Saturday, June 23, 2012

Democracy's Weakest Link

That's the thing about a hammer - you can use it
to build stuff or break stuff...
What are the markers of a true democracy?  We tend to focus on elections, but this is clearly a misjudgment.  Elections are often tampered with, particularly by the governing party or the military, and even when they are fair they are subject to the "Tyranny of the Majority" that in many circumstances often precludes true democratic freedom.  A genuine lack of censorship, on both the people and the press, the ability to say what you believe about the political leadership without fear of intimidation or arbitrary punishment is certainly a clear indication of the amount of liberty enjoyed by the people, but after what we've seen during the "Occupy" protests in the US over the last year, this is not a condition that actually exists to any great extent in the real world.  So either we conclude that there are very few real democracies left in the world (something we should be deeply concerned about in light of global trends), or we need a more broadbased metric.

Ultimately, it is probably fair to say that the truest indication of a genuine democratic government is the independence of the Judiciary.  Judges should stand apart from the political process, and they should be immune to both influence and intimidation.  Because of the absolute power a nation's highest court must be prepared to wield, corrupting or co-opting them provides a non-democratic or authoritarian government with the ability to avert political challenges with an air of legitimacy.  But when the justices serve honestly and with impeccable integrity they stand between the government and the governed to make certain that the rules are followed and the flowery language of justice and equality often found in the constitution is not undermined or simply ignored.

So it is disturbing to see, as part of an overall authoritarian trend in democratic governance around the world, the decline of the independent judiciary.  In many cases we are starting to see the judges, even in the highest courts, choose up political sides and make decisions based on ideology or a perceived pragmatism rather than strictly on the law and legal precedent.  The United States arguably ceased being a democracy that day in 2000 when the Supreme Court, in an unnecessary and grotesque overreach chose the American President, overruling the votes of the American people.  In the intervening years we have seen the odious Citizens United decision, and now stand on the precipice of the decision on the Individual Mandate in the ACA.  At this point, it's becoming clear that all around the world real democracy is in retreat, and yet rather than simply transitioning to another iron-fisted dictatorship, a number of hybrid models are emerging, none of them truly free, but all seeking to continue to wear the mantle of "democratic government".  Why not just throw out all the trappings of democracy and rule as a President for Life, the non-dynastic equivalent of a Monarchy?  The answer is, in a word, wealth.  Nations that empower their people to educate themselves, to build businesses and create innovative products are wealthier, more powerful nations.  North Korea stands in stark contrast to modern China, making clear the advantages inherent in providing the population with "just enough" freedom.

Most commonly now, there is the Russian/Chinese model, where the government grants to the people a great deal of freedom to pursue education, careers, wealth and personal fulfillment.  Entrepreneurship is encouraged, infrastructure developed and the quality of life does, in fact, increase.  The other side of that bargain is that the people are shut out from participating in their own governance, told with very little ambiguity that they are NOT part of the governance process, and their input in the decision making process is unwelcome.

Then there is the Iranian model, structured in the outcome of the Khomeini revolution.  The leaders of the revolution were happy to let the people govern themselves, but as they still insisted upon the prerogatives of a Theocracy, they merely created a body that could, whenever they deemed necessary, overrule the elected leadership.  So in most cases, the government functions as a democracy, but it is not one, as there is a higher authority that has the ultimate authority.  Sadly, in the years since Khomeini's death the Iranian regime has drifted from Theocratic Democracy to Theocratic Military Dictatorship, to the point where they now even feel it necessary to rig the election outcomes.  But their model remains as an option for many states that will be pressured to move from monarchy to some kind of democratic government.  In places like Pakistan and Turkey we're watching the democratically elected civilian governments in a tug-of-war with the military for ultimate authority, with the military always having at its disposal a trump card - a coup.  It is axiomatic that all nations stand at risk from their own militaries - indeed, it is nothing but the military's own institutions that determine whether the Generals see themselves as subservient to the civilian political leadership, or dominant over it.

It seems as if the era of the embrace of liberal democracy as the preferred form of governance is ending.  What's replacing it isn't completely clear yet, but the trend is toward a kind of corporate/government partnership with a strong surveillance state and a level and mix of government services calibrated to best support corporate profits.  Perhaps a kind of "Fascism Lite" where political opposition is strangled and those in power seek a sort of equilibrium calibrated to provide them with maximum power and maximum profits.  In this model, the people are given enough freedom to earn an income and generally govern themselves, particularly at the local level, but they will not be permitted to influence the national government nor make important economic, political and foreign policy decisions.


  1. A free press was considered important to democracy by the people who wrote our Constitution, mikey.

    “Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

    - Hugo Black

    Our press has been corrupted in the same fashion as our judiciary.

  2. Actually, I think our free press has been compromised by the profit motive, whereas the judiciary has just evolved into another ideologically - based political body.

    But in general, yeah, you're right