The great buzzword of the West that’s been used since World War Two to establish our moral authority over the rest of the world has been democracy. When we want to criticize or question the legitimacy of some other country’s government all we do is raise doubts about how democratic their elections were.
It’s been used as an excuse for everything from imposing economic sanctions, to going to war. Unfortunately it’s become such a buzzword that I seriously doubt that most people even think about what it means or question the nature of what a democracy should be. At best they would equate it with a people’s ability to select their government.
While it’s true that is the core of the matter, and without that key element the rest would be irrelevant, there is far more to it than just the right to vote. Aside from having a voice in the election of your government, living in a democracy should also be a guarantee that the rules of your society are enforced and that you are able to live your life within those boundaries with as much freedom as possible.
Democracies (from the Greek word demokratia meaning rule by the people) have been around since the 5th Century B.C., when all Athenian males were allowed to have a say in the running of their city state. But they didn’t start gaining in popularity until the rise of a moneyed middle class that wanted some sort of say in what was happening in the world.
These original democracies had little to do with what we consider democracy today. Rather they just expanded the power base from the hands of the aristocracy into the hands of the moneyed class. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that suffrage was based on citizenship rather than class.
In a democracy every person is theoretically guaranteed certain freedoms and respect, while a social contract called law restricts our behaviour to what is deemed a norm. Over the years that norm has evolved and the laws have expanded to meet the changing needs of the people.
Although the basic premise of a democracy is that the majority rules, a true democracy allows for the guarantee of minority rights. There is also a clear understanding that when it comes to an election, all parties will consider themselves bound by the results and accept the choice of the electorate.
While those seem like very clear directions for making a democracy work, the difficulty does not apply to the model, but as to how the model is implemented. Can a society claim to be democratic when it allows one belief system to dictate the moral framework around which laws are structured? If minority rights are curtailed because of that model how democratic a society is it?
How democratic is a society that has an inherent class of have-nots who have little or no chance of ever having any real influence on the decision making process? When this results in all real power residing in the hands of a small minority of the population; either by winning elections or by influence purchased through campaign contributions, I would say the spirit of democracy has been perverted.
If you look closely at many of the world’s democracies right now you will see that as a rule the people who “serve” their countries are usually drawn from the same pool over and over again. Whether they are in opposition or in power the names pretty much stay the same year after year.
The election in Canada right now is raising some interesting questions. The country is being split along geographical lines. One party seems to be attracting all the votes of city dwellers; one all the rural populations; and another all of Quebec.
The parties themselves are responsible for this division by demonising each other and grasping for whatever representation they can get. They are more intent on gaining power than actually representing the wishes of Canadians.
Then there are countries that are split along ethnic lines. Look at the results from the election in Iraq. Shiite Muslims are the majority and received the most votes with the minority Sunni Muslims trailing and Kurdish nationalists receiving the balance. Protests over the results are already occurring with Sunni’s concerned about their lack of representation.
Since one of the tenets of a democracy is that the authority of the winner’s right to rule is recognised by the opposition can this election be said to be democratic with the Sunni refusing to endorse the results? One can blame the people of Iraq and say they are bad losers, but I think we have to be wiser than that and realize our system is flawed and needs fixing.
The major flaw in our system is that the reward for winning elections is power. People and parties compete to see who will have power over the rest of the population for a period of time. Corporations and groups than vie to see if they can influence that power so that it will favour their agendas.
When people go to the polls now they are not choosing those who will represent their interests, they are selecting the individuals who they trust to have power over them for what ever period of office they may receive. It’s a far cry from what was meant by democracy way back when in Athens Greece where every male citizen was allowed a voice in the governing of the city, literally.
There were no people competing for votes in an effort to win the right to represent them, they represented themselves. It was one person one voice, not twenty-five thousand people, one voice that only represents a proportion of those voices.
What motivates someone like George Bush or Paul Martin to seek the highest political office in his respective country? The desire to shape the country in their image and to have the power to enforce the image of the country they want to see on the rest of the population. Call it what you want but the truth of the matter is; to want to become leader of a country you’ve got to be pretty power hungry and ambitious, which pretty much means you re probably the worst person to be the leader of a country.
How you can a fair and balanced view of what is best for a country in a specific situation when you are more concerned with holding on to your power than doing anything that will make a difference I don’t know. According to reports out of Capital Hill in Washington, Senators feel like they are constantly campaigning and must continually be raising money to wage their next election battle.
You tell me that they are going to be impartial when someone is handing them a check for a couple of hundred grand and whispering in their ear at the same time. When the lure of the office has become more important than what the office stands for, democracy leaves through the back door.
We throw the word democracy around a lot, especially as a means to justify our actions or as means of trumpeting our superiority over other countries. But how democratic are we really when the motivating factor to “serve” your country is to promote your personal agenda and to gain power?
How democratic are we when we can’t elect governments that reflect the needs of our entire population? When an increasing number of people are feeling alienated from their governments and have little or no desire to participate in the system can we claim to be democratic?
When the societal climate is such that dissent is classified as betrayal, and blind obedience is considered the epitome of good citizenship are we truly fostering a home for free and open debate? If decisions are made not through consensus and understanding, but through deceit, subterfuge, and power, where does that leave the spirit of democracy?
We can complain all we want to about special interest groups and corrupt politicians, and while they are to blame, we need to look a little deeper. The system we currently follow, while an honourable attempt, needs to be changed. If we want to return to the spirit of the original one-man one voice concept of the Athenians we have a lot of work to do.