No person who has ever lived in a democratic society would ever want to live in any other form of society. But Winston Churchill perhaps said it best, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
In all honesty he actually made this quote in a debate which was focused on him opposing the efforts of the Labour government to limit the powers of the House of Lords, which was an unelected body that sat above the elected body, and it is at times taken a little out of context, for example the full quote reads:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms of that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.Winston Churchill in the House of Commons 1947
But ignoring the merits of the quote, it is indisputable that despite the democratic model being vastly superior to all the other known models, it is actually a pretty rubbish form of government. And that’s because democracy is deeply flawed.
With this in mind I wanted to have a little look at the problems that democracy creates. Or rather I wanted to spend a little bit of time trying to understand the flaws with democracy, my reason being to try to understand whether democracy in itself is in part the reason why the Western world is so divided right now. And if it is I hope that by identifying how it is helping to create a divide that potential solutions can be found to improve the democratic model and start ending that divide.
That said let’s get to it, the first problem is despite the fact that everyone has a voice not all voices are of the same volume.
Everyone has a voice but not every voice can be heard
In autocratic societies and dictatorships no one has a voice other than the rulers, that’s why democracy is better, in democracies everyone has a voice. It is just the problem is the more money and power a person has the louder that person’s voice will be, and the less money and power a person has, the quieter that person’s voice will be. That means though everyone has a voice, the vast majority do not have a very loud one and in fact for most people it is barely even a whisper.
There will be those that argue that democracy shouldn’t be this way, but even in a world where there is no money it is highly probable that the problem would still remain, it is just instead of money another form of collateral would exist which would give certain people a much louder voice than the majority.
That means no matter what there will always be those whose voices are never heard, and the bigger the society the more people there will be who are not heard. This is perhaps why the banning of Trump from the world of social media has so many worried, if a person with such a loud voice can be silenced then what chance do those people whose voices are barely a whisper have of ever being heard.
Not much would be the answer. Which is not really a great image for a society which claims to be a free one because it means people who say things that the majority don’t agree with run the risk of being silenced by the majority, which brings me to the next problem.
The majority rule but that is the problem
Democracy is a society where the will of the majority rules which means inevitably there will be a minority, and the bigger the society the bigger in number that minority will be. Not just that the bigger the society the more differing groups of minorities there will be, and the wider the range of views these differing groups of minorities will have, views which in a lot of cases will clash with not only the views of the majority but with the views of the other minorities.
The problem this creates is the majority of these minorities will likely never be heard namely because they will never be the majority, meaning they will never get any form of true representation in government. Especially if the majority are intent on silencing them because they don’t like what it is they are saying.
What this means is in a democracy the majority have the power to do whatever they want and silence whoever they want, and the bigger the majority the more power they have to silence others. This is why democratic societies especially large ones though being vastly superior to autocratic societies and dictatorships are still not great places for minorities, which brings me to the next point.
The size of the population really matters
Population size really matters in democracy. Really matters. And considering that ten percent of all humans that ever lived since the dawn of time are alive right now, democracy has never been larger.
This seems great and it is in many ways but also presents many problems. Basically the bigger the population the greater the number of minorities and the greater numbers there will be that make up those minorities. And if there are minorities who never believe that they have a government which supports them and shares their views, which is an inevitability in a large population, then you have an underbelly in society which will always believe that the government and wider society is against them. Not just that but in a world where so many people have such different views it is very difficult to find a middle ground strong enough for the majority of people to actually be happy with the leadership.
This is why historically in the West centre ground politicians have done so well, because a centre ground politician has the power to reach out to a wider range of people. But centre ground politicians create big problems, problems which become more apparent the bigger the society is, and those problems are that by being in the centre they will find it very difficult to make the majority of people actually feel like the government works for them and shares their viewpoints. This is because some of his or her followers will be of the left, some will be of the right and some will be at the centre, meaning it will be impossible to make any of them happy without upsetting the others, meaning the best way to win government in a large society is to try to offer an olive branch to enough people to win an election while accepting in reality it is virtually impossible to make a majority of people actually happy.
What this means is in all but extremely small societies no one ever gets a leadership that truly represents them what they get is a government that best represents a set of beliefs which offers enough common ground to enough people to form a majority. But that common ground could be very thin indeed, so thin that the majority of the majority that elected the government may feel that the government in no way shares their views or values. Which is a big problem, and the bigger a society is the more this reality holds true and so the bigger the problem will be.
And in fact the bigger society gets, the more likely that a large number of people will find themselves voting for a person simply because rather than actually backing the person they are voting for, they simply preferred that person over the opposition candidate. Which is a big problem and is in fact what has been largely happening in Western societies for a good while now, the majority of people find themselves not liking either candidate. Which brings me to the next point, who actually picks the people that we wrote for?
Who picks the people we vote for?
If a nation had a choice between choosing Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as their leader, and the election was allowed to be free and fair would any person say that that was democracy? The answer would be it depended on who put forward Hitler and Stalin. If it was the people, then lamentable it may be but it would be democracy, but what if it was not the people, would it still be free and fair?
In this reality is the present day version of democracy’s greatest flaw, and is a reality that people like for example Vladimir Putin have taken advantage of, not the fact that the people could put forward a Stalin or Hitler, but the fact that the people don’t choose the leadership contenders, they choose one from those they are given the option of voting for. And who chooses the people who run for leader, not the people but a party, and a party is not elected it is created.
And who is able to create a party, only somebody with money. Some will argue that this should not be the case but even if there was no such thing as money in money’s place would be a collateral of some other sort. Meaning for any person to have a chance of running as a leadership contender that person would either have to have money or would have to have the backing of people with money. That means democracies are controlled not by the majority but by the minority who have the most power.
That means that democracies especially ones with substantial wealth gaps run the risk of not being about the majority but being about the minority, specifically the minority who has the most power. It should be noted that this is still greatly superior to autocratic systems and dictatorships because in a true democracy those who pick the leaders do have to at least pick people that people will tolerate, and those people who win the elections do have to at least try to appease the people and keep them happy. But it is this reality that leads us to the next problem.
A leader has to keep voters happy
No person who wins an election in a democratic society in which there is a large number of people will ever be able to serve society as a whole namely because to retain power and hold onto power the winner has to keep the majority that voted it in happy. Now in principle this is not a bad thing, it is just the price of democracy and when democracy works well people will be accepting of this price. And it is indisputable that yet again it is better than an autocratic system or dictatorship where the leadership doesn’t have to keep anyone happy, and has free reign to just do whatever the hell it wants.
But again just because it is vastly superior, does it mean that there are not big problems. For example when a society is heavily divided it means not only do leadership contenders to win an election most often in effect need to sell-out a large number of the population in an effort to gain a majority, it means whoever wins to retain the support of their winning majority will need to continue the same practice.
This was perhaps never seen more than during Donald Trump’s run as president, in an effort to first win and then to keep hold of power he basically focused completely and entirely upon his supporters and in his election against Joe Biden did not even make a single effort to reach out to supporters from the other side. And that’s because the other side would never vote for him namely because in effect the vision he was selling was in direct opposition to what they wanted.
This created a problem because to keep his supporters happy he had to take actions which made large numbers of those who were not his supporters very unhappy. This sort of behaviour of course creates immense division within societies because it means the majority have sacrificed everyone else to get what they want. The problem with this is everyone else is not likely to be very happy about that, which is of course what happened in America the results of course being an immensely divided and unhappy society.
And what further complicates things, is the more people feel that they have suffered injustice, the less tolerant and open people become to those that they believe have inflicted that injustice upon them. Which in this case is the people who voted for the opposition party.
Of course whether Donald Trump was the one to divide America or whether he simply took advantage of the divisions that already existed is an entirely different question, and one that is not important to us in regards to this debate, what is important is that both elements unquestionably would have played a part. That is to say Trump could not have divided a nation that was not already divided. And it is this which brings us to the next problem, the more divided people become the more partisan they become.
The partisan effect
Many studies have shown it to be beyond doubt, that the easiest way to gain popularity is to share a partisan viewpoint. However, democracy is reliant upon leaders trying to reach out to as many people as possible which is why as said in large societies centre ground politicians do so well.
But due to the fact that partisan views can lead to a person gaining instant popularity amongst a group of people, people who want to be popular increasingly showcase ever increasingly partisan viewpoints. What this creates is more and more subgroups of people with increasingly partisan viewpoints which eventually add up to large groups of people with increasingly partisan viewpoints.
What this means is should a person be able to find a partisan view that reaches out to a large enough number of people to win a majority, which for example Donald Trump managed to do, then in effect democracy will work only for that majority, and more often than not will work at the expense of the opposition.
This in turn can create a cycle of partisan views, meaning it becomes increasingly difficult to find the centre. And as many commentators throughout history argue that people become increasingly partisan when they feel that they never have a leadership that has their back, and because partisan leaders lead to an increase of such feelings it can be very difficult to break the cycle.
This is why banning Trump from social media has caused such worry. Many people believed Trump spoke for them and had their back, yet by silencing him it is more likely that those people will now go on to become more partisan rather than less in the future. And vice versa should a figure like him when election in the future and do the same to the opposition. What this does is help to create a worrying cycle of partisanship that becomes increasingly difficult to break, that is to say because people have become so partisan and so intolerant of the other side, the only way for a leader to win an election is to be partisan.
Meaning one of the best tactics to try to calm things down is to silence partisan voices, or rather is for the winners to silence the losers. But this creates problems in itself, at the same time though it is not a new thing, which brings me to the next point.
The losers frequently lose their voice
The people who lose elections at one time spoke for and had the backing of large numbers of people, just not large enough to form a majority. Yet despite this frequently after an election these people find themselves in one way or another silenced.
For example, in the US the silencing of Donald Trump is big news, but he is not the only man to lose an election and be silenced in one way or another. In the UK Jeremy Corbyn had a massive following, especially amongst the young but on losing the election held in 2019 to a landslide, he not only then went on to lose the leadership of the Labour Party but as it stands right now he has been in effect kicked out of the party.
He is not the only one, many of his backers have in effect been side-lined, and that’s because democracy is not a fan of the people who lose, which in one way is understandable, people want to back the winners and if a person has lost then clearly they do not have the ability to reach the majority, and only by reaching a majority can a person win an election.
But on the flipside a lot of the people who lose are highly popular amongst their supporters, and by those leaders being cast aside large numbers of people at times end up feeling extremely disgruntled, especially should it be a frequent occurrence which it frequently is. That is to say that people frequently find themselves backing the people who lose the elections.
The problem with this is it means large numbers of people who have perhaps found a person that they truly believe speaks for them, frequently see that person not only lose an election but be silenced in one way or another whether that be through lack of press attention, through lack of party backing, through social media bans or whatever.
And to make matters worse those people more often than not find themselves being silenced along with their leaders. For example look at the numbers of right wing commentators who have now been in effect purged from the Internet, along with the number of people who through sharing a right wing viewpoint have ended up being in effect “cancelled.” And people being silenced does not seem very democratic, but then is it actually undemocratic? This question brings me to the next point.
Is silencing people undemocratic?
Strictly speaking, no. It is not. Democracy like anything is very much survival of the fittest, and the winners must be given a chance to lead while the losers must step aside and give others a chance to do what they have not managed to do and win.
After all no one wants to see a leadership contest where every few years it is the same two people fighting over who should be leader, and yet if the people who lose elections continue to have a very loud voice that is exactly what can happen, namely because by leaving the predecessors with such loud voices it would give them the power to undermine any future contenders should those future contenders do something that they disagree with.
Also, to say it again, in a democracy whether we like it or not the majority rule, and should a person lose an election than the majority will have spoken, meaning that majority also has the right to silence the loser should they want to, along with anyone else they want to silence. It would not be very sporting to do so and it would not be very good in regards to giving everyone a voice, but technically speaking it would not be undemocratic. Technically speaking the only way to do something undemocratic would be to go against the will of the majority.
And in this is democracy’s biggest flaw, and this flaw becomes bigger and more easily exposed the larger the population of the nation in question is. Or rather the greater the size of the nation, the greater the variety of different beliefs and agendas there will be, and the greater the variety of different beliefs and agendas there is the more difficult it is to find a middle ground which keeps everyone happy.
Yet for democracy to work the middle ground has to be found, meaning for democracy to work often what happens is any voice that threatens the middle ground ends up being silenced. And the bigger the society is the more people that end up being silenced.
So in conclusion, the reason Western societies have become so divided is because so many people now live in them that it is impossible to find a middle ground without silencing large numbers of people, and because there are so many people and because so many people have different viewpoints which are in such contrast to each other it makes it virtually impossible to ever gain a true majority of people who believe they have a leadership that works for them.
All in all these two points combine to create societies which end up forming extremely partisan viewpoints, namely because people end up feeling that they suffer great injustice as a result of people on the other side of the spectrum, which means that they become very intolerant of those on the other side of the spectrum, a reality which creates a cycle of increasingly partisan viewpoints which becomes very difficult to break. This is of course what has been happening in the big Western democracies. But is there anything that we can do about this?
So what is the solution?
This is a tough one, but I can’t help but feel that as populations continue to grow, should we want to not have to silence the Donald Trump’s of this world, and face down all the worrying connotations that such actions bring about, and should we want to have an Internet that is truly open and free, we somehow need to reform the democratic system in a way that allows more people to gain control over their own worlds. The reason being if we do not the only way to make our democracies function due to their increasing size will be to increasingly silence opposing voices, which in reality defeats the very purpose of democracy. Which is to give everyone a voice.
In terms of how to reform our societies to remove the need for such practices, the simplest action would be to make our societies smaller, it is an inescapable reality that the more people there are who hold different viewpoints and who have different agendas the harder it is to find a middle ground which keeps everyone happy. And with the openness of the Internet as more and more people share their different viewpoints it is likely that the numbers with different viewpoints will only continue to rise, meaning it is only going to get harder to find that middle ground.
But in a world where on the global front numbers matter nations splitting up into smaller groups of nations becomes an increasingly troublesome proposition, because the bigger the society the more clout that society will have on the global front. And in the modern world for a nation to thrive it really needs to have clout on the global front.
So perhaps what Western societies need to do is somehow find a way to shrink our societies without actually shrinking them. What that means is perhaps the central governments need to be given less power and the regional governments need to be given more power. Doing that would give more people a voice and give more people greater control over the worlds in which they live, while at the same time it would not lead to nations breaking up into smaller nations which on a global front would be a bad thing.
Whatever the solution it is clear that until a solution is found the leading democracies around the world are likely to continue to suffer from large divides, and as a result more and more people are going to find themselves being silenced in an effort to stop that divide. And silencing people is never a good thing namely because most often it does not end well for anyone.
That’s all from me for today, stay safe!