We live our lives accustomed to the idea that democracy is the perfect system to run a nation. The idea of “for the people, by the people, of the people” ensures equality and a just system for electing governments and that is what we have been taught all our lives. The only way that a government can be elected or a major decision can be taken in a democratic country is if a majority votes for it. This concept can often lead to a tyranny of the majority, which is then considered to be justified and since each individual enjoyed equal voting power. We as citizens have been taught both by society and the education system that a democracy is the only way, but in this process, we have forgotten to question the system which governs us, turning a blind eye to all the flaws associated with it.
One of the major problems concerned with democracy lies fundamentally in its idea of equality. Every citizen is born with the right to vote and each vote holds the same value irrespective of an individual’s knowledge about the candidates or how a nation is run. This system, though just and fair, confuses intellectual democracy with birthright democracy. Socrates, one of the founding members of Greek philosophy, was considered to be very pessimistic about democracy. He believed that voting in a democracy is a skill which needs to be taught to the citizens of the country, without which, voting is nothing but an irrational intuition. In the book six of the republic, Socrates compared a nation to a ship, and then goes on to ask whether one would let anyone decide and take a vote or let the people educated and knowledgeable in the rules of seafaring decide. By logic, the answer would be the latter.
An overwhelming majority of voters in a modern mass democracy has a very superficial knowledge, or none whatsoever about policies, economics, diplomacy and so on. In the words of Winston Churchill, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter”. Charles Maurras, a member of the Action Française movement was of the opinion that democracy is a government of majority, wherein quantity is more important than quality and the will and opinions of the majority may not always be in the best interests of all its citizens. John T. Wenders, a professor of Economics at the University of Idaho believed that democracy will inevitably turn into kleptocracy wherein the majority will use democratic powers to bully the minority.
History has shown various cases on how democracy has led to minority persecutions. For example, during the mid-1930s and 1970s, in the democratic country of Sweden, thousands of women were sterilized by the government because it believed that they had ‘mental defects’ or were just part of mixed race. Another example is when a mob in 2014 burnt a Christian couple alive for their alleged burning of the Quran in
Pakistan, which was followed by very little action by the police and a statement from the Prime Minister. The biggest example would be the 2019 General elections in India, wherein BJP outrightly campaigned in support of the Hindus, a majority, and even wished to remove the muslims from the country.
The policies set up to counter these issues have so far done the opposite and created even bigger problems, one of which is termed as voter rational ignorance. It explains how an average voter deliberately does not want to get acquainted with the political problems since it would require cost of time and effort and he/she is aware of how little value his/her vote holds. Even if one does spend time and effort to get acquainted, may on the election day be overrun by millions of ignorant voters, whose votes hold the same value as his/her, which will inevitably make the voter frustrated. Voter rational ignorance is one of the reasons why American voters have remained ignorant and will continue to do so despite decades of rising education levels, says legal scholar Ilya Somin.
The other issue is concerned with the manipulation of public opinion through media. Democracy theorists believe that the vast majority of unqualified irrational voters do not make their choices at random, they form their opinions through the information available in the newspapers, TV channels, Apps, etc. What type of information is to be shown is decided by the companies or the journalists, which gives them power to influence public opinion. For example: The FBI in the US was criticized for announcing that it would investigate into Hillary Clinton’s alleged use of private email servers just 11 days before the election, which hurt her chances of winning. The curious case of Cambridge Analytica using Facebook as a means to manipulate public opinion during the election is another example of how media can be used to jeopardize a democracy.
Competitive elections ensure that winners will not necessarily be those who are the best to solve the nation’s problems, but they will most often be individuals who are experts in saying what the voters want to hear. Jean – Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher, writer and composer, believed that elections favour the incumbent government officials or the individuals with the strongest personalities, which leads to hereditary aristocracy. The 2018 General elections of Brazil serves as a great example, wherein a far-right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the new president of the country, despite being openly pro military, homophobic and racist. Bolsonaro targeted Brazil’s high crime rate and lack of public faith in the country’s judicial powers by claiming that the involvement of the military is the only way the country can rise above the violence, despite the fact that military rule is usually connected to violence and torture. While many were against Bolsonaro’s offensive comments and anti-democratic solutions, they were still outvoted by the majority.
Democracy is indeed a fair and a just system, where each citizen is considered to have the same value and voting power. Fairness and equality are important for a country to prevent discrimination on any grounds, but in focusing our attention over these two characteristics, we have turned a blind eye towards equity. To prevent democracy from turning into kleptocracy, we need to look for ways to retain both equality and equity, so that minorities too get a chance to be impactful. Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown, counters this concern for fairness by asserting that public welfare is more important than anyone’s hurt feelings.
This is not to say that democracy is a bad system, for it is indeed the best out of the options. In the wise words of Winston Churchill “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There is a need, now more than ever, for a better system, with an improved meaning of what democracy stands for, but it is only possible if mankind first questions the system and accepts the flaws entailed in it. Only when we accept that democracy is not a perfect system can we innovate around it to come up with a better one, or else the public will continue to be manipulated and undeserving candidates will continue to be elected which will inevitably lead us to our own doom.
Author: Dev Seth
B.Sc. Economics (Hons.) Symbiosis School Of Economics