6.3.2 Democratic Systems of Government
In democratic systems of government, people choose who governs them; this gives politicians some legitimacy, but there can be failings
Democracy is broadly defined here as a system where people can choose their politicians by voting in an election. The ideal is that everyone should have the opportunity to make choices and they should feel that they have some control over their politicians. And an unsatisfactory government can be replaced at the next election.
This democratic vision, of being able to choose how one is governed, is very attractive. There have been many political struggles to install a democratic political system: against communism and against colonial rule, for example. Democracy doesn’t always work in practice, though, and many countries are gradually becoming less democratic – as described in a January 2018 survey, Democracy continues its disturbing retreat.
The behaviour of politicians in a democracy can be a problem:
● A vote is a choice of a policy option, but voting is meaningless if politicians are dishonest. A politician who wins by lying has little democratic legitimacy – many people would have voted for the policies, not for the individual.
● Politicians in democratic systems of government tend to focus on the short term, to try to win the next election.
● As described later (6.4.1), they experience pressures from the public, the media, and organisations with sectional interests. They should try to steer a responsible course between these pressures, but they are constantly trying to win political support to help them to gain and retain power.
The administration of elections isn’t always straightforward:
● It is possible to have intimidation before and during elections.
● People may not be able to vote freely. Voting rights are a contentious issue in America for example, as described in a BBC fact-check on Georgia voting.
● Voters need confidence in how their votes are counted. Possible weaknesses in the process were described by The Economist in March 2012: Election fraud: How to steal an election. The US presidential election in 2020 was widely forecast to cause turmoil, although that was largely avoided thanks to the Democracy Defense Coalition: described by Time Magazine as a “Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election”.
The wishes of voters cannot be accurately represented in any democratic political system, as described in sub-sections below:
● Each of the basic forms of democracy – direct democracy, directly elected presidencies, chambers of representatives, and combinations of these methods – has advantages and disadvantages (220.127.116.11). They vary in how accurately they interpret voters’ wishes, and in the extent to which they disenfranchise minorities.
● People can have many different reasons for choosing a particular candidate, so election results don’t accurately reflect a population’s policy preferences (18.104.22.168).
● When political parties produce election manifestos or ‘platforms’, describing the policies they would wish to implement if they were elected, these normally contain several points (22.214.171.124). Voters must choose one entire list, rather than picking their own preferred combination of policies. And specific policy commitments are vulnerable to changes in circumstances.
● There are different systems of voting, ranging from pure proportional representation to ‘first past the post’. None of these can accurately represent voters’ wishes (126.96.36.199).
Populist politicians can try to seize power by overturning the political establishment, as analysed in the following three sub-sections:
● Anti-establishment populism might be ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, and neither kind seems to work out well (188.8.131.52). This problem can often be corrected at the next election.
● Some politicians promote a form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (184.108.40.206), presenting themselves as strong leaders, to appeal to voters who feel left behind and disempowered. This can slide into dictatorship if the leader remains popular.
● Countermeasures, to mitigate the risks posed by populism, are possible but are not always effective (220.127.116.11). It is much safer to avoid the discontent that leads to populism in the first place.
Democracy can expose and aggravate conflicts in society, as politicians try to differentiate themselves in their constant struggle to gain and retain power. If politicians are confrontational, public opinion becomes polarised and negotiated compromise is no longer possible – as described below (18.104.22.168).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/632b.htm