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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