Democracy is without a doubt a fairly successful system of governance. Although dozens of systems have been tried over the ages, the world has been continuously edging towards increasingly democratic models, at least in baby steps when not in great leaps and bounds. And yet Winston Churchill – both the product and professional beneficiary of a modestly democratic system – suggested that he considered it to be paradoxically “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. Of course, this is not a genuine assault on the democratic institution, but rather a humble admission that while it is the superior option, it still has profound shortcomings. While perhaps there exists potential for a truly flawless system that we have yet to try, the democratic model remains the best choice for peaceful and effective government against the other options. The best government is the one that best serves the interest of its citizenry. Whether this means democratic, conservative, totalitarian, religious, communist, libertarian or any other description will vary from one population to next.
And that is perhaps the first flaw in boasting about the greatness of democracy: it proclaims one model to be the ideal in a world where one size does not fit all. However, a democratic system also has an inherent flexibility that allows it to be adapted to suit the changing needs of the electorate. If the representatives decide that government needs to proclaim new civil rights or take control of the means of production, then they are free to do so. With the mandate arising directly from the people, a democratic body can change to suit that needs of the people with relative simplicity.
Constitutionally establishing a state based on a singular permanent ideology, such as religion or communism, makes it exponentially more difficult to govern when no society exists in a state of permanence. The only restriction across all democratic bodies is that they do not hold power indefinitely, and must be continuously renewed by the electorate – a restriction that in fact makes it easier to adapt in a changing world. As Andre Blais points out, the inevitability of another election is also a mechanism to help ensure that politicians do their best to represent the nterests of their constituents instead of their own. If they are hoping to be re-elected then “they will propose policies that correspond to the views of the greatest number of electors and they will implement these policies if they are elected in order to increase their probability of being re-elected next time. ” (Blaise 2) A profound weakness to democracy is, unfortunately, that there are inevitably losers. It is fairly certain that in most elections, a considerable number of voters will have chosen a candidate that did not win, and the portion of losers only increases when there are more options.
In most democratic systems, only adult citizens are allowed to vote, so we must also consider the reality that minors and non-citizens (and any other disqualified groups) have no real voice. When the victorious electorate is not the same as the general population, it is difficult to hold it up as the system of representation. Blaise says “If opinions in the legislature accurately reflect those in society, the decisions that legislators make should resemble those that citizens would have made in a direct democracy. ” (Blaise 2) Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
For example, 52% of every riding were to elect a candidates from the Yellow Party, then they would control the entire legislature while the other 48% of voters have will have no one supporting their policies. Although this is an extreme scenario, it is not an impossible one. The notion of “one man, one vote” can be just as baffling. While all citizens deserve to be governed equally, should this mean that they should be heard equally? Surely some people’s ideas have more merit than others. To the casual observer, democracy could easily result in a society filled with losers that is governed by ignorance and idiocy.
The worst form of government, indeed. A dictator, however, represents rule by a single, unquestioned idea. One wonders if that would be preferable to half of a nation feeling defeated on a semi-regular basis. Would putting power in a single leader reduce frustration with the political process, if only because we would not be feel divided into the winners, the losers, and the powerless? Probably not. Democracy means an ongoing exchange of ideas and regular opportunities for activism (even immigrant minors can volunteer for a campaign).
It gives a fighting chance for our voices to be heard and the potential to affect change. Democracy can be disappointing, but that’s an occupational hazard of being part of the human race. It also has tremendous potential to be empowering, and that is surely preferable to a world where the masses are powerless by default. If nothing else, there is symbolic value in a society deciding collectively what is best for its common good. Communism is based on a similar idea, but the notion of demonizing the rich and powerful (whether or not such a characterization is deserved) in favor of the ruling workers is present.
The Communist Manifesto says, “Democracy would be wholly valueless to the proletariat if it were not immediately used as a means for putting through measures directed against private property and ensuring the livelihood of the proletariat. ” (Marx 49) Here Marx is not endorsing democracy because he believes in its principles, but because he feels it is the system that will best achieves his goals, which is to allow the proletariat to seize control of Russia. As such, it is not genuine democracy he wants. We have tried one system after another based on the notion that there should be a class of rulers and a class of the ruled.
But a society built on the presumption of class warfare is in no way preferable one built on the aspiration of unity. Despite its inherent flaws, democracy remains superior for serving our society as a whole, if only because of our optimism that it can genuinely bring us together. Even when it is agreed that democratic values should be paramount, the specific system can be contentious. While the American presidential system is often seen as a logical and revolutionary model, particularly given the degree of direct democracy that exists at the state and local levels, it has a stunningly poor track record when applied to other nations.
Juan Linz points out that the US is in fact the only nation that has been under such a government with long-term stability. (Linz 52) This is largely the result of ‘dual legitimacy’ in which both the president and legislature, when can both claim to be legitimate representatives of the people, a particularly difficult position when these two branches are controlled by different parties (Linz 55) How can it be that two opposing parties can both claim legitimacy of representation.
Parliamentary systems, however, have prime ministers that are also the legislative leader. As a result, the executive and parliament are much more likely to be in sync on policy. When the legislature no longer supports the executive, it may replace it with a new one. While this creates greater unity between the two branches, it fractured legislature can lead to unstable governments that could fall at anytime, thus lacking the predictability of the presidential model. Linz 65) Winston Churchill’s remark that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” is perhaps one of the most eloquent and accurate summations of a governing system from recent times. There are undeniable flaws within the democratic model. However, it remains the most effective one available to us. Over the twentieth century, most of the world abandoned the increasingly antiquated model of authoritarian monarchies.
While many states experimented with fascist and communist governments, most have since become predominantly democratic, usually to their benefit. While it is safe to assume that democracy won’t be going out of style anytime soon, it is not unreasonable to think that in the future new forms of government will emerge. The fact that Churchill’s remark specifies that democracy is only the best form of government that we have tried demonstrates an optimism that future statesmen will experiment with new and innovative options that will someday serve us better.