Is Democracy Working?

This morning I listened to a fascinating episode on “Radio Lab,” a National Public Radio program. It started off with some rather startling statistics about changing public opinion in America concerning democracy. In the relatively recent past there has been a significant increase in the number of people who would like a ruler who did not have to work with Congress and be elected. Similar developments have been identified in other countries. Disconcerting is the fact that about half of Germans now favor a more authoritarian government, in spite of that country’s own disastrous experience with dictatorship.

We should probably not be too surprised by these changes in attitudes. They are consistent with the general political polarization during recent years. When people disagree so sharply with each other and each side is so certain it is right, it may be almost inevitable that people on each side feel justified in imposing their will on those who disagree with them. To many, it seems that the conservative factions in our society are the ones trying to undermine democracy, but I strongly believe that one of the reasons for the apparent conservative backlash is that many Americas think the liberal political establishment has forced its social and cultural values down their throats. Although I have my own views about who is right about what, my main interest is in whether democratic institutions can protect all sides from being oppressed by others. Right now that seems uncertain.

We can start by looking at the fundamental principle underlying democracy, which It is the concept of majority rule. Like most Americans, for a long time I accepted unquestioningly the idea that the will of the greater number of people should prevail. But at some point I began asking myself why. Why assume that something is right just because it is what the majority of people want? We are told that “might makes right” is a bad idea, but is not superiority of numbers just one way of measuring might? I sometimes I compare it to the idea of two opposing armies lining up and counting off to see which is larger. Then, instead of fighting it out and losing a great many lives on each side, they decide that the larger one would probably win anyway and the smaller one just surrenders. That would prevent useless bloodshed and provide for an orderly way to establish a government, but it would not mean that the wishes of the winners were right or that the losers were wrong. And yet is that not essentially what goes on with majority rule, as implemented by democracy?

To America’s credit, we have always provided some protection for minorities. In fact these days some people think minorities have been given too much protection, with resultant unfairness to majorities.

Such arguments can be made against anything from affirmative action to same-sex marriage, and it has certainly been made about allowing transgender students to use bathrooms determined by their “gender identities.” It is always a treacherous tightrope, at best an imperfect balancing act, that reminds us that unqualified majority rule may not always equate to justice.

One problem with democracy is that not everyone agrees on exactly what it means. Whenever our presidential election system gives the victory to a candidate who did not get the most votes, as in 2016, there is an outcry that the result is a violation if the basic principle of democracy. But no one ever said we have a direct democracy. What we have is a representative democracy. The electoral college is one of the methods of representation. The original idea was that people spread throughout the states could not know enough about national politics to know who would be the best president, so they would choose better informed people, called electors, to make that choice. Many now think that this institution is unnecessary and even unfair in the modern world, while others think that it is an important protection for people living in less populated areas, so that they will not be at the mercy of people in the largest population centers.

Going beyond the issue of representation, there is the whole huge liberal versus conservative debate over just how much control the government should exert in society, no matter how it is chosen. On one hand we have democratic socialists calling for the government to do much more to provide for what they see as people’s needs or rights and to prevent activities they deem harmful to the common good. On the other hand we have conservatives calling for the government to do far less than it is already doing and to stay out of new areas of action like responding to climate change. And in the middle is a seemingly shrunken number of moderates trying with great difficulty to find a balance between extremes, a very daunting challenge in such a polarized environment.

I hope no one expected me to actually answer the question of whether democracy is working. I have tried to suggest that the answer depends on a lot of other questions. Is it working for whom? What do we want it to accomplish? Is it automatically working if the majority gets its way, no matter what the results are? By working, do we mean working perfectly, working as well as possible, or working better than any other system? For myself, I think that, despite its many shortcomings, democracy is probably better than any of the alternatives. But that does not mean it could not be made better and we should try do so. As long as there is deliberate voter suppression, democracy suffers. As long as free expression of ideas is suppressed because some people do not like the ideas being expressed, democracy suffers. A lot of vitally important questions are being raised about what kind of government we want and what kind of country we want. If democracy is to survive, and hopefully improve, these questions must be confronted and openly debated. That is one thing I am pretty sure a healthy democracy does require.


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