Modern democracies are no longer the democracies we once knew.
When referred to in the realms of political science and international relations, democracy is a major foundation in many analyses and theories, so much so that theorists such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, and Alexis de Tocqueville considered it to be the cornerstone for international peace. What Kant, Paine, and de Tocqueville referred to was a liberal democracy, a slight, albeit critical, variation from democracy as it was first conceived by the Greek city-state of Athens.
In recent history, liberal democracies have become synonymous with the generic term: “democracy”, though it has very distinct differences. According to Fareed Zakaria , liberal democracies rests upon three main pillars: free and open elections, separation of powers, and constitutional liberalism.
Besides the differences listed above, the main difference between a liberal democracy and pure democracy can be contextualized in the indirect v. direct democracy comparison. Indirect democracy is characterized by the formation of a legislative branch or an equivalent, where the people elect members of such branch, and the members, in turn, represent the people. However, as stated by Edmund Burke in his “Trustee Model of Representation”, these representatives can and must exercise their own judgment, even if it runs contrary to public sentiment.
As our world embraced the liberal, representative model of democracy, we have forgotten what pure democracy is, so much so that we allowed liberal democracy to be synonymous terms with democracy. This is both fallacious and foolhardy, for representative democracy is a pragmatic and successful departure from pure democracy. Pure democracy, or otherwise known as direct democracy, relies heavily on the direct participation of the people – and to an extent, policy-making through plebiscites.
While most representative democracies in the West reserve a provision in their respective legal documents that permit the government to call plebiscites for the public to determine their stance(s), in most cases, these results are not legally binding. The reason for this is simple: the vast majority of citizens do not possess the legal expertise, and as a consequence, these poorly written legislations, or hastily decided policy decisions, may have severe unintended consequences.
Yet, despite these cautioning signs, the world is slowly, but surely, moving towards a revival of direct democracies.
To this date, 49 referendums have been called on matters of declaring national independence, with the more notable recent ones being the Scottish and Catalonian independence referendums of 2014. Moreover, hundreds of national referendums have been called on matters regarding public policy, including the recent EU referendum hosted by the United Kingdom. The increasing trend of plebiscites and other forms of direct democracy is worrying, and indicative of the general mood of the public: distrustful.
This anger and distrust held by the public has led to irrationality and the rise of populist, fringe-party candidates that offer fallacious dichotomies as solutions, as a chief means for them to secure power. When we turn to American and European politics, we see populism on the rise – this phenomenon is partially present in Asia as well, especially with the inauguration of the unconventional President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, an embodiment of political demagoguery. By examining cases such as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, we notice a distinct shift from representative democratic practices to a populist based direct democracies - all of these politicians are demagogues, using popular insecurities to advance their dichotomous policies.
Without doubt, direct democracies do have merits – yet, in the context of replacing representative democracies, this is reckless. One of the numerous reasons why representative democracy is a successful form of governance is its emphasis on minority protection. As James Madison cautioned, not only do direct democracies undermine representative democracies, it circumscribes the rights of the minority and places individual freedoms in peril. For a world that is used to the protection and equality brought by representative democracies, hastily embracing direct democratic processes as a “challenge to the establishment” is akin to embracing a tyranny by majority.
In light of the recent landmark UK referendum and its catastrophic economic implications, it is time that the world reevaluate what we consider as “democratic practice”, and reorient our governance system back to a system of representative (liberal) democracy. To that end, the first step should be acknowledging that referendums are a useful tool to gauge public sentiment, but should never be used as a tool for policymaking. Referendums are highly divisive when used as a tool for policy making – it divides an entire nation along socioeconomic, racial, religious, and even generational lines. Beyond the immediate economic and/or political consequences, most of the effects caused by the decision reached through referendums are long-term, and affect future generations, most who possibly could not cast a vote or have a say in that particular decision-making process. In this, referendums allow current eligible voters to cast their votes in favor of a decision without input from younger individuals, or worse, without a conscious thought regarding the long-term impacts of their vote. That is the case with the UK referendum.
The second step should be an awareness of the rise of populism in modern politics, and the messages it bring. There are reasons why populism is detested, and the most concerning among them is the notion that populism is largely uncompromising. When taken in its traditional meaning, populism is an ideology that identifies two distinct groups, the “people” and “the elite”, the latter of whom is corrupted. Therefore, from a populist perspective, political compromises are immoral as it corrupts the interests of the people . Most certainly, through gridlock and “class struggle” (a term often cited by left-wing populism), social polarization is inevitable. By examining cases such as the Chavista politics in Venezuela, populism and direct democracies often wreak havoc once it attains national control: rampant corruption, power through cults of personality, exploitation and rejection of minority rights, and the erosion of the rule of law.
Understandably, populism is a response to some of the undemocratic and exclusive aspects of liberal democracies. But resorting to a tyranny by majority is not a solution.
Finally, accompanying populism is a rejection of rationality, and the use of emotional politics to achieve political goals. In most populist dialogues, fearmongering is often used to pry upon popular insecurities and exaggerate potential dangers. The success of liberal democracies can be partially attributed to an informed electorate with access to relatively impartial and rational-based information. But the success of populism is often built upon half-truths and lies. To recapture the democracy we know, we must have the courage to find and accept certain inconvenient truths – and from there, the courage to act with pragmatism.
As we progress further into the new millennium, there is no doubt that there are many changes that need to be made to the democratic practice, which has served us well for many centuries. But reverting back to populism and direct democracy is not the solution. Modern democracy is already assailed by numerous competing political ideologies, it does not need, nor can it withstand a populist challenge. To continue on the path of direct democracy, is to continue the fanfare for the farewell to democracy.
Chuang is a contributor for The Millennial Times.