An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
Winston Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others that have been tried.” It’s not perfect. It’s a messy, often indecisive, frequently weak, slow to respond, easily stagnant, prone to propaganda, usually corrupt, dangerous form of government. It just also happens to be the best we’ve been able to come up with as a species.
Now, this series is called “The Modern Survival Guide,” and we talk about governments quite a bit for a very good reason: there are few things in your life that will affect you as severely as the form of government your nation practices. So let’s talk about democracies, that best worst option, shall we?
If you’re alive (as odds are you will be as you read this article) and living in the 21st century (ditto), the odds are pretty good that you live in a democracy of some sort. We Americans like to think we’ve got some sort of monopoly on “freedom,” but the truth is that there are about 75 countries that can justifiable claim to be “democracies,” and another thirty or so that are close enough that it could go either way. So this isn’t just an article about survival in America, it’s portable and applicable around the world.
Right, so what’s the good bit about democracy? Well, in brief, democracy is a pretty good idea. Giving people a say in the governing process has a lot of benefits, but the core seven are as follows:
- Democracy increases people’s access to the levers of power, increasing the odds that their concerns will be addressed.¹
- Democracy gives disaffected people an outlet, decreasing the odds of destructive rebellions and uprisings.²
- Democratic governments tend to change out national executives with more frequency and less violence than non-democracies, decreasing the odds of national stagnation and increasing the odds that new ideas will be tried.³
- Democracies tend to have more freedoms than non-democracies as a rule.⁴
- Democracies tend to treat their people better than non-democracies as a rule.⁵
- Democracies tend to have better economies than non-democracies in general.⁶
- Democracies tend not to fight each other (also known as Democratic Peace Theory).⁷
These are all objectively good things, and when taken as a whole we can see why Churchill was (grudgingly) in favor of democratic forms of government.
So with all that being said, you should know that I personally am in favor of democracies. I am not an authoritarian shill. I am not a communist. I am certainly not a monarchist or an anarchist. I don’t believe these systems work anywhere nearly as well for their citizens as democracies do. So don’t come after me in the comments on those grounds!
As a citizen of a democracy, though, it is extremely important to know the flaws of the system, for the same reason it’s important to know if your car has on oil leak: eventually, if left untreated, that kind of problem will seize your engine block. Metaphorically speaking, the same thing can and does happen to democracies. So what are those weaknesses, and how should we respond to them?
Weaknesses of Democracies
As a general rule, any given democracy has the following seven risk factors:
- Slow response to threats
- Simplification of choices
- Susceptibility to propaganda
- Paradoxes of freedom
- Interpretation of law
- Slippery slopes to non-democracy
We’re going through these one by one, because each one is important and nuanced, so now is the time to grab a coffee and a snack. Thus fortified, read on.
Slow Response to Threats
If you’ve ever served on a committee of any kind, you know exactly what this problem is. A committee of any sort is by far the worst institution for attempting to come to a quick decision on any subject, and legislatures are by definition little more than a bunch of committees jammed together. Asking Congress to make a snap decision on virtually any threat more complex than “The Russians have just invaded” is asking for bickering and stagnation. Just look at the response to global warming, or the pandemic.
It’s important to realize that in most democracies this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of the system. The founders of these systems wanted to ensure that major decisions were deliberated, not rushed into, and that there wasn’t a lot of room for an executive power to make snap choices that would determine the future of the nation. Sometimes that’s a positive thing. But when it comes to long term existential threats, complex threats, or threats that only affect one part of the populace, this is a very serious problem.
Fixing this type of weakness isn’t simple by any stretch of the imagination, because it requires a nation to codify when, if, and how important decisions can be made quickly. This generally involves a constitutional amendment or a piece of serious legislation, since what you’re really trying to fix is an issue with your government’s core structure and foundational rules. This runs any fix right back into the teeth of the original problem, since a flaw in a nation’s foundation is a very complex threat, and therefore one that the average legislature and populace should debate before settling on a change.
Simplification of Choices
Democracies develop political parties as a matter of course. This has some advantages, in much the same way that eating at McDonalds has advantages — you have a much more accurate expectation of what you’ll be getting, even if it isn’t the best taste in the world. This is in fact the whole point of political parties, to make it easier for the voter to decide on a candidate and to make it easier for legislators to organize around key issues.
The problem is that modern democracies have to deal with a nearly endless series of complex issues which do not fit neatly into party ideologies, and no one candidate can fit every single issue into their platform to satisfy every single person in any case. There’s always a trade-off. This is why direct democracy is something of a white whale for a lot of people; representation comes with its downside.
This problem arises when major parties or candidates decide “to hell with this complex stuff” and simply narrow the field based on trigger issues. Here in the States we have issues like gun rights, abortion, support for LGBTQ people, and the perpetual pandering to Christian victimhood, all of which are used by the two main political parties to divvy up the electorate.
You see the problem, right? Just because a candidate shares your view on abortion doesn’t mean they’re good at anything else. But that candidate is very likely to get elected (or not), depending on the prevailing views of their electorate on that trigger issue, and that issue alone. This has the effect of removing huge swathes of critically important issues from the public forum while also enabling absolute dumbasses to rise to positions of power.
This is a major problem. It means that most of the things that decide your life are not on the ballot at any given time.
For example, straight people, I hate to tell you this, but in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases the treatment of LGBTQ people will never affect you in any meaningful way. Fighting over their right to marry or have children is vastly less important to you compared to, say, discussing how your country is planning to pay off its national debt, or talking about how the average person is supposed to get medical care. Nonetheless, elections the world over are decided based on how candidates feel about LGBTQ rights.
Trigger issues create a situation where critically important subjects are left to the decisions of people who in no way, shape, or form, were elected to decide them. Simplified politics accordingly imparts a truly terrifying lack of oversight on these subjects on the part of the citizenry, who are then routinely shocked to find that non-trigger-point politics actually affect them. It’s a maddening situation.
The traditional fix for this problem is to add more political parties, but that doesn’t always work.⁸ Indeed, to apply this fix to the US would require a fundamental restructuring of our voting system. A more nuanced fix is to improve the educational and cultural climate around politics to the point that citizens are encouraged to think about non-trigger issues as a matter of course, but this is very, very difficult, if for no other reason than that most people simply don’t like to think about politics any more than necessary, which is why we have representatives in the first place.
When the majority of your populace craves simple discourse, or just wants to argue over trigger issues, simplified choices are a natural outcome.
Susceptibility to Propaganda
This goes hand-in-hand with the last point: whenever you play to a crowd, it’s easier to use propaganda than it is to make nuanced and educated points. It’s easy to build a following around topics like “We should support our military heroes, no matter the cost!” It’s harder to have a public discussion about why we need quite so many military heroes, or what we could be doing to pursue non-military options, or why we aren’t already adequately supporting our service members.
Most politicians figure out pretty quickly that people respond better to emotion than to reason, and couch their rhetoric appropriately. Sadly, this means that over time democratic discourse tends to experience a pendular swing into truly nasty memes. McCarthyism was a past example; arguably the modern Trumpian politics is another.
And let’s be clear, propaganda is absolutely lethal for democracies. It’s how you get divided nations, tribal politics, and more trigger issues than you can shake a stick at. It gums up the works by removing politicians’ ability to compromise and come to consensus decisions, even as it lowers the bar for political conversation nationally. Propaganda is bad, m’kay?
The usual fix for a propagandized population is for some really nasty event to occur that causes all the adults in the room to take a step back. I’m sorry, I wish there was a better historical norm. McCarthy pushed his propaganda until he’d ruined countless lives and finally picked on the wrong people. Trump pushed (and is still pushing) his propaganda until a mob of duped citizens stormed the most scared building to American democracy. These kinds of events can cause reasonable people to react and push propagandists off the field for a few years. Alternately, if the reasonable people stay quiet, the propagandists win and eventually you get violence.
A better, but harder, fix for propaganda is to improve a nation’s educational system such that citizens are more in touch with reality and harder to fool. However, that runs into a whole other series of problems, suitable for another article (or book) on its own.
Any system that relies on a popularity contest to pick representatives, and forces the representatives to pay most of the cost of running for office themselves, is going to be very vulnerable to corruption. The incentives all point to rewarding politicians for buying votes and taking money or other support in exchange for future services. That’s just how people are.
In the US, we don’t have quite the level of overt corruption that some other places do, but we have a TON of under-the-table corruption. Worse yet, it’s mostly legal, and it’s all bound up in campaign contributions, insider stock trading by members of the legislature, and promising various benefits to the electorate in exchange for votes. There’s very little conversation left in our nation around the subject of what is actually good for the nation, and that’s mostly down to the incentive structures of our political process.
This points directly to the fix for corruption in democracy, as well as its danger. The danger, of course, is that corrupt officials are thinking more about lining their pockets or staying in power than they are considering ways to make the country better. The fix is to examine the system that those officials move in, and remove the incentives for this kind of behavior.
For example, in the US we can and should implement a constitutional amendment to reform the way that political campaigns are financed. Simply removing political action committees (PACs) would neuter a huge volume of corruption in the nation today. Establishing a public pot of money that officials must use to pay for their campaigns, which is audited and monitored, while limiting or guaranteeing the areas in which campaign ads can run, would take care of a lot more. And of course, as per normal, every true democratic system should vigorously and mercilessly punish officials who engage in cash-for-service style traditional corruption.
Paradoxes of Freedom
This is a big one: every democracy likes to promote the freedom of its citizenry, and every democracy gets itself into trouble by failing to clearly articulate what “freedom” means. This creates situations where people on two or more sides of an issue all claim that their preferred choice of action maximizes freedom, and they’re all correct… from a certain point of view.
For example, let’s take a look at gun rights in the US. Pro-gun advocates argue that owning a gun is a central tenet of freedom in the US for a multitude of reasons — protection, hunting, sports, resisting government tyranny, and holding a suicide option all feature with more or less prominence depending on who you talk to. At the same time, pro-gun-control advocates argue that registering and restricting gun ownership is necessary for a whole host of other freedoms — freedom from things like rampage violence, gun violence in general, accidental shootings, and from the threat of violence posed by people carrying guns in public. Both sides are entirely correct from their own viewpoint, and both viewpoints are supported by the law.
Another example would be the institution of slavery in American prior to the US Civil War. Slaveowners claimed that they had a right to own property, and slaves were property. Abolitionists claimed that, from a moral point of view, no one had the right to enslave another person. Legally speaking, both sides were supported by different states — hence the Civil War broke the nation apart on state lines.
As we see here, paradoxes of freedom create situations where people feel that some fundamental part of their citizenship is under attack. This is a serious problem; it creates social upheaval and unrest along tribal lines and reduces everyone’s ability to work together.
The most common historical fix for this problem is to fight a civil war, and whoever wins gets to claim moral superiority and enforce their interpretation of the issue. The perhaps more desirable fix is for elected officials and judicial officials to get together and figure out what the law actually means, rewriting it for clarity when necessary, and then for the populace to trust their decision. Obviously, that’s hard, and it’s a big enough topic to be the subject of its own essay.
Interpretation of the Law
This problem dovetails nicely with the paradox of freedom issue, because the solution for that paradox leads to the problem of legal interpretation. Broadly speaking, this can be summarized as follows:
Who gets to decide what the law means? The legislature? Or the courts?
This is a significant question, because it hands a huge degree of power to whichever institution gets the nod. From the perspective of “rule by the people,” one would assume that the legislature should be handed the job of determining what laws mean and amending them accordingly (this was the attitude of the Napoleonic Code and similar legal structures). However, many nations have chosen to have the courts (in the case of the US, the Supreme Court) decide what laws mean, putting trust in the supposed non-biased aspect of the judiciary.
Whoever gets the job, interpreting the law is hard. Laws are rarely written to encompass all potential scenarios; life is more complex than we can easily imagine, and attempts to write a law such that every potential situation can be addressed are usually doomed to failure. However, writing a more generic law usually leaves it wide open to multiple interpretations.
To return to US gun politics, a classic example of this problem is the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
That’s not even good English, even by the standards of the time. Too many weird commas, and it looks like they built two distinct sub-clauses into the wording. What the hell does this mean? Does it mean that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed under any circumstances? Does it mean that people should be members of a militia if they wish to bear arms? Does it mean that you get to have guns only if your gun ownership contributes to the security of the State? What the hell?
If you think you know the answer to this question off the top of your head, I hate to tell you this, but you’re incorrect. This amendment has been frustrating legal scholars for close to two centuries, and shows no signs of being rendered simple at any point in the near future. And even if you could show exactly what the Founders meant by it, you run square into the teeth of a discussion over whether that matters for the modern nation.
The problem here, of course, is that any poorly interpreted law will likely result in poor governance at some level. Either the law will fail to accomplish its purpose, it will do something it wasn’t intended to do, or it will be extended to situations for which it was not designed. None of these are conducive to good democratic governance.
The fix for this problem depends on whether you give the legislature or the courts jurisdiction over the problem. If it’s the legislature, they have to go back and re-write the law. That has its own set of difficulties. If it’s the courts, the judiciary must hear a case on the law. That solution also has its own problems. Neither solution is easy or particularly palatable from the perspective of efficiency. But those are the only two options we’ve found so far.
Summing up: Slippery Slopes to Non-Democracy
All of these weak points add up to this last problem: democracies always want to be authoritarian states. What does that mean? Well, these problems we’ve discussed tend to come together to undermine a government “by the people” as a general rule:
- A slow response to threats leads to frustration and the desire for more efficient governance. More efficient governance usually means fewer people involved in a decision loop and less oversight. As the old joke goes, you can have an efficient government, or you can have an accountable government, not both. This is in fact one of the core justifications used by authoritarian governments, such as the government of China, to justify their existence.
- Simplification of choices leads to situations where serious choices are being made in the shadows, without due public discourse. Shadowy decision-making is not conducive to good democratic governance and tends to result in the accumulation of power into a smaller set of hands. Power like that has a tendency to find its way into successively smaller numbers of hands until only a few are holding it.
- Overuse of propaganda leads to populist style situations in which great masses of the citizenry become convinced that only one group, or more commonly one person (the “great leader”), can save them from whatever outrage has been manufactured by the propaganda, and moreover that the opposition is unworthy of being involved in governance at all. This has historically been a prelude condition for coup d'état. Arguably, this is the state of the conservative branch of US politics as of 2021/22.
- Corruption leads to situations in which non-democratic elements in society gain a controlling stake in government. The more corrupt a state becomes, the harder it gets to weed out corruption, and eventually you end up in a kleptocracy if the corruption is allowed to fester long enough. Kleptocracies are routinely authoritarian states, because the whole point of the state becomes wealth extraction, and wealth extraction incentivizes monopoly conditions. To put that another way, when you’re in a money grab, it is not to your benefit to allow other people to grab the money too.
- Both paradoxes of freedom and poor systems for interpretation of the law have the effect of creating great uncertainty in society. No one likes uncertainty, and say what you like about authoritarianism, it’s a very certain form of government: whatever the ruler says is law, and that’s that. This is incredibly attractive for certain groups in every society; for example, no hardcore religious extremist is going to be satisfied by a public discussion followed by judicious compromise, they want things their way.
What we’ve got here is a situation where the various weaknesses of democracy all want to drag it towards an authoritarian outcome. Every democracy wants to be an authoritarian state because it’s easier in some way, for someone, than being a pluralistic representative society. And any of these weakness can and have, historically, led to the fall of democratic states.
To take the internet’s favorite example, Germany didn’t turn to Nazism on a whim, Germans turned to Nazism because they were broke, they were humiliated, they were propagandized, they were offered simple choices with scapegoats, their institutions were corrupted, and they allowed the wrong people to decide what “freedom” meant in their society.⁹
This state of weakness is a constant for every democracy that has ever existed, and every democracy that will exist, barring some unknown shift in the paradigms and mechanisms of government (which is, of course, totally possible). The solutions are neither straightforward, nor particularly easy.
The defense against any slippery slope is an interruption in the trend. You stop the snowball from rolling downhill; you trigger the avalanche on your terms; you remove the cancer before it can metastasize. You fix problems before they can add up to an unstoppable force. And then you implement institutions wholly dedicated to monitoring these problems and beating them down as they pop up again.
Preserving democracy isn’t about a single glorious victory, it’s a game of whack-a-mole that you’d better hope your society is playing. If it isn’t, your survival may well depend on taking action to fix these problems. Nothing happens by itself in society; everything requires human intervention.
So, what can you, the average citizen, do to overcome the weakness of democracy?
You can vote. Your ballot is your principle power as a citizen. Vote the good ones in and the bad ones out, and make sure you know which are which.
You can organize. Most pro-democracy institutions are non-governmental. They are media organizations, volunteer groups, advocacy groups, legal aid foundations; you get the picture. Form one or join one.
You can protest. Protesting is your right as a citizen, and it is often the only way politicians get the message. Most people, including politicians, don’t quite understand data; but everyone understands ten thousand screaming protestors on the Washington Mall.
You can monitor. If you see something, say something. If an abuse is occurring, report it to someone who will do something about it.
You can speak out. If you see something, say something. We all have an unprecedented megaphone called “the internet” that we can use to spread our stories. Use it. The bad people certainly do.
You can support others. You don’t have to do it all on your own, and money is the magic anyone can do. If you do nothing else, pick a pro-democracy group and give them some cash. If you have more time than cash, being a dedicated volunteer is also good.
Democracy is the worst form of government, aside from all the others that have been tried. It is constantly weak, constantly on the defense, and never, ever safe. It always wants to slide backwards.
Don’t let it.
¹If you give people the vote, they will often vote in their own self-interest, and if you let people participate in governance they will often solve their own problems.
²No taxation without representation! When people have a say in how things are going, they’re more likely to buy into the chosen path and less likely to take up arms to oppose it.
³Authoritarian governments tend to keep the same leader in power for their entire lives. Democracies don’t. Getting new perspectives into power is one of the core points of democracy, and really does help ensure a country isn’t making the same mistakes over and over again.
⁴It goes with the system. Setting up a legitimate democracy, giving people access to a free and relatively unbiased voting system, by default means that people have to be able to discuss their politicians, have to be able to move around enough to get to a voting location, have to have access to enough information to make an informed choice, and have to be relatively free from reprisal. That doesn’t seem like much of a list, but it translates to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of information, and freedom from political brutality, and that’s a LOT.
⁵Because democracies incorporate people into the government, and are virtually required to guarantee the freedoms mentioned in the prior point, democratic systems have a tendency to ensure personal freedoms and protect their citizens more than non-democracies.
⁶Economic progress depends on people having enough freedom to start a business and enough protection to ensure that can conduct business safely. Democracies tend to provide both.
⁷This is a contentious idea among political scientists, and no one is entirely sure why this is the case, but as a rule democracies that count as “full” democracies on the Freedom House scale simply do not fight each other. One theory on this is that leaders of democracies see each other as more open to negotiation. Another is that leaders of democracies know that any opposition from another democratic country will likely be replaced in a few years. Still another is that the citizenry of democracies are used to thinking about other democracies as fundamentally “good,” and are simply less open to fighting a “good” power. Still another point of view is that this is all an illusion, and democracies do fight each other, for a given value of “democracy” and “fight.” Ask three political scientists, and you’ll get four answers.
⁸Because the number of political parties you can have in a system is dependent on how votes are counted. Which is why we will never have a major third party in the US.