Democracy's shortcomings

2010-01-05 00:00

DEMOCRACY, which of course means rule by the people, is a complex and ever-changing phenomenon. Nowadays the basic condition for a country to call itself a democracy is the holding of regular elections which are considered by the international community to be free and fair. But there is much more to it than that.

A country like Britain is often called a “mature democracy” while South Africa is a “young democracy”, but in both countries decisions that are not truly democratic are made. For example, Tony Blair persuaded his New Labour Party government and parliament to agree to the invasion of Iraq, but it seems clear that the British population was never really behind it. In a rather similar way, Thabo Mbeki managed to carry out his HIV/Aids denialist policy, though there were few signs of real support either from the African National Congress or from the people as a whole.

Democracy, then, is never a fait accompli. It needs to be maintained and developed through constant vigilance, constant thought and discussion.

Discussion is central to the whole process. In an authoritarian regime no real discussion takes place; most of the people are silenced and afraid, and discontent bubbles beneath the surface, and occasionally above the surface (as at the moment in Iran). The glory of democracy at its best is that the strong, even violent disagreements that are bound to exist in any society are controlled and channelled into a governance system which works through civilised contestation and discussion. Those people in South Africa who express their views by flinging insults at their opponents (and we have seen a good deal of this in the last year or so) haven’t begun to understand what democracy is all about. One isn’t being democratic unless one is willing to discuss and to treat one’s fellows with respect.

With respect, but not with too much respect. Here is another of the subtleties of democracy. The people elected into power are the servants of the people: they rule, they make decisions, but only because the majority of the people have voted them into power. Things may change; it would be wrong to gain or to give the impression that those in power are there by some sort of divine decree. For this reason I have been a bit unhappy about the tendency of people at some political meetings to stand up when a minister or an MEC arrives. Respect for leaders is a hallowed African tradition; one recognises this. But too great a respect is in danger of undermining the discussion element in democracy.

Democracy has many advantages, then. But it has some disadvantages too. It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was not a particularly good method of government but that it just happened to be far better than any of the alternatives.

One of the disadvantages of democracy was highlighted in a recent column by Gwynne Dyer. He was discussing the disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen conference on climate change, and he offered the view that, while most of the politicians from the rich countries were aware of the magnitude of the problem, they couldn’t act boldly on their knowledge because many of the people who voted them into power had not yet woken to the urgency of the issues — and politicians don’t like losing power. It seems to have been largely this problem which led the ancient Greek philosopher Plato to favour, not the democracy that had developed in his native Athens, but rule by wise philosopher-guardians. But, as most people know now, supposedly benevolent dictatorships bring with them a whole host of new problems.

Is there no remedy for this shortcoming of democracy, this reliance of elected representatives upon the comparative ignorance of many of their constituents? I think there is a remedy, and it lies in enlightened democratic leadership. In 1956, four years before he became president of the United States, John Kennedy (with the help of Ted Sorensen) wrote a book titled Profiles in Courage. In it he describes eight instances in which U.S. senators risked their careers by standing by their beliefs and principles.

The point is that elected representatives don’t need to be slaves to the views of their voters. While respecting these views, they can try to change them; while respecting their constituents, they can work to educate them, to take them forward.

Such leadership seems to be fairly rare: the outcome of Copenhagen suggests this. In South Africa, alas, such leadership appears at the moment to be almost non- existent.

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