(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents. An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/632a.htm)
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 implementing the ideal of giving power to the people, so all claims made for democracy have to 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.
- As described by Seymour Martin Lipset in 1959, in a paper entitled Some Social Requisites of Democracy, democracies become unstable if large groups of people reject the legitimacy of being governed according to the wishes of a majority of their fellow citizens:
“if a political system is not characterized by a value system allowing the peaceful “play” of power – the adherence by the “outs” to decisions made by “ins” and the recognition by “ins” of the rights of the “outs” – there can be no stable democracy.”
- 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.
There are some systemic issues in implementing democracy, as described in the following four sub-sections:
- The basic forms of democracy include elected presidencies, direct democracy and representative democracy (184.108.40.206); 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 (220.127.116.11).
- 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 (18.104.22.168).
- There are different systems of voting, ranging from pure proportional representation to ‘first past the post’. None of these can accurately represent voters’ wishes (22.214.171.124).
For all these reasons, elections are an imperfect method for enabling a population to guide its politicians.
The competition for votes is an additional risk. Politicians are sometimes tempted to adopt irresponsible policies to gain and retain power:
- They may try to respond to whatever is popular at the time, a populist approach (126.96.36.199), rather than taking a balanced view of what would be best in the medium to long term.
- They might adopt a strong and confrontational form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (188.8.131.52), to appeal to voters who feel left behind and disempowered.
There are countermeasures that can help to guard against these populist tendencies (184.108.40.206).