledge) is a key aspect of democracy13. It is sensible to assert that if you don't understand a topic, then you shouldn't vote on it60. But the problem is, many do vote on stances based on an inadequate footing: sound-bites, one-liners, sensationalist newspaper stories, short-term thinking, and anecdotal evidence14 cause unbalanced opinions. 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 policies15.
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 failure14.
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To govern well, long-term strategies need to be adopted. But in democratic and capitalist countries there are many disincentives to doing so. Some long-term goals (e.g. reducing sovereign debt) can have painful short-term consequences (e.g., higher taxes, public sector pay freezes). If those consequences are unpopular with voters, there is strong pressure for governments to simply ignore the long-term issue in order to maintain popularity20. Unfortunately, many people vote on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests14,15. The classical theorist Schumpeter says that "it is a melancholy reflection" that it is often the case that the wiser a decision is, the less popular it is bound to be61. In other words, the democratic system means that short-term gains can be prioritized in a way that delays (or prevents) good governance21.
Likewise, company governing boards are heavily swayed by current share prices and short-term economic goals, on which their bonuses and employment depend, even if this is bad for everyone in the long-term. Even the longest-term plans of government rarely extend beyond a single generation (30-40 years maximum); anything longer is pushed into the preserve of special-interest groups. It is essential, but very rare, that government pursues truly long-term strategies.
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|Press Freedom (2013)62|
|Pos.||Lower is better62|
|Press Freedom (2013)62|
|Pos.||Higher is worse62|
The freedom to investigate, publish information, and have access to others' opinion is a fundamental part of today's information-driven world. Scores on the Press Freedom Index 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".
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".
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 loftiest 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 and religion-based parties (who exclusively represent particular communities) are sectarian and very poor at engendering tolerance and peace throughout the country as a whole63. The most effective governments are formed from parties that are not biased towards any particular community.”
Although they bear more responsibility to carefully check that their decisions are fact-based, politicians are less likely than other people to change their beliefs when faced with evidence that ought to change their beliefs; the United Nations' 2022 report on issues facing human development call this "motivated reasoning"65 which is a form of cognitive dissonance.66. This can have a disastrous effect when policies are not working; politicians become trapped by their own personas and feel that they will do better for themselves by defending a position, rather than by changing it, even if latter is what the public need.
Corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain67. There are many forms of corruption. Politicians can sometimes (1) steal money (theft or embezzlement), (2) accept bribes (such as backhanders for awarding government contracts to companies), (3) give bribes (i.e., for electoral support or support in the mass media), (4) improperly coerce others (extortion), (5) give positions of power to friends and family without fairly seeking other applicants for those jobs (cronyism), or (6) grant favours to friends and family (nepotism) such as buying services from them at inflated prices (graft).
Corruption benefits organized crime68, multinational companies that exploit legal loopholes between countries69, and the rich and powerful70; this comes at the expense of national stability, peace and security68. The presence of corrupt politicians has been weaponized by those who seek to undermine democratic countries71. The least corrupt countries in 2022 were Denmark, Finland and New Zealand72 and the worst were Somalia, S. Sudan and Syria72.
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Unregulated capitalism can undermine and destroy democracy. For example, large corporations have wilfully ignored climate science, suppressed health concerns regarding some of the worst carcinogens, embraced large scale labour abuses and tax evasion on huge scales, and have often acted irresponsibly - all in the name of making money. With money comes influence and power - so the risk comes is that if the business class becomes the sole focus of politicians, then the government is no longer caring for all social classes, and is therefore no longer democratic74. Likewise, inequalities of wealth can lead to a widespread loss of autonomy and quality of life and create power disparities that can permanently suppress and disadvantagize large portions of society. For these reasons, government needs to be well-funded and secure enough to resist the pressures that come from powerful organisations, and needs to be able to force such companies to comply with law.
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