Democracy is broadly defined here as a system of government where the people exercise control by voting for politicians and/or policies. Ideally, everyone should have the opportunity to vote meaningfully and should feel that their views are adequately represented in political negotiation and decision-making. In practice there is no problem-free way of achieving the ideal of giving power to the people, so all claims made for democracy must be tempered with reality:
- It gives people a voice in how they are governed, but that doesn’t guarantee that everyone will be comfortable with the results.
- It exposes conflicts in a society, and may exacerbate them.
- It is possible to have intimidation before and during elections, problems during the voting, and fraud in the counting and announcement of the result – as described by The Economist in March 2012: Election fraud: How to steal an election. Care is needed to combat that. The US presidential election in 2020 was widely forecast to cause turmoil – which was largely avoided thanks to the Democracy Defense Coalition, described by Time Magazine as a “Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election”.
- Many countries are gradually becoming less democratic, as described by The Economist Data Team in a January 2018 survey entitled Democracy continues its disturbing retreat.
- As described later, politicians sometimes act irresponsibly to gain a tactical advantage or short-term popularity (6.4.2), so they may not achieve the best outcomes for the population.
Systemic issues in implementing democracy are described in the following sub-sections:
- The basic forms of democracy include elected presidencies, direct democracy and representative democracy (220.127.116.11); each of these has advantages and disadvantages.
- 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, describing the policies they would wish to implement if chosen to govern, these normally contain several points. Voters have to select one entire list and cannot pick and choose their own preferred combination of policies (22.214.171.124).
- 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).
For all the above reasons, elections are an imperfect method for enabling a population to guide its politicians.
Another systemic risk in democracies can arise when the population becomes discontented with the whole political establishment, as represented by the mainstream parties. Opportunist politicians can then offer a populist approach, aiming to represent the people against the establishment. This can threaten the survival of a democracy:
- Anti-establishment populism might be ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ (188.8.131.52). Neither kind seems to work out well, although the problem is often corrected at the next election.
- Some politicians promote a form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (184.108.40.206), 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.
This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/632d.htm