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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Crisis of Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

A few months ago, news surfaced that the recent US election, where the controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, was influenced by a Russian hacking and propaganda campaign. This shocked the world: could a nation really have corrupted an election in the US, the birthplace of modern democracy and historically a nation more famous for influencing elections abroad than being tampered with at home?

I thought about the situation and, realizing that the Russian government likely acted to lower US influence or harm the country, I initially wondered why Americans could not do the reverse: influence Russian elections to depose Putin and elect a positive, friendly new government. It would certainly make world security a lesser challenge. But would that even be possible? By forcibly promoting democracy, wouldn’t the US be undermining its own democratic values? I began to realize, with this vote and other controversial polls like the Brexit referendum, the Catalan referendum, and the French/German elections, that maybe democracy is not the best system, especially in our era. It has several fatal flaws which, even more so today, make it both a fundamentally insecure and practically inefficient form of government. Although I do not propose an alternative to democracy, I want to point to several flaws in the democratic system which, when compared to recent changes in our society, make it at least worthwhile to question the system and its worth.

Perhaps the most underlying issue with the democracy is representation. The Merriam Webster’s dictionary lists democracy as meaning, “a: government by the people; especially rule of the majority or b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Two central tenets here are the principle of a system of representation and of majority rule. But are these concepts valid? Are majority rule and universal valid concepts in today’s world of demographic changes, migration, and increasingly extremist ideologies? Catalonia recently voted to secede from Spain in an allegedly illegal referendum which has severely destabilized the region. While the vote had an overall majority of pro-independence supporters, only forty-three percent of the population voted, partly as a result of Spanish attempts to prevent the poll. This throws into question whether the vote was “democratic” because of the conflicting statistics: should the result be accepted because the people who actually voted clearly indicated their will, or should it be denied because not enough people actually voted, perhaps boycotting the process to indicate disagreement?

More importantly, there was a conflict before the vote on who would be eligible to take part. The referendum only allowed those considered “Catalan” to vote. It seems right, as it was the fate of Catalonia that was being determined, but Catalan independence would certainly influence the rest of Spain, even the European Union, in a meaningful way. But would including those be valid when they have no Catalan identity? Even within Catalans, there is a divide between those who were born in the country and speak Catalan and those who arrived there for work or other reasons. These latter people, when polled, tend to oppose independence, while the former support it–leading to native Catalans wishing not to include them in the referendum.

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Another thing to consider is that the referendum was illegal according to the Spanish constitution, which states that Spain is indivisible. Even if the vote represents the Catalans, it could be considered undemocratic by violating the rule of law in Spain, which would attack one of the pillars of democracy in the country.

In the UK, one of the main concerns relating to the Brexit referendum was also who should be allowed to vote, or at least how weighted their votes should be. While the majority of people voted to leave the EU, more than eighty percent of those 18 to 24 wanted to remain, while sixty percent of pensioners voted to leave, according to Time Magazine. Because the UK has an aging population, this meant that the old overruled the young. Some, like Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, though, have argued that this is wrong, as the old will likely not live to experience the vote’s results for as long as the young. Indeed, the Huffington Post reports that as many as 120,000 leave voters may now be dead, and it is reasonable to assume that, if the vote were carried out with the same people, voting the same way, in just a few years, the result would change simply because of dead “leave” voters. In the reverse scenario, where minorities are weighted more to avoid the so-called “tyranny of the majority,” there is the US’s electoral college which won Trump the election despite a majority of voters supporting Clinton and an even greater majority opposing him.This throws into question not only the principle of representation but of majority rule itself. Is it right to accept a vote where most people voted for one option, but those who will be most affected by that vote voted for the other? Is it wrong to have a president elected against the majority opinion because of a system that supports minorities?  

Democratically, this creates a conflict of where to draw the line, what population to exclude from referendums or elections, or how to weigh different opinions. In today’s world, where everything is interconnected, where there are huge migrant communities, and where there is an aging population, democracy needs to be selective, and it is important to consider the implications.

A second problem associated with the democratic system, though more tenuous, is the idea that democracy does not lead to decisions being held for the benefit of the voters themselves. Many have seen the results of the US election, of Brexit, of the Catalan vote, of Colombia’s referendum on peace with the FARC, and have argued that because these referendums yielded “wrong” results, democracy is flawed and leads to bad decisions. This argument is difficult to substantiate as it is not easy to determine what a “right” decision is for a country–which is precisely why some states are resorting to referendums for decisions. Also, arguing that democracy doesn’t work because most people voted the other way is a form of sore-losership, in that it constitutes blaming the game as unfair because on has lost. I am not using these arguments, but rather three compelling reasons why democracy is not always healthy in this way.

The first is that voters tend to vote for their personal interests, which do not always match those of the country. In the US election, for example, the percentage of Trump voters increased by income level, partly as a result of Trump’s proposals to cut taxes–which would help the rich by giving them more money but leave the poor with less access to services. Rich people tend to vote against taxation because it is in their personal interest not to be taxed and because they can afford the consequences of less taxation (think a worse education system, which does not affect private school children), but repeated studies show that the poor depend heavily on those social systems that are funded by taxes and that most governments would be unable to function without tax revenue. Whether the principle of taxation is right or wrong for the country, the statistics show that there is division by personal interest, and because there are conflicting views on whether taxation is right, one of the two groups–the rich or the poor–must be going against the national interest. If an entire demographic is voting against the national interest because of their personal interest, then democracy is flawed by the effect of egoism: the placing of one’s good over everyones. It follows that if the majority of people vote for one interest over another and that that interest is wrong, then democracy brings the country the worse choice.

The second way is that voters can and often are influenced by feelings over reason, leading to “wrong” vote results. I did my extended essay on the role of a very emotional event–an assassination attempt on Bob Marley–on a Jamaican election, and I know, by consulting political science works and descriptions of that election, that emotion can have a tremendous effect on voter behavior. Anger or fear are especially powerful emotions that can lead to voters losing their reasoning. This is especially distressing considering recent events, such as the rise of far-right parties in Europe and of the alt-right in the United States, which is a group mainly formed out of the fear and hatred of its members for foreigners, minorities, etc. Also distressing are reports which show that the appearance of candidates for elections is far more important to results than the candidates’ policies themselves. Before recently, this would not have mattered as much, because candidates were simply not as present in the lives of voters. However, in today’s media-dominated era, where everyone can see every candidate, and where messages circulate with ease, appearance and emotion are far more present in voters. As such, voters increasingly vote due to emotion or the image of leaders over their policies, meaning that votes are becoming increasingly irrational and thus that democracy is becoming dangerous–potentially putting completely irrational and incompetent people in power or leading to horrendously stupid decisions (my personal opinions of Trump and Brexit).

The third is that voters without any experience or knowledge of what is good for a nation are increasingly able to assert their opinions. While not always true, it is reasonable to argue that voters who have no knowledge of politics, international relations, economics, or other topics which are important to consider in elections, are less likely to vote for choices which would be best in those areas, and vice-versa. People with a deep knowledge of politics and other topics are far more likely to be better placed in this context and are also less likely to be swayed by emotion/appearance or, arguably, to vote for their own interests. It follows that if more ignorant people vote, the elections/referendums will lead to unfavorable outcomes. One could interpret the last US election, in which 58% of postgraduates and 49% of college graduates voted for Clinton as evidence of this premise, though other factors may have influenced the vote and the majorities, especially with college graduates, are not very significant.

Historically, ignorant voters were kept out of politics by literacy tests, disenfranchisement, lack of interest, and other reasons, but the lack of those tests and the increased empowerment and involvement of people created by media has changed this, leading to an electorate far less qualified to vote than before. Of course, there are positives to the empowerment of the disfranchised, and the alternatives to full votes–only allowing college graduates, or political science graduates to vote, for example, would be undemocratic in itself by being unrepresentative, but better for the country. Also important to consider is the fact that literacy tests and such have historically been used as tools of oppression, as with blacks in the United States, and that due to educational disparities between social groups, votes based on education would make some minorities like blacks even less represented, while over-representing Asians or jews, for example.

But is that bad? Does it even matter that some are underrepresented if only qualified people vote? In a situation where a candidate or a decision is clearly better, it does not matter that most Latinos or any other minority support one candidate/decision if these same Latinos are those without qualifications as voters. Yes, it is difficult to determine what is right or wrong for a country, and there is a significant moral dilemma to not allowing select populations to vote because of their ignorance, but the principle of personal interest, emotion, or lack of qualifications affecting democratic elections is there, and becomes even more worrying when considering the role of manipulation in democracies in today’s age.

A final problem with the democratic system in our century is its vulnerability to manipulation. With voters increasingly affected by media and with opinions easily transmissible through technology, powerful actors can use these platforms to sway voter opinion and change the outcomes of whole elections. The most blatant example of this is Russian involvement in the US’s last vote, where a campaign based on fake news, facebook groups, politicised ads, etc created opposition to Hillary and helped swing key states for Trump. There are other examples, though, like alleged Russian actions in Europe or even US rigging of elections in Italy after world war two to prevent a communist takeover. Democracies are very vulnerable to these attacks because they rely on voters, who are those that malignant actors target. Conversely, it is very difficult to manipulate dictatorships or other undemocratic governments, because people do not vote and so only a select cadre of individuals have to be swayed, individuals which are unlikely to be moved because of their loyalty to their regime. It is true that the same media outlets can be influenced in authoritarian states, but because dictatorial or monarchical governments hold onto power regardless of the wishes of their people, influence has to be so strong that it causes actual revolt and risks people’s lives, while in democracies it only needs to prompt people to vote. Thus democracies are far more vulnerable to foreign influence than other systems, which is a significant flaw.

In conclusion, democracy seems to be in crisis. Not only are globalization and changing demographics creating a representation issue which threatens the concept of voting, but media proliferation and social empowerment of the uneducated has led to democracy becoming increasingly vulnerable to electing unfavorable candidates. The media has also meant that democracy is easier to attack and manipulate, and thus that democratic countries are less politically strong that other systems. The situation is rather serious as the very meaning and validity of the democratic system is being tested. I am not proposing an alternative system, and the above discussion only seeks to point out the need for a rethinking of democracy in our era. I understand the values of democratic systems, and that despite its shortcomings, it is the only fair and accountable form of government that has been devised. Churchill once said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

If the world has changed, this statement, at least, holds true.

By Maxime Rotsaert

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