The many faces of democracy

1) Western governments claim to be fighting for democracy all over the world. The truth is that we have supported dictatorships to some extent all over the planet, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Algeria: wherever we foresee that the alternative government is likely to be opposed to our interests.

2) "Democracy" is often presented as a term with a specific meaning. This is problematic. Some democracies are less democratic than others. The questions of who have the right to vote and how many voters actually turn out are important. Was it a fair result when only forty per cent of Spanish voters voted on the European constitution? Is it fair if the party with most money wins? - particularly if it does not reveal where the money comes from?

3) In an electoral system of single-member constituencies, such as we see in the USA, there is little room for more than two parties: the ruling party and the challenger. Voters who have different political ideas are forced to vote tactically, or, as often happen , they do not vote at all. In a typical election only around half of the electorate go to the polls. Are these symptoms of a strong democracy?

4) The party in power in the USA has the right to redraw constituency boundaries every ten years, a process popularly called gerrymandering. (The term is a pun, deriving from "salamander" and the name of Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812.) The system is gamed in order to maximize the number of seats held by that party. After the Republican Party took power in Texas in 2002, for instance, they redefined the constituencies in order to gain another four seats in the House of Representatives in 2004. Another consequence of this system is that it makes it difficult for challengers to beat incumbents. Ninety per cent of those elected are safe to hold their seats (Courrier International 2005: 51). Are these signs of a healthy democracy?

5) Other examples of weak democracies are found in Russia under Putin and (until recently) in Italy under Berlusconi, where the heads of State also control the mass media.

6) All democracies limit their people's rights to share in power. The most usual way is by setting a threshold to the proportion of the vote a political party must receive in order to be admitted to the national assembly. There are two reasons for this rule. One is that too many parties will only slow down the effectiveness of the governing body. The other is to keep out extremist parties such as neo-Nazis. But between setting a four per cent threshold, as in Sweden, and saying that you must gain a majority, as in the USA, there are a large range of possibilities for specifying what counts as democracy.

7) Democracy in its modern form is a new phenomenon, an invention of the eighteenth century. (The Greek parallel is a weak one: few voted, and the economy was largely based on slavery.) Democracy spread only to a few countries in the nineteenth century, almost disappeared in the twentieth century, but reappeared after the Cold War. Since 1980 we have been experiencing a return to the ideals of democracy, economic liberalism, individual freedom, and human rights (cf. Revel 1992). These have now become the official values of the Western world. But will they lead to a better life for all?

8) Modern democracy has become the rule of the masses. Everything is politics and politics is economics. Most of us vote with our wallets, not with our hearts. Our convictions are synonymous with our financial interests. Those who have money vote conservative/blue to protect what they have, those who have not vote radical/red to get what the haves have. This seems to be the logic of our modern political system.

9) Very few people believe in ideals other than their own interests. Politicians themselves are no exceptions, even if we would like to imagine otherwise. Scandals and corruption have become part of everyday political life in the West. Whether you are a politician or a pop star, the mass media will treat you according to the same logic: if you allow the people to make you famous, you must also allow them to badger you.

10) Freedom has become the right to tyrannize over others.

11) Democracy is a process, not an ideal that you can impose on any country regardless of its historical background or position. You start by creating wealth, urbanization, and hospitals. Then you move towards democracy. Today this promises to be the way China is moving.

12) Democracy as a political system cannot control the direction of our technological development. Not even the discipline of philosophy is able to convince mankind to take control of his destiny. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger says that philosophy has reached a terminus. Everything is now a question of Kybernetik, which can be translated as management. Society really only has two modes of discourse now, business and literature/art, where the latter has come to be the domain of the rebel, offering a haven for the refugee, the excluded. Thus the artist today is often the man or woman who does not accept the logic of the free market; and whatever such a person chooses to do is art.

13. The overseas-aid game makes corrupt leaders rich, but their countries poor (Perkins 2004: 105).

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