Is Democracy Played Out?

Democracy: The idea that, rather be ruled by a king or a dictator, that citizens should rule themselves and control their own destiny. Every citizen is given equal power, every citizen has an equal say, and no man stands above another.

Aeons ago, when democracy was first used by citizens to make decisions, the most complex issues of the day were easy to understand by the common citizen; “can the state feed us?”, “can the state shelter us?”, and “can the state protect us?”. Judging whether these needs ought to be fulfilled is dead simple - and judging whether they are being fulfilled is not much more difficult - in a relatively small-scale society compared with our own.

Today, we have infinitely more complex issues to deal with, such as climate change, terrorism, wealth inequality, immigration policy, and so on. Our world is not only complex, but more divided; most of our citizens can’t even decide on whether an issue should be dealt with, let alone how.

It’s said that a democracy is only as strong as its citizens are informed; the weak point of democracy being that citizens must be informed on issues relating to the world around them, in order to effectively vote, and elect their leaders. The problem is that citizens are uninformed, choosing instead to believe whatever suits their worldview, and voting for a politician that assures them that that worldview is correct. Citizens are being asked to elect their leaders according to who can best address the issues at hand, while knowing little, or nothing, about the issue to be addressed. Votes are cast while knowing very little about the actual issues being debated, with citizens having a surface-level understanding at best.

What’s more, citizens are frequently not only uninformed, but misinformed. Media outlets run campaigns about politicians who do not suit their or their partners business interest – failing to report information that doesn’t suit their agenda, misrepresenting the facts, or outright lying, in order to sway a gullible public into voting a particular way. Policy has taken a back seat to perception and marketing, when it comes to winning elections.

Many citizens are disenfranchised when it comes to politics, either choosing not to vote, or to cast a pointless vote (in countries where voting is mandatory). They’ll vote based on the last ad they saw, they way that their friends voted, or the way that they themselves last voted. Voter apathy among the citizenry is a major hurdle in maintaining a strong democracy, but these non-votes are nonetheless given the exact same weight as a vote from an extremely informed citizen who keeps up with recent events and cares deeply about their country.

Opposite the disenfranchised are the die-hard voters, those who vote for one party in every election, no matter the policy that that party’s leader promises to enact. To these voters, politics is nothing more than a “my party is best” contest, and no matter the cost, no matter the benefit of other parties policies, in their mind, their favourite party must always win. This is because they are right and the “other” party is wrong. This is the reason elections come down to a margin of a few percent; most citizens continue for their entire lives to vote for only one party.

The weeks leading up to an election are a nightmare of ads to citizens who have already made their minds up based on tribalism, misinformation and marketing, but the politicians aren’t much better. A case could be made that it’s in a politician’s best interest to act in the best interest of the citizens by enacting carefully researched policy that’s in line with advice from experts from relevant fields. However, this is far from reality. They have advisers, time, and resources with which to make good decisions, but but they’re hardly guardians of democracy. Today’s career politicians run on ultra-efficient platforms with the goal of re-election, rather than serving the citizenry. Marketing, polling, grandstanding, toeing the line, and strategically-planned political tours, all aim to appeal to the broadest number of citizens possible. Actual policy doesn’t matter – so long as it can be made to sound good, and it wins votes, then it might as well be an afterthought. When spin and wordplay can be made to make your existing ideas look godly and the other side’s evil, why bother with actual good policy? Political “debates” have devolved to little more than back and forth parroting of catchphrases and ideology – with very little content of substance present to justify the word ‘debate’.

Many politicians, even from major political parties, enact policy simply based on how they or their party think the world ought to be, or based on corporate lobbying, rather than based on the best outcomes for citizens. I’m sure most people can think of examples of this in the recent past. If every politicians goal was to enact policy that’s best for the citizens, even taking into account various subgroups within that category, then we wouldn’t have politicians who believe in wildly different policy from each other – but we do, because politicians are clearly motivated by things other than good outcomes for the majority.

Now we come to the last in a long list of reasons that democracy is no longer fit for purpose. The problem here couldn’t be simpler; just because people want it, doesn’t mean it’s good. If a group of seven-year-olds voted that they wanted to eat nothing but ice cream and candy, how many would argue that that is ‘the will of the people’? However, when a large group of adults makes an uninformed, bias decision on something far outside their knowledge and life experience, most of us equate it to divine law that their ‘will’ must be upheld, no matter the decision. Think about it in another way; 5 people stand at the top of a volcano. 3 vote to jump, 2 vote not to. Should they be allowed to jump simply because of a majority vote toward a bad decision?

Democracy might have worked well in antiquity – when issues were simple and easy to understand, and policy effects were easy to judge – democracy is doing more harm than good in our complex societies. It sounds great to rely on the citizens to elect their leaders when the most complex issue was protecting and feeding the city, but we have much more technically complex issues in our modern world, and it doesn't make sense to rely on citizens who know little about an issue, to decide which party has the best solution to that issue. Most citizens no longer vote based on policy, but a combination of marketing, and tribalism (my team is better than your team).

That ‘running more ads than the other side’ is what it takes to win an election, doesn’t bring about thoughts of a strong democracy. Some may ask “well if democracy is so flawed then what’s your solution?”. My reply is that, even if we don’t have a better solution right now, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.

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