Democracy: What is the Big Deal?

Democracy: What is the Big Deal?

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot is the author of the bestselling books The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. His latest book is Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the ­Frontiers of Rewilding (being published in paperback as Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life)

What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairy tale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?

There are plenty of reasons to raise these questions. The lies, exaggerations and fearmongering on both sides of the Brexit non-debate; the xenophobic fables that informed the Hungarian referendum; Donald Trump’s ability to shake off almost any scandal and exposure; the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who gleefully compares himself to Hitler: are these isolated instances or do they reveal a systemic problem?

Image result for  Democracy in America-Clinton Vs Trump

Democracy for Realists, published earlier this year by the social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, argues that the “folk theory of democracy” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work.

Image result for Democracy in America--A Failure

Voters, they contend, can’t possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. When we do have time off, not many of us choose to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.

2.8 million voters punished Al Gore for the floods and droughts of 2000 – ironic, given his position on climate change

Our folk theory of democracy is grounded in an Enlightenment notion of rational choice. This proposes that we make political decisions by seeking information, weighing the evidence and using it to choose good policies, then attempting to elect a government that will champion those policies. In doing so, we compete with other rational voters, and seek to reach the unpersuaded through reasoned debate.

In reality, the research summarised by Achen and Bartels suggests, most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement. We base our political decisions on who we are rather than what we think. In other words, we act politically – not as individual, rational beings but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.

Of course, shifts do happen, sometimes as a result of extreme circumstances, sometimes because another party positions itself as a better guardian of a particular cultural identity. But they seldom involve a rational assessment of policy.

Image result for Democracy in America--A Failure

Malaysia’s Corrupt Democrat

The idea that parties are guided by policy decisions made by voters also seems to be a myth; in reality, the parties make the policies and we fall into line. To minimise cognitive dissonance – the gulf between what we perceive and what we believe – we either adjust our views to those of our favoured party or avoid discovering what the party really stands for. This is how people end up voting against their interests.

We are suckers for language. When surveys asked Americans whether the federal government was spending too little on “assistance to the poor”, 65% agreed. But only 25% agreed that it was spending too little on “welfare”. In the approach to the 1991 Gulf war, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were willing to “use military force”; less than 30% were willing to “go to war”.

Even the less ambitious notion of democracy – that it’s a means by which people punish or reward governments – turns out to be divorced from reality. We remember only the past few months of a government’s performance (a bias known as “duration neglect”) and are hopeless at correctly attributing blame. A great white shark that killed five people in July 1916 caused a 10% swing against Woodrow Wilson in the beach communities of New Jersey. In 2000, according to analysis by the authors 2.8 million voters punished the Democrats for the floods and droughts that struck that year. Al Gore, they say, lost Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Missouri as a result – which is ironic given his position on climate change.

The obvious answer is better information and civic education. But this doesn’t work either. Moderately informed Republicans were more inclined than Republicans with the least information to believe that Bill Clinton oversaw an increase in the budget deficit (it declined massively). Why? Because, unlike the worst informed, they knew he was a Democrat. The tiny number of people with a very high level of political information tend to use it not to challenge their own opinions but to rationalise them. Political knowledge, Achen and Bartels argue, “enhances bias”.

Direct democracy – referendums and citizens’ initiatives – seems to produce even worse results. In the US initiatives are repeatedly used by multimillion-dollar lobby groups to achieve results that state legislatures won’t grant them. They tend to replace taxes with user fees, stymie the redistribution of wealth and degrade public services. Whether representative or direct, democracy comes to be owned by the elites.

This is not to suggest that it has no virtues; just that those it does have are not those we principally ascribe to it. It allows governments to be changed without bloodshed, limits terms in office, and ensures that the results of elections are widely accepted. Sometimes public attribution of blame will coincide with reality, which is why you don’t get famines in democracies.

In these respects it beats dictatorship. But is this all it has to offer? A weakness of Democracy for Realists is that most of its examples are drawn from the US, and most of those are old. Had the authors examined popular education groups in Latin America, participatory budgets in Brazil and New York, the fragmentation of traditional parties in Europe and the movement that culminated in Bernie Sanders’ near miss, they might have discerned more room for hope. This is not to suggest that the folk theory of democracy comes close to reality anywhere, but that the situation is not as hopeless as they propose.

Persistent, determined, well-organised groups can bring neglected issues to the fore and change political outcomes. But in doing so they cannot rely on what democracy ought to be. We must see it for what it is. And that means understanding what we are.

22 thoughts on “Democracy: What is the Big Deal?

  1. The theoretical foundation of the one-man-one-vote “Democracy” assumes that the “collective wisdom” of the electorates, or the majority of them, will translate into an election of a government which best captures their collective aspirations.

    Everything breaks down of course because there are no such things as “collective wisdom” or “collective aspirations”

  2. * I am Malaysian.
    They insisted that i am a Cinapek.
    * I agreed to the term ‘Pendatang’, if they agreed to use that term too.
    No, they said they were Sons-of-the-Soil. Are they Dead and Buried?
    * I believed in God.
    They said i could not utter the Name of ‘their’ God. Exclusive, not Generic. Since when?
    * I paid my taxes.
    They misused my taxes. They are corrupt and master corrupters.
    * I am not a political animal.
    They eat, breathe and shit politics.
    * I yearned for liberty, justice and fair-play.
    They say that it is impossible for they are Chiefs..
    * I begged them to take off their crutches and walk.
    They said they need ‘helpful’ crutches and hand-outs in perpetuity.
    * I hope they will awaken, open their eyes and smell the coffee.
    They continue using their Religion as a Drug – as sedative-hypnotic, hallucinogen and stimulant combined. They prefer Glue.

    What am i to do?

    I cast about for a cohort that i could relate to. The Opposition.
    They are so self-absorbed and didn’t give an eff what their priorities were.
    They didn’t know what their orifices can do or are doing. They played ketchup Politics.

    My vote is worth one tenth the vote of a rural imbecile, who probably migrated from Bangladesh a year ago and married a 90 year old widow.

    This is Democracy? Yeah, for Bollocksians.

  3. TINA — There Is No Alternative, the other options (theocracy, Marxist-Leninist one party dictatorship, military rule, Nazi-style one party dictatorship, hereditary kingship, etc) are worse.

  4. What is written by George Monbiot is obviously the result of another over-educated progressive. He always has an ideal political system in his mind, and he makes all the fake-analysis of the ill of current system (democracy or not) against his ideal political system. But he will not able to tell you what is his ideal political system really is. He just wastes my 5 minutes to read his useless analysis.
    Like you,Shiou, I disagree with George’s point of view on democracy.

    I prefer a flawed democratic system to the present kleptocracy in Malaysia. Churchill recognised its flaws but regarded it the best system ever invented by man. A kleptocratic system cannot be reformed; it has to be eliminated. By golly, it cannot be done unless we choose to remove it by force; even that is not a piece of meat. Just look at Syria today.

    George has shared his view with his readers and I do not believe that he wants us to agree with him.

    I try hard to be open and tolerant of diversity of views, but I have not always abided by my own rule. That was why I apologised to Dr. Samuel Tan when he aired his opinion on Zahid Hamidi’s performance at the recent UNGA. –Din Merican

  5. “What am I to do?” CLF
    I packed my bags, applied for PR in a country that appreciates me and welcomes me and treat me as an equal before the law.
    They call it migrate, I call it Hijrah, I.e. Come back when successful and take over.

  6. Semper fi,

    For many millions of all ethnic hue, Malaysia is all they’ve got and have to live with whatever “democracy” there is or is not.

  7. Hey FIFA, rules of football-what is the big deal. Let us allow players to use their hands. Then you will see how effectively they play with the rules instead of by the rules.

  8. // Dean.Din: Churchill recognised its flaws but regarded it the best system ever invented by man.

    What a good reminder, considering Churchill was a wartime Prime Minister facing the biggest challenge of the previous century against a dictator that ran the nation like a super-charged up efficient machinery.
    Democracy is what Churchill chose.

    Today, our layu-layu Melayu 1PM wants to have all the power of a dictator in the name of fighting a chaotic messily run ISIS. Layu-layu Melayu.

    That says a lot, isn’t it? I am no Churchill, I would still opt for democracy.

  9. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” That is because Winston Churchill did not know of authoritarian capitalism, one of the most profound developments in the post-Cold War era as a political-economic model, especially for developing countries. Authoritarian capitalism has become a credible challenge to liberal democracy.

  10. By “authoritarian capitalism” I believe LaMoy is referring to
    Singapore and post-Mao China.

    Perhaps so. But Singapore works because it is small and policy corrections
    and their effects can be made quickly and seen clearly. Also, it has a ruling elite which is meritocratic and corruption-free.

    Post-Mao China? It appears to be going into economic crisis at the moment. Peasant land continues to be stolen by corrupt Communist Party officials. There is a lot of corruption and the money from corruption is being moved and hidden overseas (like 1Malaysia). Wealth is very unequally distributed.

    Authoritarian capitalism consists of two parts i.e. the political (authoritarianism) and the economic (capitalism). It is not necessary to have authoritarianism for the other part to work well e.g. the Scandinavian version of capitalism, under the rule of political parties with the ideology of
    Social Democracy. Also called “capitalism with redistribution”.

    South Korea and Taiwan were once authoritarian but now are democratic, with political parties competing for power via electoral politics.

  11. Liberal democracy today faces an internal challenge. It faces a bigger threat from outside that few commentators are talking about. The global spread of democracy unmistakably has stalled.

    Political homogeneity may be as inharmonious with economic advance as the parallel pursuit of market capitalism and political autocracy. But where authoritarianism is deeply entrenched, the fusion of autocratic politics and state-guided capitalism has progressed well in some prominent cases. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are now rank among Asia’s fastest-growing economies. Yet their one-party systems have maintained tight control on political expression. So are the majority of the countries in the continent of Africa. Authoritarian capitalism has demonstrated that it is a more rapid and smoother path to prosperity and stability than the tumult and uncertainty of electoral politics and the constant tussle between the executive branch and the legislature in democracies. This model provides encouragement to developing countries in pursuing economic growth and regime stability.

    At a time when democratic and free-market principles have come under pressure, the rise of authoritarian capitalism underscores the imperative for an international debate on a fundamental issue — why global spread of democracy has stalled? Is the rise of authoritarian capitalism one factor?

    But what do I know? Dr. Phua, I confess I am one who is more interested in the pH of a glass of water than the GDP of a nation. Let me go back to making medicine.

  12. Well Mr/Ms LaMoy

    Authoritarianism is like hereditary kingship i.e. if the ruling elite or the
    all powerful monarch is enlightened and rule with the welfare of the people in mind, then the society can function well and progress. But what if they are replaced by Nazi type elites, or by a cruel despot? Without democracy, there is no way to oust the ruling elites or the despot, or to change their policies.

    It’s better to stick with democracy than with authoritarianism. The risks are too great with the latter.

    Of course, in the real world, nothing is perfect. For example, unprincipled politicians mobilising poorly-educated populations on the basis of some highly divisive issue or highly emotional issue. In highly ethnically polarised societies such as Fiji, Guyana, Rwanda, Burundi, 1Malaysia, this is a drawback. So, for democracy to work well, a well-educated & critical population which views elected leaders as civil servants and not lords and masters is also necessary. In 1Malaysia, many of our Malay fellow citizens need to drop their feudal mindset and demand that the elected leaders of the ruling regime serve the people, and not lord over them & spend public funds in accountable ways.

  13. Dr. Phua:

    This bring me to China. In America, maybe due to exceptionalism or the lack of empathy, we fail to appreciate the anxiety behind China’s resistance of democracy. Our perception is often that China doesn’t want to be like us. But, in speaking to Chinese of many backgrounds, some very high officials, it grows plain to me that their real fear is not becoming the United States or Britain, but rather a Nigeria or India or Iraq — ostensibly free societies whose chaos and violence can limit the practical usefulness of that freedom.

    Westerners tend to overlook their own societies were substantially less free when they were doing what China is today: building new cities, moving millions from agriculture to industry, eliminating deep poverty. Much of America’s own nation-building was done with little regard for rights and without having to secure a majority’s consent. After all, nearly 150 years passed between the writing of “all men are created equal” and the extension of the vote to women, and 40 further years before African-Americans gained suffrage.

    I visit China at least a couple times a year because I have pharmaceutical research labs there. I can testify that China is, gradually, becoming a freer society. Today, China is freeing up in a hundred ways that don’t involve voting. It is pursuing, above all, freedom from want for its people and the freedom to make one’s destiny in professional and personal life, just the same like in the United States. Those liberties are slowly leading to more political ones. With the implicit approval of authorities, the country is developing a vigorous, irreverent, often critical discourse on the internet. In those forums, a new culture of questioning official truths, demanding accountability and airing abuses is forming. The abuses in China remain grave and numerous, and yet, increasingly, there is a way for the people of talking back.

    BTW I am a he. I gave up on Malaysia and left in 1969, four months after I witnessed the Malay soldiers killed two of my best childhood friends. Now nearing 70 I am becoming more and more nostalgic of the childhood days growing up in a Malay kampong.

  14. Wasn’t Malaysia practising authoritarian capitalism? Or just authoritarian under Mahathir and Najib. Or maybe it was/is just authoritarian corruption.

  15. The:
    Malaysia is all what you described but a democracy. To be a democracy, one of the criteria is to have a change of government through fair election. Malaysia is authoritarian, a UMNO-dictatorship.

  16. @LaMoy, on China, I just have a hunch that China got too involved in supply-side planning (the more so under Premier Xi’s leadership). This year’s economic nobel prize in economics on ‘Contract Theory’ should explain the pros-and-cons and illustrate contrast between America and China model, putting aside the cost of needing to hedge out political risk of getting an exceptionally bad ruler. My personal bias is that supply-side planning is more manageable when the nation is smaller (i.e. Singapore), but becomes tremendously difficult on a grand scale such as China. Contract theory provides a lot of insight as to why.

  17. Wayne,
    // Everything breaks down of course because there are no such things as “collective wisdom” or “collective aspirations”

    Actually, on the contrary, democracy works best on the basis that there is no ‘collective aspiration’ nor ‘collective wisdom’. Else, it would be the least efficient mechanism (aka a burden/cost) to get a collective whole moving together in an optimal balance. Imagine your brain has to allocate a process for your left and right foot to coordinate their movements.

    Currently, due to systemic violation to the ideal of democracy (i.e. malapportionment and soon gerrymandering), we get what we get of first the possibility and the need of why/how MO1 needs to or could do what he/she does, and then why we do what do, i.e. nothing, to correct the issue. It is all because most of us are not rewarded for acting out. Layu-layu Melayu.

  18. katasayang:

    There is nothing wrong with this macroeconomic theory for economic growth known as supply-side economics.

    Since the beginning of this year, the international environment has become more complicated, and the world economic recovery has been weak. China’s economic structural problems have become worse and the hidden risks have accumulated.

    But China’s economy remains in the expected growth range. In the first half of the year, GDP grew 6.7% and the supply side stabilized slightly while the demand side clearly got weak. Meanwhile, the rise of prices was moderate, the enterprise revenues bounced back somewhat, the financial market stayed stable in general and new jobs kept growing in cities.

    I believe the expected goal of economic growth (6.5% – 6.7%) for the whole year can be achieved. But China’s economy will still be under a great pressure due to these factors: the complicated and uncertain international environment, the dramatic fall of private investment, the slow reduction of overcapacity, the rising financial risk, the slow growth of residential income and so on. But backed by the proactive macro regulation policy and with the continuous release of dividends from the supply-side structural reform, China’s economy is expected to run smoothly.

  19. LaMoy, you are right. I do want you to be right also. I did genuinely has to tell myself I have underestimated many possibilities that I thought could not be done. There are indeed many well meaning intelligent technocrats within China’s Central Bank. Tun M and the people he employed did help Malaysia steered through dangerous water, which on hindsight, Anwar had indeed been wrong. I wonder Dean.Din is behind that effort also.

    There is indeed a strong reason for today’s China needed a central planning more than ever today.

    Given what I have learned and seen, I personally would not short China, even though I personally wished there is a different one.

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