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Sunday, October 2, 2011

People Power and People Powerless

"Democracy," according to Winston Churchill, "is the worst form of government, except for all the others."  Lately, democracy seems to be taking a few hits.

An article in the Times last week talked about the fact that democratic governments around the world are under siege from their own constituents.  Citizens of Greece, India, Israel, the United Kingdom--not to mention those here in the US--are extremely frustrated.  Democracies all--solid, indisputable democracies--these nations empower their people to select their own representatives and ostensibly to rule themselves.  They also provide an unfolding answer to a troubling question: If democratic rule fails to improve the condition of a large number--or a majority--of the citizenry, what then?

We romanticize elections.  American newscasters especially extol the virtues of the democratic republic, especially when an election results in the defeat of the governing party.  The "peaceful transfer of power" from one regime to the next is the hallmark of the mature democracy, and I don't minimize its significance.  As complacent as Americans have become about such a spectacle, we should recognize how rare--historically and even in the modern world--such a shift in power is.  But while we've mastered voting, even in the United States we still struggle with the concept of governance afterwards.

Part of the problem arises from a fundamental misunderstanding--a belief that, because we vote, we live in a democracy and that, therefore, the wishes of the people are the primary mover of society. 
We've gotten to the point, however, where our governmental representatives seem more concerned with serving corporate masters who finance their election campaigns than they do with meeting the needs of the average citizens they supposedly serve--at least insofar as these two interests are in opposition.  This makes people question their representatives and, more frighteningly, of democracy itself.

People shouldn't lose faith in democracy, though, at least not until they try it.  Because despite the liberal Western faith in democracy, we really have seen very little of the phenomenon.  The US, of course, is not a democracy, but a republic: we elect other people to represent us. Ideally, these representatives respond to the will of their constituents, but as mentioned above, they don't.  And if they don't. . . well there's always the next election--but that just perpetuates the cycle of electing the people who can serve the moneyed interests who finance them.

Now, of course, with the advent of social media, people theoretically have more power than ever before to make their wishes known.  Democracy--direct democracy--is plausible on a scale larger than any seen before.  Of course, this poses dangers, too: The will of the majority may be in direct conflict with the rights of the minority.  But with the structural framework laid down and, generally, accepted in this country at least--with things like judicial review a solid part of our civic enterprise--minority rights can still be protected while affording the people an unprecedented opportunity to make their wishes known.

I am neither a politician nor a political scientist, and I know that the structure I propose has and number of pitfalls and dangers.  But the current system isn't working so great either.  And with people repudiating the results of elections and rioting in the streets, the time has come to start tweaking the system in a thoughtful way before the tweaking is taken out of our hands in a way that makes the dark side of democracy all too clear.

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