Democracy is Broken: Failures of the Best Political System We’ve Got

Democracy is the best system we’ve got. However, there are certain inherent deficiencies which are important to consider.

Feral78 - Democracy

It’s easy to look at Canada’s neighbour to the south and judge, or think their political situation is unique. I’d argue, however, that the current events are a likely outcome, a direct result of the way modern democratic systems are structured. Be it Canada, the U.S. or the U.K., there are some fairly obvious problems. Watch the news, and more oft than not, it’s competition instead of collaboration. The goal is to undermine, and win, but at what cost?

The amount of political divisiveness, or in-group and out-group thinking is absolutely destructive. Calling someone a “lefty” is used as an insult, as if merely existing on that side of the spectrum invalidates all opinion and rational thought. Similarly, derisively calling someone out for voting Trump is equally harmful, regardless of their reasons for casting their vote as they did.

It creates an us versus them mentality, which will never lead to common ground. Ideally, and perhaps naively on my part, I believe people on both sides of the political spectrum would be best served working together for the best long-term outcomes for their country. Unfortunately, because people are subject to human biases, that’s not really how our democracy works. Party lines are drawn, and positions are held and fought over, with nary a side willing to give an inch. This is absolutely not limited to U.S. politics. Winning is not winning if you have to give something up, or so it goes. Game theory, this is not.

If you follow the Canadian federal political system, you have minority parties, such as the Conservatives and NDP party constantly squabbling, pushing forward ridiculous scenarios like “elbowgate”. That is certainly not a collaborative form of government, but rather one where political gain is achieved by undermining one’s opponent. On the other side, the Federal Liberals, with a majority, have little incentive to work with their opponents, for a better Canada. Often, political platform promises are made and quickly trampled. So much for electoral reform, which was one of the pillars of Trudeau’s campaign.

Thinking through all these things, while fighting with glorious insomnia, I came up with a list of issues or deficiencies, which hamper the effective functioning of democracies, be they Canadian, U.S. or British.

Informed Voting

No requirement for informed voting: groups can make better decisions, to a point, when the people making decisions have thought deeply about the issues at hand. When you have people strictly making decisions based on party name, feelings, or the charisma of a leader, we all lose. This may be an area where our educational system has vast room for improvement.

Confirmation Bias

People focus on facts that confirm what they already believe: political opponents may make extremely good points, but if people are vested in their current point of view, it’s extremely difficult to bring them around to another point of view. Never mind the current fake news trend, or fake news calling trends.

Party before Country

Supporting party before country: “Oh, I always vote liberal.” This line of thinking, without critical thought on what the party presently supports, is of no long-term benefit to the advancement of a nation.

Short-term Focus

People choose short term self-interest over long-term country benefit. This can lead to single issue voting. For instance, if lower taxes, or increased jobs to lower middle-income households is most important to you, this is more likely to be a determining factor in who you support. So yes, the party you vote for may create jobs for your demographic, but what’s the bigger picture? What other policies are they promoting, and what will your country look like? What does the platform, considered holistically, mean? Is the leader truly someone you’d feel comfortable with, running your country?

Similarly, politicians are focused on ratings and rewarded based on a rather short timeframe. This incentive shifts focus from long-term country direction to one of more shortsighted policy. Why focus on difficult, long-term solutions that may take decades or even generations, when you can focus on the next four years and get more votes.

Emotional Arguments are more Persuasive than Facts

People are easily swayed by emotional appeals and simple solutions, whereas factual argument and opinion require deeper thought. Thus, facts start to matter less than feelings. In this way, people become easily manipulated into voting against their own long-term interests. If you’re unemployed, it’s easy to find another group to blame for your unemployment, despite the situation being multifaceted. There may be less manufacturing jobs, there may be less demand for the widgets being produced and your skillset may be outdated. It’s easy to lay blame on a single factor, based on feeling.

The Dark side of Charisma

People choose charisma over substance. Which politician is more likable and trustworthy? What this means is that often, where the message is coming from can be just as important as what they’re saying.

Poor Voter Turnout

A high proportion of voters abstain from voting. This means that parties get elected who were not even selected by the majority of the capable voting pool. As such, the party in power may only represent a subset of the population, and not the general population at large.

Corruption and Special Interest Influenced Policy

In positions of power, without proper regulation in place, politicians may be predisposed towards certain initiatives, based on private and foreign donation. Recently in the NewYork Times, the British Columbia Liberal government was exposed for taking party donations from private and foreign interests, due to limited regulation. What they’re doing is perfectly legal, though is it ethical, and in the best interests of the constituents?

This is not limited to BC, Canada, the U.S. or the U.K. To some degree, this is an issue where politicians are able to receive compensation from private interests. If you receive a paycheck from different sources, you become beholden to those sources.

Argument from Socrates

Historical, cultural and societal context gives people an understanding of the environment in which they’re voting. Without an understanding the context, including how government operates, people may not be situated to rationally choose government. How do you gauge the effectiveness of that which you do not understand? Democracy as a hereditary right begets inherent difficulties (many of which are discussed above), including the potential election of demagogues who prey on popular desires and prejudices, rather than well thought out positions.

There’s an interesting YouTube video, by Alain de Botton, on why Socrates hated democracy. Definitely worth the four minutes of your time.

Summary

With all this in mind, it’s easier to get context for the democracy we live within. A first step would be to understand that just because someone has different political leanings from you does not immediately invalidate their position. Lashing out and mocking people with a different point of view, as things go, is a fairly base response. It’s easy to judge, harder to understand. Working through these issues is probably not easy, though things worthwhile rarely are. It’s easy to feel smug, looking at the goings on in the U.S. or the U.K., however, I’d wager we’re really not all that different in the end.

Header image by Feral78 – Democracy // CC by 2.0