Democracy is broadly defined here as a system of government in which the population exercises 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. Democratically elected governments enjoy considerable political legitimacy: they are seen as having an unquestionable right to govern. An unsatisfactory government can be replaced at the next election.
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:
● As described later, politicians in democracies are subject to political pressures from people and organisations with sectional interests (6.4.1), so they may not achieve the best outcomes for the population as a whole.
● They tend to focus on the short term, to try to win the next election.
● Democracy exposes conflicts in society, and it 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, although that 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.
● 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.
No democracy can enable a population to guide its politicians accurately, and it is an inherently fragile system, as described in the following sub-sections:
● 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 chosen to govern, these normally contain several points. Voters have to select one entire list; they 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).
● Opportunist politicians can offer a populist approach, aiming to represent the people against the establishment, if the population becomes discontented with the mainstream parties (188.8.131.52). Anti-establishment populism might be ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, and 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), 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.
● Politicians try to differentiate themselves in their constant struggle to gain and retain power. If they are confrontational, public opinion becomes polarised and negotiated compromise is no longer possible (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/edition04/632a.htm