Historians are worried about democracy

Historians are worried about democracy

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

It is easy to forget that democracy is not a common way of doing things. 

At the end of 2020 when US citizens queued up at polling booths in record numbers, I was reminded that the right to vote is very recent in historical times. Women in the US, for example, had no such rights until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. 

The US had seen 29 of its 45 Presidents before this vital change.

Historically, most societies were run by authoritarian regimes of one sort or another that limited personal freedoms. Democracy, that so many of us take for granted, is actually a mid to late 20th-century phenomenon and by no means universal. 

Here is one metric of democracy over time, the Polity scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy).

number of democratic counties over time

By Ultramarine at en.wikipedia – Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

In short, democracy has risen exponentially since the 1800s.

Remarkable as this trend is, many historians know how fragile democracy might be in a modern world.

Democracy is fragile

The dangers to democracy have been around for some time, think how close Donald Trump came to shattering it in the US, and the warning signs, the historians argue, are 

  • the spread of misinformation 
  • inequality 
  • the politics of internal enemies and 
  • politically motivated violence. 

Misinformation

The spread of misinformation is just about everywhere. 

Anybody with a smartphone can record a video on any topic, put it up on Tick-Toc and before you know it, can be peddling all sorts of information that they claim is the truth about anything. All with little or no justification. 

Traditional media, driven by the requirement for clicks, do a similar thing. Jumping on whatever they believe will keep their audience interested and not very much to do with whether or not the information is correct or truthful.

We now know that misinformation is a powerful political weapon and despite the impeachment of a president is hard to diffuse.

Instant access and weak filtering by consumers mean that truth from fiction will be forever contentious. 

We are stuck with it. 

Inequality

Inequality has always been a challenge for society. 

Those in power need to keep those not in power happy for as long as possible and yet at the same time not allow them to become too wealthy such that they might gain power themselves. 

Think subjugation of women over the centuries or the hereditary titles of the aristocracy. 

Can’t have any Tom or Dick getting their grubby mitts on the estate.

At the same time, power and capital will get things done. Most of the global development that delivers wealth and wellbeing to so many people came about because money was concentrated in risk takers.

It is a delicate balance. 

In the old days, the sword was the tool of suppression and to wield it required some noble heritage, a few loyal knights, and gold coins to buy your way into power. Now the same thing happens for those with bitcoin.

However, once sufficiently downtrodden, the masses have little left to lose. Emboldened they rise up and take away your power. 

Currently, the world is in a situation where a handful of people own vast amounts of wealth. And the majority own next to nothing in comparison. This whole idea of inequity is not just within jurisdictions, but also across the world. 

It is incredulous that Forbes lists the richest 400 Americans as owning more than $3.2 trillion in assets and then sobering to know that four billion people live on less than six dollars a day.

That is a wickedly large majority, severely downtrodden.

If this is what democracy delivers it is setting itself up to collapse.

Internal enemies

The machinations of internal enemies are the basics of modern politics. Long gone are adult conversations about policy or what is in the best interests of the electorate. 

In Australia, for example, voters have experienced the removal of multiple sitting prime ministers by their parliamentary colleagues, their own party members, who’ve decided for one reason or another that they’ve had enough and push a spill in the leadership. 

It is one thing to have an eye on the electorate that must decide on your future every four years. It is quite another to watch you back for daggers from your colleagues every four minutes. 

Debate and deliberation followed by legitimate choice in the polling booth seems like ancient history.

Violence

Politically motivated violence is clearly the most insidious of the dangers. 

America stared at violence as it stormed its castle of democracy. Now they must worry about their hugely divided country when every man and his dog has access to firearms. 

Then there is the prominence of extremist groups both on the left and the right who gain more noise than they deserve. Through the various media channels and instant access to video footage of whatever event they care to perpetrate. 

A lot hangs in the balance.

The good news

Precarious as democracy may be, the growth in the number of democracies since WW2 is still exponential. People seem to like it.

Things that are liked are hard to give up and are not easily taken. Expect resistance to anyone that tries.

I know that is what they said in Germany and Italy back then and it failed. But this time around we will be better, more vigilant and prepared.

I hope.


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Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Tomorrow I will tootle off to my local primary school to vote in the NSW state election. It is a legal obligation I have as an Australian citizen and I am grateful for it.

At a deep level, I know that to vote is a privilege that I must take seriously.

I find it easy to honour this feeling thanks to growing up through the Thatcher years in the UK and then witnessing at close hand South Africa change from apartheid to a majority democracy with a global legend as its first president. Whilst politics is always messy, there is a much bigger reality with democracy, the recognition of individuals and that they have a right to speak.

Voting is a public display of that right.

This time, more than all the others, I have no idea which of the muppets should get my vote. None of them gives me any confidence that they can speak for me, even for part of me. They are all incompetent, out of touch, and passionate about the wrong things. The better ones try hard and may even have their hearts in the right place but enthusiasm alone is not enough to earn anyone’s vote.

The benefit from my public display of democratic right should go towards outcomes, real benefits to society. That is I’d like to vote for policies.

I recognise that policies are attached to politics and therefore candidates. And I know that this means I can’t cherry pick my policies, they’re a job lot, but I would like to know what they are, even in general terms.

I consider myself reasonably well read and someone who pays attention. I know the names of the local candidates, at least for the major parties and the leaders of those parties at state and federal level, but I do not know the policy positions of the parties or their candidates. This is not good.

What do I know?

Well, I know that the posturing and attempts to manipulate me are rampant.

Witness the idiocy of the Federal prime minister unable to say the word ‘coal’ in public when a year ago as treasurer he held up a fist-sized piece of coal in the parliament to wave aggressively at the opposition. See a witty summary of this coal lunacy by Katherine Murphy.

I also know that outside the Canberra comic book the manipulation in other parts of the world is creating chaos (Brexit), erosion of the rule of law (Trump and the US attorney), extremism (Brazil, Trump again), poverty (North Korea, far too many countries in Africa), overconsumption (everywhere) and, well, the list could go on and on. There is no doubt we ‘live in changing times’ to quote the old Chinese curse.

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Knowing you are cursed is one thing. What you choose to do about it is another.

The other day I sat with a colleague in a delightful coffee shop on the second floor of the Queen Victoria Building in downtown Sydney. More privilege that we acknowledged as we drifted onto the topic of the vacuum in global politics.

It was easy to agree that we are in changing times and that what we see now in Trump, Brexit and aimless Australian politics are symptoms of the vacuum. We also easily agreed that nature hates a vacuum and will rush to fill it.

What we couldn’t figure out was what nature would come up with: more extremes, a progressive middle, something different altogether.

Our conclusion, that there will be a holding pattern while the stupid white men die off and then the youngsters come up with something wonderful, felt shallow and, frankly, a cop-out. Why abdicate in favour of the next generation when we are the ones with the batten?

I think because we are actually at a loss.

My generation and the couple that came after mine does not have an alternative.

We cannot give up capitalism because we actually like what it gives us (we like wealth and privilege a lot) and, more or less, capitalism is steadily doing it for more and more people. We actually don’t have a realistic alternative to mobilising capital and labour for profit.

We cannot ditch democracy for similar reasons. We like it, for the most part, and we know that the alternatives are risky and erode our liberty.

We certainly cannot lose the right to speak through our vote. That would be going back to the dark ages, literally.

Instead, we can just hobble along because it’s what we’ve always done and, hey, it has worked so far. Who’s to say it can’t keep on working.

So the answer is no, we don’t have an alternative.

This both scares me and ensures that nobody will like this post.

Happy thinking.

What happens if democracy dies

What happens if democracy dies

Suppose the system used in 123 countries that billions of people have come to understand and take for granted fails, initially by electing muppets into office, and then collapsing altogether under the weight of distrust and disillusion.

Many scholars and the very clever writers on the excellent 5th season of Orange is the New Black, have pondered this situation. What happens could be a toss up between a joyous reinvention of commerce and exchange, with unwritten rules of human decency holding everything together, or more brutal exchange systems where the stronger grab from the weaker in a nasty cascade.

Academics play it out more sedately as game theory involving hawks and doves and conclude, mostly, that some sort of balance will emerge, an equilibrium of sorts, but a fragile one that easily gets out of whack. Drama writers just make the goings on in the fictional Litchfield prison ever more bizarre and ever more believable.

Whatever the conjecture, all agree that should democracy fail it will be replaced by something. And there are those who are scared of what comes next and others more confident. But here is a thought. What if democracy has already failed? And failed miserably.

What if it’s not democracy — the process that gives the majority what they want from an array of limited options — that holds everything together but something else.

Perhaps it is the process of exchange where human behaviour is moderated by mutual benefits, initially between individuals and then scaled up. And so long as exchange for mutual benefit is possible, all is well.

This idea also explains brutal exchange. Taking what I need by force is always an easy option in an exchange system but without mutual benefit it cannot persist forever. Human history is all about how brutal exchange eventually breaks down exponentially; think slave trade, apartheid, black integration. The excesses fall away readily whilst the residual lingers for a long time.

What we see as elections to public office makes very little difference to fundamental exchange. The passing of laws and regulation may restrict some transactions and even try to prevent others but not much can stop a deal when there are people willing to take it.

It turns out that a huge amount of what politicians actually do is ensure that exchange is easy, especially with other jurisdictions, and they try their utmost to do nothing to disturb the fragile economy.

So, in fact, if democracy dies, maybe not much happens at all but brutal exchange.