60. The Democracy Problem

DemocracyCon­text: The mate­rial here com­prises dis­cus­sion points and some ref­er­ence links for a diverse group of peo­ple in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, who fancy them­selves as “gen­tle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “The Democ­racy Prob­lem”, is prob­a­bly of inter­est to thought­ful indi­vid­u­als in many lat­i­tudes, so I am putting it online as a gen­eral stim­u­lus for some cre­ative dis­cus­sion. Any opin­ions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dis­sected with­out mercy.

a) The Aus­tralian Con­text

1. Some peo­ple in Aus­tralia express sur­prise that “the future of democ­racy” might be raised as a dis­cus­sion topic. One remarked to me recently that there was lit­tle to dis­cuss. He was really say­ing that he hadn’t thought about it care­fully. In that he rep­re­sents the Aus­tralian major­ity at this point in time. Yet emerg­ing from a bru­tal prison set­tle­ment in the 19th Cen­tury, where peo­ple were rou­tinely abused, whipped, and hung to death, Aus­tralia was one of the first mod­ern states to achieve uni­ver­sal vot­ing for all men and women. Some­thing like civ­i­lized life fol­lowed. Adult Aus­tralians now are all required to vote. This is very recent, as his­tory goes, yet for those who know lit­tle his­tory, Australia’s prison camp origin is the stuff of TV spe­cials and could never hap­pen to “us” nowa­days. Really?

2. When peo­ple vote in an Aus­tralian elec­tion, they typ­i­cally do not see them­selves as vot­ing to accept the rule of law. They take that for granted. In those nations where force rules and choice is not an option, peo­ple usu­ally under­stand very well that the impar­tial rule of law has been lost, if it ever existed. Aus­tralians have the lux­ury, for now, of vot­ing for sec­ondary mat­ters, such as the per­son­al­ity of lead­ers, and some ran­dom poli­cies (accord­ing to their inter­ests) which are usu­ally poorly under­stood.

3. In Aus­tralia, most peo­ple have not suf­fered dis­as­trously from mis­gov­ern­ment for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, so many have never thought deeply about what democ­racy might mean, or whether is prefer­able to some alter­na­tive form of rule. Enjoy­ing a com­fort­able life, they don’t know and they don’t care. They remain unaware of any large polit­i­cal risks to their way of life. At this moment the Deep State (think, for exam­ple, uni­ver­sal sur­veil­lance in the name of “secu­rity”) is begin­ning to take from them what they never real­ized they had. It is less of a con­spir­acy than a process (we hope). The loss is grad­ual and sweet­ened with enter­tain­ment dis­trac­tions. Like huge num­bers of peo­ple world­wide, Aus­tralians in gen­eral know lit­tle real his­tory, and will there­fore repeat its mis­takes. If tyranny again becomes the norm, as it has been in most places over the last 5,000 years, with the mem­ory of gold­fish they will think it was always that way.

b) Con­cepts of Democ­racy

4. What is the core value of hav­ing demo­c­ra­tic choice? Demo­c­ra­tic choice is a psy­cho­log­i­cal cat­a­lyst, and very, very pow­er­ful.

5. Democ­racy in its many forms is firstly the process of re-nego­ti­at­ing a con­tract between rulers and the ruled for the law we all live under. If we broadly con­sent to the rule of law by demo­c­ra­tic choice, then we will prob­a­bly live by it, even when we wish to chal­lenge indi­vid­ual laws. When the sys­tem of law in a com­mu­nity is sourced in the arbi­trary force of an uncho­sen rul­ing group, then we have tyranny.

6. When peo­ple are required to do that which they haven’t cho­sen to do, or suf­fer for what they haven’t cho­sen to suf­fer, they feel injus­tice. If they suf­fer badly with­out hav­ing any say in it, they feel out­rage. If enough of them feel this out­rage, they resist, even­tu­ally with vio­lence. By the sheer prob­lem of num­bers, democ­racy in large states is usu­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy (by the elec­tion of local rep­re­sen­ta­tives) rather than direct par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy in daily gov­ern­ment. Nev­er­the­less, gen­uine democ­racy (whether rep­re­sen­ta­tive or direct) is a kind of open con­tract between the ruled and the rulers. It requires mech­a­nisms for fre­quent adjust­ment, not merely a blan­ket vote once every few years.

7. If the demo­c­ra­tic con­tract is denied or ignored or cor­rupted, then peo­ple will feel no oblig­a­tion to accept its terms. They will no longer respect a sup­pos­edly impar­tial rule of law, and only sub­mit grudg­ingly to forcibly imposed reg­u­la­tion. At every oppor­tu­nity and with­out moral restraint, they will seek to evade or sub­vert imposed reg­u­la­tions for pri­vate gain. Sys­temic cor­rup­tion is almost guar­an­teed in such an envi­ron­ment. To vary­ing degrees, this remains the sit­u­a­tion in most of the world’s 200 or so nation states.

8. State approved reli­gions have often been used to “legal­ize” rule by force, and to dis­par­age or out­law demo­c­ra­tic choice. Ide­olo­gies like Com­mu­nism and var­i­ous forms of Cap­i­tal­ism have had a sim­i­lar role in some envi­ron­ments. For­tu­nately such val­i­da­tion by a “higher author­ity” has become an increas­ingly hard sell to well edu­cated peo­ple world­wide. Nev­er­the­less rulers in nations as diverse as Rus­sia, Iran, China and the United States still find the “higher spiritual/ideological author­ity” tool use­ful to con­trol parts of their con­stituen­cies.

c) Processes of Democ­racy

9. What is the effect on rulers of being elected by a demo­c­ra­tic major­ity?  The effect is to give them con­fi­dence if they were elected by a large major­ity, or make them cau­tious if they were elected by a slim major­ity. Where the elec­tion was gen­uine, it strength­ens their belief in the rule of law by con­sent. Where the elec­tion was fraud­u­lent, it strength­ens their belief that the elec­torate are fools to be abused.

10. What is the effect of mak­ing vot­ing com­pul­sory?

a) The effect of com­pul­sory vot­ing on much indi­vid­ual voter choice might not be great. Many peo­ple who lacked the inter­est or knowl­edge to vote where vot­ing was vol­un­tary could not be expected to exer­cise great care when forced to vote.

b) The effect of com­pul­sory vot­ing on rulers is extremely impor­tant. Where vot­ing is vol­un­tary, rulers have a strong inter­est in dis­cour­ag­ing those who might not favour them. The largest num­ber of those dis­cour­aged vot­ers will be the poorest, the least edu­cated, eth­nic or other minor­ity groups who are socially on the mar­gin, the weakest in polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion, and those who see the state not as an umpire and ser­vice provider, but as a par­a­sitic oppres­sor.  There­fore, under a com­pul­sory vot­ing sys­tem (say Aus­tralia), rulers have some incen­tive to look after everybody’s inter­ests, even vot­ers who might not eas­ily favour them. Under a vol­un­tary vot­ing sys­tem such as, for exam­ple, the United States of Amer­ica, rulers have a strong incen­tive to ignore, mar­gin­al­ize or dis­em­power the weakest and most alien­ated parts of the elec­torate. Ulti­mately this weak­ens the cohe­sion of the state, and under­mi­nes its legit­i­macy. (Note that in U.S.A. even the right to vote by all cit­i­zens was not achieved until 1965).

11. In national demo­c­ra­tic elec­tions, do the major­ity of peo­ple usu­ally choose knowl­edgably, or are they usu­ally deceived to some extent? The answer to the first is no, and the sec­ond yes. Nev­er­the­less, unless the betrayal has been extreme and very obvi­ous, few are will­ing to admit in pub­lic that they were igno­rant, or fools, so they tol­er­ate the elec­toral out­come, and con­tinue to abide by the rule of law.

12. There is a good argu­ment that informed demo­c­ra­tic choice is only pos­si­ble where the elec­torate knows and cares about the issues inti­mately, and has a per­sonal famil­iar­ity with those who are ask­ing to rep­re­sent them. This sit­u­a­tion is likely in a vil­lage, pos­si­ble in a town, improb­a­ble in a city of any size, and incon­ceiv­able in a nation state.

13. It fol­lows from #10 that large, mod­ern states have an acute prob­lem in fram­ing proper demo­c­ra­tic choices, even when both the elec­torate and the gov­ern­ing class wish for opti­mum results. Every­one has only 24 hours in a day. Each of us has a use­ful under­stand­ing of only a small num­ber of issues. The inter­ests of tens of mil­lions of elec­tors are diverse and often clash. The gov­ern­ing pol­icy choices required by those who are elected are fre­quently beyond their own under­stand­ing or pre­dic­tion. A func­tion­ing mod­ern state itself is a huge, dynamic mix of sys­tems so com­plex that out­comes are fre­quently unpre­dictable. Those who gov­ern, whether as a dic­ta­tor or an oli­garchy, or an assem­bly of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, are always rid­ing many tigers.

14. Given the impos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing a fully informed elec­torate in a mod­ern nation state, we have to think very care­fully, and very adapt­ably about what can be expected of both rulers and the ruled.

15. Those who aspire to rule any com­plex an diverse mod­ern state must be mod­est and con­sul­ta­tive in their endeav­ours. The lives of mil­lions of peo­ple can­not be cred­i­bly micro-man­aged. Their needs, hopes and ideas can­not be directed beyond the broad­est prin­ci­ples. Gov­ern­ments can provide ser­vices. They can arbi­trate, inform, edu­cate, facil­i­tate, pro­tect indi­vid­u­als and groups where nec­es­sary (and that does not mean so-called secu­rity to pro­tect admin­is­tra­tors from embar­rass­ment). Gov­ern­ments can opti­mize the oppor­tu­ni­ties for indi­vid­u­als to develop their own best poten­tials. Gov­ern­ments in con­sul­ta­tion with stake­hold­ers can decide the best allo­ca­tion of resources to ben­e­fit the widest num­ber of peo­ple. What gov­ern­ments have no busi­ness in becom­ing are fortresses to ele­vate and enrich a small rul­ing elite. Their role is not to con­cen­trate power by col­lect­ing secrets and pri­vate infor­ma­tion, but to dis­perse power by empow­er­ing the largest pos­si­ble num­ber of cit­i­zens.

16. The pop­u­la­tion which elects their rulers needs to be edu­cated, con­stantly, hon­estly, and with­out pro­pa­ganda, about the nature of the social con­tract they are enter­ing into.

a) Vot­ers must under­stand clearly that, first of all, each time they vote they are accept­ing in a broad way a shared and impar­tial rule of law. They are enti­tled to object strongly when that agree­ment has been vio­lated.

b) Vot­ers must under­stand clearly that a mod­ern state is so com­plex that the deci­sions of rulers will always be a com­pro­mise, and that the out­come of choices will often be unpre­dictable. They are enti­tled to object strongly when the deci­sions of rulers are obvi­ously arbi­trary or designed to unfairly dis­ad­van­tage one group at the destruc­tive expense of other groups.

c) Vot­ers must under­stand that their knowl­edge of issues is prob­a­bly lim­ited in range and depth. They must under­stand that this lim­i­ta­tion is almost cer­tainly true of their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive also. They must there­fore be pre­pared to engage in a process of mutual edu­ca­tion where issues arise. In elect­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, they are there­fore mak­ing an esti­mate of that person’s good judge­ment, good­will and will­ing­ness to learn. Vot­ers are enti­tled to object strongly if their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive turns out to exhibit these qual­i­ties poorly, or not at all.

d) Democ­racy on a Global Scale

17. If the demo­c­ra­tic process has a prob­lem when scaled to the size of a nation state, it has an immense (some would say insol­uble) prob­lem when con­sid­ered on the scale of rela­tion­ships between coun­tries, or between coun­tries and multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions (which may exceed the size and power of coun­tries).

18. We are all aware of the claimed demo­c­ra­tic nature of the United Nations, and the League of Nations before it. Those with a knowl­edge of those orga­ni­za­tions are also aware that when it comes to sig­nif­i­cant deci­sions the United Nations has never been demo­c­ra­tic, and where the forms of democ­racy are fol­lowed on more triv­ial issues, the imple­men­ta­tion is fre­quently inef­fec­tive. The United Nations is a forum for nego­ti­a­tion, by fair means or foul, and not infre­quently by cor­rup­tion or coer­cion. Yet it appears to be bet­ter than hav­ing no forum at all. The same can be said of many regional-inter­est inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions, alliances, and per­haps even for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment.

19. As the human world becomes ever more tightly inte­grated, the idea of “one ring to rule them all”, world gov­ern­ment by a supreme tyranny, might seem ever more likely. That cer­tainly seems to be the ten­dency of var­i­ous forces pro­mot­ing a “deep state” (e.g. think uni­ver­sal sur­veil­lance). Yet what is loosely called “the mid­dle class”, mean­ing edu­cated, aware and ambi­tious pop­u­la­tions, is grow­ing in almost every coun­try. His­tor­i­cally, these have been the kinds of peo­ple who have demanded, and even­tu­ally achieved some form of demo­c­ra­tic choice on the issues which affect their lives. I hope that they pre­vail in the strug­gle ahead.


Note that there are a vast num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions and doc­u­ments pur­port­ing to define, defend or explain the term “democ­racy”. Some make gen­uine attempts to clar­ify the idea. How­ever in an age of spin, words imply­ing social power, such as “democ­racy” and “free­dom” are also often appro­pri­ated as a cover for forces which most of us would inter­pret as their exact oppo­site. Black is white. Fur­ther­more, in var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal con­texts, some uses of “democ­racy” are incom­pre­hen­si­ble by the sense which oth­ers under­stand. For exam­ple, the Chi­nese national Con­sti­tu­tion (whose pro­vi­sions are widely ignored in daily prac­tice as well as by many other Chi­nese laws and reg­u­la­tions) states that “China is a demo­c­ra­tic dic­ta­tor­ship”. Hmm. In the essay above, I have taken my own track. The ref­er­ences below may con­vey a few extra per­cep­tions.

Bel­giorno-Net­tis, Luca (April 22, 2014) “For­get democ­racy, we need a new way to gov­ern”. Bris­bane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/forget-democracy-we-need-a-new-way-to-govern-20140422-zqxuv.html#ixzz2zlKoeplt

Bris­bane Times (July 3, 2013) “Women know less about pol­i­tics than men”. @  http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/women-know-less-about-politics-than-men-20130703-2pazv.html

Burghardt, Tom (2012) “’Final Cur­tain Call’ In Amer­ica? Deep Police State Sur­veil­lance And The Death Of Democ­racy”. Global Research Cen­ter for Research on Glob­al­iza­tion. @ http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=30079

David­son, Helen (24 June 2013) “Minor­ity of young Aus­tralians prefer democ­racy”. The Guardian (U.K.). @ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/24/minority-young-australians-prefer-democracy

Democ­racy Inter­na­tional – a Euro­pean based orga­ni­za­tion. “Reports & Papers”. @ http://www.democracy-international.org/publications.html

Grin­stein, Gidi (04/15/2014) “The Essen­tial Archi­tec­ture of Small-Scale Net­works”. Huff­in­g­ton Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gidi-grinstein/jewish-adaptability_b_5154302.html?utm_hp_ref=world

May, Thor (2013)  “Dis­cus­sion Top­ics” – a blog set up to ser­vice a bi-weekly live mee­tup for peo­ple in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia who like to talk over some of the Big Ques­tions in life, includ­ing democ­racy. @ http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/

Museum of Aus­tralian Democ­racy (n.d.) “Defin­ing Democ­racy”. @ http://moadoph.gov.au/democracy/defining-democracy/

National Endow­ment for Democ­racy – “.. a pri­vate, non­profit foun­da­tion ded­i­cated to the growth and strength­en­ing of demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions around the world” (their own descrip­tion)  – funded by the United States Con­gress. @ http://www.ned.org/

Open Democ­racy – a webzine (United King­dom). @ http://www.opendemocracy.net/

The Econ­o­mist (United King­dom), “Democ­racy in Amer­ica” – a sec­tion in this mag­a­zine with a rolling col­lec­tion of arti­cles on Amer­i­can issues of democ­racy. @ http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica

Tir­man, John (2013) “The Quiet Coup: No, Not Egypt. Here.” The Huff­in­g­ton Post. @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-tirman/nsa-deep-state_b_3569316.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

United Nations (n.d.) “Democ­racy”. @ http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/democracy/

Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney (2013) Insti­tute for Democ­racy and Human Rights. @ http://sydney.edu.au/arts/idhr/

Wikipedia (n.d.) “Democ­racy”. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy


Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972).

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thormay@yahoo.com

aca­d­e­mic repos­i­tory: Academia.edu at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay
dis­cus­sion: Thor’s Unwise Ideas at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/unwisendx.html

All opin­ions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.


The Democ­racy Prob­lem” © copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013

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