One quick Google search of ‘Is Democracy in Crisis?’ will give you exactly 243 million hits. Whilst I have neither the time nor the inclination to sift through even a fraction of the news articles, essays and academic publications, a skim down the first few pages suggests that the general consensus, to one degree or another, is that democracy – specifically representative democracy – is indeed in some trouble. Let us not forget that one should not believe everything they read on the internet… However, there is also a substantial volume of academia on modern democracy and its limits, failings and alternatives which echoes this notion of a potential crisis.
Since its origins in Ancient Greece, the theory of democracy has come under scrutiny. Early philosophers Plato and Aristotle feared the danger, and to some degree inevitability, of the collapse of democracy into authoritarian rule or rule by an uneducated and self-interested bad government. One could suggest that the Trump administration, run by arguably the least fit person to ever be elected into the White House, falls under the latter. Did Aristotle predict Trump? Obviously not. However, without wishing to fall into the rabbit hole that is US politics, I would like to explore the ways their electoral system demonstrates some of the pitfalls of modern democracy.
‘Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.’Bertrand Russell
Problems with the US Electoral System
Unfortunately, there is a substantial degree of non-proportionality within the US electoral system; simply put – the president-elect could have a lower percentage of the popular vote than his or her opponent. The US president is chosen by an Electoral College which may not and, in the case of the 2016 election, does not always reflect the popular vote. Hilary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but as she conceded more electors in the Electoral College she lost out on the presidency. In ‘swing states’, and also in constituencies that have typically returned candidates from the same political party, voter turnout can be negatively affected as people believe their vote is not decisive. Political alienation and disengagement from the political sphere can also occur partly as a result of these ‘winner takes all’ electoral processes. In the case of a narrow loss, roughly half the district has no representation in their local and often national government; a form of democracy that can be seen to disincentivize people and afford them to be ignorant and misinformed about politics as their individual vote counts for so little. The violence of opposition that is created between the Republicans and the Democrats breeds dramatic demagoguery and deep divisions which further turns people off to political involvement.
On top of this, young people and communities of colour are targeted with voter suppression, which attempts to dissuade them from participating in elections. However, as shown in last week’s general election, if you break down the barriers for these people they will turn out in record numbers and a truer picture of democracy can be achieved. Whilst this discussion has neither the time nor the scope to explore the deeply intricate issue of voter suppression, it is worth noting that – in any form – it detracts from an authentic democracy in its active exclusion of people from the political realm. And, although there will always be people dissatisfied with the outcome of a democratic election, countries like New Zealand – who operate under what is known as representative democracy – can offer an alternative from the dysfunctional versions of democracy we see in the US today.
New Zealand and the Path to Representative Democracy
What is representative democracy you cry? In a representative democracy, you vote directly for the local government member who will represent you on issues that matter to you. In New Zealand, elections operate under a ‘mixed-member proportional representation’ system, in which voters are given two votes: one for their local Member of Parliament and one for the party they wish to see run the government. The latter vote largely decides the number of seats each party gets, and electoral MP’s (elected from the first vote) then also gain a seat in parliament. A proportional system means that the share of seats the party wins is about the same share of the vote. Government under one party is rare and often coalitions or confidence agreements are commonplace in both forming government and in passing legislation. In the recent General Election in New Zealand, the government reported an 82.5% voter turnout (compared to high end estimates of 62% in last week’s US election). The practise of nasty, partisan politics elsewhere in the ‘democratic’ world are thus redundant in these representative elections, and prevent people becoming disenfranchised by a system which can be seen to be remote from grass-roots levels. New Zealand has consistently enjoyed rankings in the top 5 of the Democracy Index as a result of their political landscape. Although not without its own imperfections, it is one of the best examples of a high-functioning democracy seen in the world today. A system of this nature can be pursued to avoid the vulnerability of the fundamental structures of democracy seen elsewhere, and as I have attempted to demonstrate, in the US.
A.C Grayling rather aptly puts it in his book Democracy and Its Crisis:
‘Generally speaking, when politicians claim to know or be acting on behalf of “the will of the people” one should be reaching for a thousand-litre tank of scepticism.’A.C Grayling
One political party in charge of an entire nation cannot govern altruistically without pursuing their own deeply entrenched self-interests. In a ‘winner takes all’ electoral process, people are left disenfranchised and without any say in their political culture and civil liberties – a crisis of democracy. Such partisan politics also seek to actively exclude those who may not vote in their favour, creating a dangerous trend of voter suppression. However, we can look to nations like New Zealand to offer some hope of reconciliation with democracy. In such a democratic paragon, the individual vote holds more weight, and political engagement rises as people seek to elect a coalition and so cannot so easily afford to be ignorant to the outcome which will likely represent a broader range of interests. What can be achieved is a state of democracy with less divisions, altruistic policy making and a high-functioning collaborative government that has the faith of the people.
Words by Annabelle Swift
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