Monday 8 February 2021

Will Democracy Survive?

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Cleisthenes, the Father of Democracy, Invented a Form of Government That Has Endured for 2,500 Years

Posted by Keith Tidman

How well is democracy faring? Will democracy emerge from despots’ modern-day assaults unscathed?

Some 2,500 years ago there was a bold experiment: Democracy was born in Athens. The name of this daring form of governance sprang from two Greek words (demos and kratos), meaning ‘rule by the people’. Democracy offered the public a voice. The political reformer Cleisthenes is the acknowledged ‘father of democracy’, setting up one of ancient Greece’s most-lasting contributions to the modern world.


In Athens, the brand was direct democracy, where citizens composed an assembly as the governing body, writing laws on which citizens had the right to vote. The assembly also decided matters of war and foreign policy. A council of representatives, chosen by lot from the ten Athenian tribes, was responsible for everyday governance. And the courts, in which citizens brought cases before jurors selected from the populace by a lottery, was the third branch. Aristotle believed the courts ‘contributed most to the strength of democracy’.


As the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, put it, in this democratic experiment ‘there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law’. Yet, there was a major proviso to this ‘equality’: Only ‘citizens’ were qualified to take part, who were limited to free males — less than half of Athens’s population — excluding women, immigrants, and slaves.


Nor did every Greek philosopher or historian in the ancient world share Herodotus’s enthusiasm for democracy’s ‘splendid virtues’. Some found various ways to express the idea that one unsavory product of democracy was mob rule. Socrates, as Plato recalls in the Republic, referred unsparingly to the ‘foolish leaders of democracy . . . full of disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike’.


Others, like the historian Thucydides, Aristotle, the playwright Aristophanes, the historian and philosopher Xenophon, and the anonymous writer dubbed the Old Oligarch, expanded on this thinking. They critiqued democracy for dragging with it the citizens’ perceived faults, including ignorance, lack of virtue, corruptibility, shortsightedness, tyranny of the collective, selfishness, and deceptive sway by the specious rhetoric of orators. No matter, Athens’s democracy endured 200 years, before ceding ground to aristocratic-styled rule: what Herodotus labeled ‘the one man, the best’.


Many of the deprecations that ancient Greece’s philosophers heaped upon democratic governance and the ‘masses’ are redolent of the problems that democracy, in its representative form, would face again.

Such internal contradictions recently resulted in the United States, the longest-standing democratic republic in the modern world, having its Congress assailed by a mob, in an abortive attempt to stymie the legislators’ certification of the results of the presidential election. However, order was restored that same day (and congressional certification of the democratic will completed). The inauguration of the new president took place without incident, on the date constitutionally laid out. Democracy working.


Yet, around the world, in increasing numbers of countries, people doubt democracy’s ability to advance citizens’ interests. Disillusion and cynicism have settled in. Autocrats and firebrands have gladly filled that vacuum of faith. They scoff at democracy. The rule of law has declined, as reported by the World Justice Project. Its index has documented sharp falloffs in the robustness of proscriptions on government abuse and extravagant power. Freedom House has similarly reported on the tenuousness of government accountability, human rights, and civil liberties. ‘Rulers for life’ dot the global landscape.


That democracy and freedoms have absorbed body blows around the world has been underscored by attacks from populist leaders who rebuff pluralism and highjack power to nurture their own ambitions and those of closely orbiting supporters. A triumphalism achieved at the public’s expense. In parts of Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, South and Central America, and elsewhere. The result has been to weaken free speech and press, free religious expression, free assembly, independence of judiciaries, petition of the government, thwarts to corruption, and other rights, norms, and expectations in more and more countries.

Examples of national leaders turning back democracy in favour of authoritarian rule stretch worldwide. Central Europe's populist overreach, of concern to the European Union, has been displayed in abruptly curtailing freedoms, abolishing democratic checks and balances, self-servingly politicising systems of justice, and brazen leaders acquiring unlimited power indefinitely.

Some Latin American countries, too, have experienced waning democracy, accompanied by turns to populist governments and illiberal policies. Destabilised counterbalances to government authority, acute socioeconomic inequalities, attacks on human rights and civic engagement, emphasis on law and order, leanings toward surveillance states, and power-ravenous leaders have symbolised the backsliding.


Such cases notwithstanding, people do have agency to dissent and intervene in their destiny, which is, after all, the crux of democracy. Citizens are not confined to abetting or turning a blind eye toward strongmen’s grab for control of the levers of power or ultranationalistic penchants. In particular, there might be reforms, inspired by ancient Athens’s novel experiment, to bolster democracy’s appeal, shifting power from the acquisitive hands of elites and restoring citizens’ faith. 


One systemic course correction might be to return to the variant of direct democracy of Aristotle’s Athens, or at least a hybrid of it, where policymaking becomes a far more populous activity. Decisions and policy are molded by what the citizens decide and decree. A counterweight for wholly representative democracy: the latter emboldening politicians, encouraging the conceit of self-styled philosopher-kings whose judgment they mistakenly presume surpasses that of citizens. 


It might behoove democracies to have fewer of these professional politicians, serving as ‘administrators’ clearing roadblocks to the will of the people, while crafting the legal wording of legislation embodying majority public pronouncements on policy. The nomenclature of such a body — assembly, council, congress, parliament, or other — matters little, of course, compared with function: party-less technocrats in direct support of the citizenry.


The greatest foe to democracies’ longevity, purity, and salience is often the heavy-handed overreach of elected executives, not insurrectionist armies from within the city gates. Reforms might therefore bear on severe restriction or even elimination of an executive-level figurehead, who otherwise might find the giddy allure of trying to accrete more power irresistible and unquenchable. Other reforms might include:


• A return to popular votes and referenda to agree on or reject national and local policies; 

• Normalising of constitutional amendments, to ensure congruence with major social change;

• Fewer terms served in office, to avoid ‘professionalising’ political positions; 

• Limits on campaign length, to motivate focused appeals to electors and voter attentiveness.

Still other reforms might be the public funding of campaigns, to constrain expenditures and, especially, avoid bought candidates. Curtailing of special-interest supplicants, who serve deep-pocketed elites. Ethical and financial reviews to safeguard against corruption, with express accountability. Mandatory voting, on specially designated paid holidays, to solicit all voices for inclusivity. Civic service, based on communal convictions and norms-based standards. And reinvention of public institutions, to amplify pertinence, efficacy, and efficiency.


Many more ways to refit democracy’s architecture exist, of course. The starting point, however, is that people must believe democracy works and are prepared to foster it. In the arc of history, democracy is most vulnerable if resignedly allowed to be.


Testaments to democracy should be ideas, not majestic buildings or monuments. Despots will not cheerfully yield ground; the swag is too great. Yet ideas, which flourish in liberal democracy, are greater.


Above all, an alert, restive citizenry is democracy’s best sentinel: determined to triumph rather than capitulate, despite democracy’s turbulence two and a half millennia after ancient Athens’s audacious experiment. 


Unknown said...

Thanks Keith. Well stated and as usual thoughtful commentary

docmartincohen said...

The problem of leaders who come to power through dodgy means, hang on perpetually and so on, are maybe the 'easy' ones to tackle. Plato's concern was with popular opinion: that it is often ill-informed and plain bigoted. So there is a tension here - government may be worse when it does reflect popular opinion, not better. I'd take the current virus 'lockdown' strategies as an example: they seem to actually have broad popular support. yet the policies are extremely harmful to vulnerable minorities, and the "science" behind them is extremely debatable (as indeed Thomas and I have tried to do a bit here too).

Of course, that old saying that democracy is a terrible system, but still better than any of the alternatives still carries a lot of practical weight!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I do not think that democracy can survive in its present form, or anything like its present form. Its results the world over are simply ruinous. One could say it has one thing right, and that is its contact with the people. Yet it doesn't even have that.

I see a second problem, and that is that there is little agreement in democratic societies on core values. There is not even agreement on such basic things as the purpose of a constitution, free speech, or the role of justice. Without that, it is in deep trouble.

Keith said...

Thank you for the comments.

Remarkably, according to both Freedom House and the World Forum on Democracy, there are some 120 electoral democracies in the world. Athens’s now-2,500-year-old experiment has long since taken firm hold among 21st-century nations. Impressive metrics of democracy’s persistent appeal, even as we have opportunities to continue to fine-tune it.

Despite those kinds of impressive numbers, I wouldn’t, however, be presumptuous to borrow the expression ‘the end of history’, based on any supposition that liberal democracy, in its current configuration, is necessarily the best system of government that humankind might ever concoct. I’d leave the door open. Instead, meanwhile, I’d prefer something like ‘the pause in history’ — even if it’s a rather eye-popping two-and-a-half-millennia pause.

Whether it’s the lack of humankind’s imagination or some other explanation, people haven’t yet created a better system of government — however the people might define ‘better’. Not communism, not fascism, not totalitarianism, not monarchy, not theocracy, not autocracy, not plutocracy, not dictatorship, not oligarchy … nothing. Given that some sixty percent of the nations have freely chosen democracy, there has to be something appealing in the sauce. Cleisthenes was onto something.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Interestingly, I lived under a gerontocracy as a boy, and there was joy (the Gilbert Islands). Having said that, if one caused too great an offence, one was cursed and died.

As for the acceptance of democracy, it seems that it depends on how one looks at it. The Democracy Index states that 8.4% of the world's population live under 'full democracy', an exaggerated figure for some.

My biggest reservation about democracy is that it is not equipped to deal with what I see as a new age ushered in by big data and massive computing power, which has speeded up the whole planet.

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