Some Thoughts on Democracy

I am one of those who believe that:

  • Democracy is not the automatic choice of all peoples. I think democracy is an artefact of some societies or cultures, and outcome rather than a cause;
  • Democracy is “fragile,” and it is hard ~ actually impossible ~ to transplant into into a society that does not have the necessary foundations; and
  • There is a lot more to democracy that “majority rules.”

In my view our, Euro-American version of ‘liberal’ democracy is not the only option. I think there are three versions:

  1. Illiberal democracy ~ see Fareed Zakariah’s article in Foreign Affairs for some detail ~ is by far the most common form, more common now, I think, than when Mr Zakariah wrote the article;
  2. Liberal democracies exist and flourish in rather fewer places ~ including e.g. Britain, Northern Europe, Scandinavia ~ where the rights of the individual usually “outrank” the needs of the state; and
  3. Conservative democracies exist only, I think, in Asia. They are few in number and rest on a solid base of Confucian socio-cultural values where the “needs” of society, the family and community, outweigh those of the individual.

My view is that the illiberal democracies, even very well developed ones, inevitably fail. I view the situation as a sort of gravity well. Don’t worry about black holes, you’ve seen a working model of a gravity well at a museum or other attraction … it looks like this:


If you “shoot” a ball (or coin) around the upper lip of the well it will, eventually, always and without fail, fall down and down and down into the centre. But you understand that if your ball had some sort of energy source and gave it a bit more “push” every rotation or so it would stay up, near the top, for a lot, lot longer. I think some liberal democracies (Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark come to mind, for example) and some conservative democracies (South Korea and Singapore, just for example) seem to have a built in “energy source” that the (many) illiberal democracies all seem to lack. the “energy source” is, in my view, found in “institutions.”

I think that democracy, liberal or conservative, must have a firm socio-cultural base to develop and survive. That base must include “institutions” like respect for the rule of law, and the notions that we are peoples of laws and that our laws apply to all, high and low, rich and poor, equally. Other institutions matter, too: democracy works best (only?) when there is an educated and informed population. It is possible to have a well informed population without unbridled “free speech” or weak libel laws.

Majority rules is just one aspect of democracy. Unfettered “majority rules,” is, essentially, just mob rule ~ which is what the ancient Greek agora often was. The majority should rule … but only after the rights and needs of minorities have been considered and adequately protected. For example, in an article in the Ottawa Citizen, journalist Andrew Coyne says, “I might have thought we could agree it meant rule by the majority, but very well: if not that, is there some other principle we might agree on?” But our, multi-party, democracy with a first-past-the-post system regularly elects majority governments with just a plurality of, typically, 40% of the vote. So that means the “majority” doesn’t rule … right? Well, no, it means that the “majority” voted for candidates from two or three or four or (many) more parties … and that’s all it can ever mean. The majority, in 2015, did not vote for anyone but Trudeau, the “majority” voted for a whole bunch of people who were, mostly, less “acceptable” than the people in Prime Minister Trudeau’s party. So: what do we mean by “majority rules?” Must it be absolute majority in every riding? That means something like the French system of “runoff” elections or ranked ballots, or … Further, Andrew Coyne mentions “one person one vote” and notes, disapprovingly and correcrtly, that we, Canadians, live with a very, very unequal voting system. One seat in PEI, for example, was won by a candidate who earned just over 10,000 of 21,000 votes cast (that was Bobby Morrissey in Egmont) while Jason Kenney (in Calgary) needed to earn over 42,000 of over 63,000 votes cast. Should Mr Kenney have four votes in the House of Commons and Mr Morrissey only one? Or should Mr Morrissey be required to “sit out” three of every four votes? As with every state with a written constitution our democracy, to some degree or another, hamstrung by decisions made 150 years that are just too hard to change.

Government with the consent of the governed is another one of those “institutions” that define successful democracies. We, in both liberal and conservative democracies, generally understand that “consent” is derived from periodic free and fair elections wherein a majority ~ a plurality in our case ~ of informed voters gets to decide who governs for a certain, limited period of time. But there is more to elections than just giving consent. Electons, despite Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s quip about election campaigns being just about the worst place to debate public policy, are where we test ideas. It is where political parties offer ideas and adapt them to the electorate’s wishes. We can discuss defence policy, for example, in conferences, journals and even in blogs like this and websites like and it will do no good at all … until politicians become engaged and the voters become concerned.

So, in my opinions, “institutions” create democracy, not vide vera, and weak institutions will create weak democracies.

Strong institutions are built over decades, more often over centuries, not just years. Institutions can be, but often are not, imported ~ the “rule of law,” for example, is just as strong in Singapore as it is in Britain or Canada and the notion of free speech is as strong in India as in America. You can build legislative chambres and organize elections, even free and fair ones, but that is not the same as “planting” democracy … unless the “institutions” were planted and nourished and took firm root, first, then the resulting illiberal democracy will be a weak thing that will fail. Israel has abundant strong, vibrant “institutions,” Iraq has few and the ones it does have are weak and distorted things.  It should not surprise us, then, that Israel succeeds as a strong, liberal democracy while Iraq fails.

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Democracy”

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