The Paradox of Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, Winston Churchill said to the British parliament in November 1947, a few years after the Second World War. Back then, it would have been hard to argue with Churchill. To witness the horrors of totalitarian dictatorship and be just a few years away from seeing communist regimes bear their own fruit would commit anyone to the relative peace, security, and comfort of living in the democratic free world. 

And after all, democracy logically sounds like the perfect solution to the ills of the world. Let the republic be ruled by philosopher kings, said Plato, but not every king will be a philosopher. Inevitably, some turn into Stalins and Kim Jong-uns; unchained by checks or balance, they become dictators, ruling at will. Implement democracy and set strong laws, however, and we have found the perfect antidote to unwise autocrats. Vote in leaders that you like, vote out the ones that you don’t, and ensure that their powers are constrained by the law. What could be simpler? Churchill certainly got it right.

It just so happens that Winston Churchill is also known for another quote: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

And it also just so happens that the average voter in the United States is seriously considering voting for Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.

Nothing could have illustrated this clearer than the New York primary that happened last week. The Republican primary resulted in Donald Trump winning 60% of the vote; that’s not a plurality, which Trump usually tends to get, but an actual majority. He got similar results in the so-called ‘Acela primaries’: 56% in Pennsylvania, 64% in Rhode Island, 54% in Maryland and so on: in all six states that voted in the past two weeks, over half of GOP voters decided that Donald Trump would be the best president of the United States.

Outside of the Republican grassroots, it is difficult to find a person who does not think Donald Trump would be an absolute disaster for the Republican party. World leaders, from the president of Mexico to the Pope, have denounced Trump. Economists and political scientists all rail about his lack of specifics and the unfeasibility of his policies. His aides confess that he has very little interest in engaging in actual substance. And his own history suggests that he is not the master deal-maker that he often portrays him as, nor is he nowhere near as rich or successful as he wants us to believe. Most importantly, he puts his foot in his mouth so often (and so intentionally) that he has alienated almost all the important electoral blocs that would be crucial for success in November, from women to Hispanics.

The result has been an absolute freakout on the part of the Republican Party’s establishment. Anxious to stop the man whose electability (or rather, unelectability) could potentially destroy the Republican brand for years to come and ruin the hopes and dreams of down-ballot candidates, they have built an all-out “#NeverTrump” movement, launching blitzkrieg after blitzkrieg of negative advertisements. All of this has had barely any impact on Trump, as his margin of victory widens as time passes. How, then, could the Republican party deny a man almost certain to be the winner of the primaries its nomination? Simple, they realised. The party voting system requires a candidate to receive more than half the delegates needed (1238 is the magic number) to win on the first ballot. If no candidate emerges with a victory, then in subsequent ballots the delegates are “unbound” from the primary results and may vote for whoever they choose. Senator Ted Cruz, a man almost as universally reviled by the Republican elite as Trump himself, has built a formidable campaign organisation that has allowed him to snatch many of the delegates; if Trump does not win on the first ballot, it is highly likely that Cruz will be the nominee.

In short, the Republican Party is actively trying to deny Donald Trump the domination.

And herein lies the paradox of democracy. Democracy comes from the Greek term demokratia: literally, “the people’s power”. If in the American republic the people have expressed a clear will that they desire Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for president, then why are the elites attempting to deny the power of the people and overrule it forcibly? Certainly they could claim that there is no need for a party to be democratic- it’s not a public organisation and a primary isn’t the general election- but it would be hypocritical in the face of their publicly expressed idealism of respecting the will of the people.

“People are voting against their own interests”, some will say. Nothing sounds quite more condescending than that. It is another way of putting forward Churchill’s argument from many decades earlier: that the average voter does not know what they are doing, that they are uneducated, and that instead it is wiser to let an elite few choose the leaders than to allow voters to vote against their own self interest.

So, what can we learn from this? Studying history and politics would be a waste of time if we do not learn lessons and draw conclusions from it, and one conclusion that we must draw from the 2016 election is this: democracy is not a perfect system.

As Donald Trump has colourfully illustrated for us, a democratic system is vulnerable to hijacking

Trump mocks a disabled man.

by media-savvy candidates. A master of manipulating the media and a great reader of crowds, Trump has preyed on the anger and discontent of many Americans and built his campaign around the strong emotions that they feel. He has ensured that he receives wall-to-wall media coverage that he has used to build his strong poll numbers. Voters only have so much time to learn about the candidates, and if a candidate is as good as Trump with manipulating the media, chances are voters will learn mostly about him, and mostly from his perspective. A democracy with such a media system is always going to be vulnerable to a candidate like Donald Trump.

We also learn that democracy has many flaws that are inherent. As a system based purely on the will of the people, it does not account for any basis of merit and morality on the part of the candidates. Once again, Donald Trump is an illustration of this. He has proved himself to have no vision or ability to govern effectively, and his past as a businessman reveals severe problems with his judgement. He is also a bully who has on many occasions displayed his bigotry, racism, sexism, an utter indifference to morals, and an unparalleled ability to flip-flop while still keeping the straightest of faces. Perhaps voters do not seem to care about merit and morals, hence why candidates with no merit or morals can ride at the top of the polls.

A TED talk by Eric X Li, titled “A tale of two political systems”, compares the differences between the Western and Chinese political systems. I do not agree with the entire basis of his argument, as I’ll talk about shortly, but there is a part of his talk that I feel is worth listening to. Quoted below:

The Party happens to be one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world today. China’s highest ruling body, the Politburo, has 25 members. In the most recent one, only five of them came from a background of privilege, so-called princelings. The other 20, including the president and the premier, came from entirely ordinary backgrounds. In the larger central committee of 300 or more, the percentage of those who were born into power and wealth was even smaller. The vast majority of senior Chinese leaders worked and competed their way to the top…

…The range of positions is wide, from running health care in a village to foreign investment in a city district to manager in a company. Once a year, the [Organisational Department] reviews their performance. They interview their superiors, their peers, their subordinates. They vet their personal conduct. They conduct public opinion surveys. Then they promote the winners.

China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is the son of a former leader, which is very unusual, first of his kind to make the top job. Even for him, the career took 30 years. He started as a village manager, and by the time he entered the Politburo, he had managed areas with a total population of 150 million people and combined GDPs of 1.5 trillion U.S. dollars...George W. Bush…before becoming governor of Texas, or Barack Obama before running for president, could not make even a small county manager in China’s system.

Firstly, let us recognise the flaw in Li’s argument: China’s system may be meritocratic, but as Li himself admits, it also depends highly on patronage and this means it is extremely vulnerable to corruption. But let us also recognise the deep contrasts between the Chinese system and the American system of selecting leaders. Xi Jinping, even with his privileged background, had thirty years of real governing experience before becoming president of China. Other Chinese leaders, while perhaps not adept at winning elections, were selected on the basis of their administrative abilities. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was a senator for only four years and had no executive experience; Donald Trump will have had absolutely no experience in governance. This reveals the other democratic paradox: an election tests a politician’s ability to win an election, not the ability to run a country. Donald Trump will have proved that he can win Republican primaries, but should he become president, will have no proof that he knows how to govern the world’s most powerful country.

Should the Republican party have its own choice in selecting its ticket, it would probably place Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, or Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and son and brother of presidents, or even John Kasich, the popular Ohio governor, on the top of the ticket. And it could still very well do that, in a contested convention. But in the end, I believe that it cannot. Democracy still has the empowering ability of providing legitimacy to a candidate by allowing the people to express its will, and it is clear that the people has expressed the view that they do not want Ryan or Bush or Kasich. These candidates are not legitimate in America’s democratic system. And following this logic, neither are China’s leaders. No one chose them to run the country, since they were simply selected generation after generation since Mao’s armies kicked Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government to Taiwan (and no one had chosen the Nationalists, either). They cannot simply be like the Chinese emperors of old and claim the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, for such arguments hardly fly in the 21st century. There is no real way of knowing whether the majority of Chinese people would prefer a different set of leaders to the current ones.

We can thus make the following conclusion: Democracy empowers the people to make choices and provides legitimacy to leaders by providing them with evidence of popular support; the refrain “government by the people, for the people” is still powerful. It also provides accountability, for a government that is not dedicated to the people’s bidding does not deserve to be in power and will not remain in power in a democratic system. But it does not account for a leader’s merit or morals, and popular support does not translate to administrative capability. Donald Trump has done well to illustrate this point.

Overall, there is a paradox: democracy is both the best and worst way of choosing political leaders.

So the question is this: how can we design a better way of choosing our leaders? How can we build a better system of government where presidents and prime ministers are provided legitimacy through the will of the people, but are also proven leaders with experience and has evidence of sound judgement?

This is, essentially, the debate that has been ongoing in Thailand since the political crisis a decade ago. Many solutions have been proposed. Democracy cannot be scrapped, for it provides leaders with legitimacy, but ensure politicians are limited in their scope of power by using unelected councils and assemblies to balance them out, or ensure that they are not simply trying to fool the electorate by banning populist policies, or make sure that they are “morally qualifid” by creating a “National Morals Assembly” to ensure that leaders are acting according to a certain moral code. But Thailand, just like the rest of the world, has not been able to come up with an answer to these questions.

Let us see, then, whether or not the Republican Party and the United States will be able to come up with their own solution to this paradox of democracy.







Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.