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The Problem with Democracy

April 12, 2011

In about a year and a half, I will be voting in my first Presidential election and, as a result, I have recently started to take more of a personal interest to U.S. politics.  What I see is a total mess.  Throughout my high school experience, and here at U of M, I have been taught that democracy is the noblest form of government.  The basic premises of democracy are found in the work of philosophers starting with Aristotle and continuing through Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau and others.  The principles they expounded were incorporated into a democratic form of government in which an unselfish devotion to the common good, an educated citizenry, and the exercise of public virtue are paramount.  However, as I take a deeper look into the political system, and reflect on those viewpoints of philosophers that we have studied, I see now that we do not even come close to this ideal.

The problem is ideology.  I have not made up mind as to whether I am a republican or a democrat, or something in between.  However, the distinction between the two political parties is clear.  The republicans want to minimize the role of government, favor business and the wealthy, are very conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, and above all would never consider proposing a tax increase.  Conversely, the democrats have more confidence in the efficacy of government, favor labor and the poor, consider social issues as something that should be decided personally rather than by the government, and will increase taxes if it means that they can accomplish their objectives.  To a point, these divergent views are normal.  In fact, the whole idea of political parties is that they represent alternative views of society.  The debate should be spirited and passionate; although, there are limits (see video below of Taiwan Parliament).   As John Locke, the “father of modern democracy,” argued, representative government, in which the people are allowed to express their opinions, functions most efficiently. However, I do not think that is what is happening now. 

 Senators and representatives are elected to represent the views of the people.  However, that does not mean abandoning one’s own principles and values in order to curry favor with the electorate.  The politicians today seem unwilling to take any action that will jeopardize their reelection.  Never mind the long range consequences or welfare of the country, if in the short run, votes will be lost and they may lose their office.  Forget it.  This runs counter to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, whose objective should be to promote the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.  It appears what they are doing is to promote the greatest amount of happiness for themselves.  This strategy may lead to their reelection and the success of their party but it leads to stubborn rigidity, unwillingness to compromise, and hopeless congressional gridlock, and in the process does a real disservice to the country.

This approach also leads to serious abuses of the system that call into question the morality of politicians. Political discourse has been reduced to slogans and sound bites, not an in- depth discussion of the issues.  One especially destructive aspect is that politicians have overcome their inhibitions in distorting the truth.  Okay, let’s call it lying. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left are stirring up a nasty witches’ brew of hatred and paranoia that appeal to the lowest common denominator.  Political ads are a joke full of distortions and outright false statements that can’t be taken seriously.

 So as a novice voter, I have to say that I am frustrated and somewhat discouraged.  It’s not clear to me how things are going to get better.  However, I continue to believe with Churchill that:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

4 Comments
  1. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    April 13, 2011 12:00 AM

    I agree that Democracy does have its flaws. Some policies work better when run with other supporting policies. However, due to democracy, we many times have mixed success with governmental plans since they are not coordinated correctly. Democracy helps by making riots and such less likely, as the majority opinion is followed. However, if a nation without Democracy chooses to enact policies that do not cause rioting or resistance in the citizens, they can run much more effectively and efficiently than Liberal Democracies.

  2. ellerm permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:19 AM

    Wow, this post made me feel not so alone. I understand completely how you can’t really decide between parties. In fact, with all of the intricacies of the two big-tent parties, I’m surprised people are so polarized. Of course, many are swayed by the hot button issues and decide that way. I would recommend looking at the spectrum of political beliefs. For example, Obama would be considered a neo-liberal, which is much more moderate than some more leftist politicians. I think it comes down not to which party you decide to vote for, but which parts of the candidate’s ideologies you decide to focus on. It may be the case that a Republican presidential candidate would appeal to a centrist liberal. It also depends on whether the voter cares about economics, social, or other aspects of a candidate. My high school history teacher said it best. “When people ask me if I’m liberal or conservative, I say, ‘On what issue?'”

    • Georgia permalink
      June 1, 2011 1:37 AM

      I totally agree with ‘ellerm’ in saying you need to focus on which parts of a candidate’s ideologies to focus on.
      You’re very lucky in the USA that you don’t have to worry about the party per say, but the views of the candidate in question. I am from Australia, and in my country we elect the party not the candidate, and then it is upto the party to decide who leads the country. Generally we know who this is in the lead up to the election, but recently our previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who the nation democratically elected) got his leadership taken off him by the party without consulting the Australian population, and was replaced with Prime Minister Julia Gillard only two years into his term. So as you can see, it can be quite an unstable process, and one which angers a lot of the Australian population. Australian politicians are very conscious of overstepping the party line, whereas in the USA your politicians are individuals, not characterised by their homogenous party views, but by their individual policies and personalities.
      You seem to have your head screwed on your shoulders just fine so I’m sure you’ll work it out, just please do not vote for Sarah Palin! Pluralist politicians in power are a scary thought.

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