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Democracy: The Will of the People?

Recent demonstrations around the globe are taking aim at a new target: democracy. From Israel to India to Spain to Wall Street, protests rooted in economic issues carry underlying anti-democratic elements as well. From the New York Times:

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

This anger is certainly justifiable — the past few years have shown democracy at its worst. Spineless and inept European politicians have spent the past three years bickering as their house collapses around them, while the American political system has been rendered impotent by petty partisan squabbling. Across the globe, Japan has continued its long streak of boring and uninspired leadership. Everywhere, economic problems seem to be spoiling futures of entire generations. This performance does not inspire confidence in the institution.

For all of its flaws, however, representative democracy remains a better form of governance than mob rule.  The right of revolution, Americans generally believe, is an inalienable human right but can only justly be exercised in extremities where all else has failed.  Working democracies do not meet that test; if you can vote the scoundrels out there is no need for and no justification for revolution and mob violence.

Democracy may not always be pretty, but its track record is much stronger than the sort of authoritarian populist movements that often arise from unfocused street protests. If voters are so fed up with their current leadership, they have a simple solution — vote them out. If none of the existing parties suit you, start your own and compete for votes.

Poor, misguided Marta Solanas thinks that hers is the first generation to make the startling discover that “voting is worthless.”  Millions of Europeans have thought that in the past; this was the siren song of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler.  Bourgeois voting was a snare and a delusion; direct action by the people was the way to build a better world.  Let’s hope Ms Solanas never finds out how wrong she is.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “A Republic, if you can keep it”
    A people get the government they deserve, so when they vote for a big government monopoly and get it, they shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t work.
    Besides this is what Democracies that are working look like, recognizing the politicians as corrupt parasites and throwing them under the bus.

  • Kenny

    The problem here is that people like Marta Solanas want politics to solve economic problems for them and to change reality.

    Their expectations have been raised but they, as a group, have not raised their own ability to meet them. Hence, they’re actually looking to get the goodies of life from someone else by voting. That’s my take.

  • Randy

    As a certain Englishman once put it, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

  • Jordan

    “…while the American political system has been rendered impotent by petty partisan squabbling.”

    Completely false. During this time of petty partisan squabbling (do you mean since Obama took office or since the Democrats took control of Congress?) there was a huge bailout of the banking/insurance/govt backed mortgages/automotive sectors, a huge stimulus, a total remake of the health system, and a general explosion in govt spending in general. How do you consider this impotent?

    Or do you mean the activities of the govt since the debt limit fighting this past summer? Perhaps its because people are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s the potency of the govt, not the impotency that’s the problem.

    The govt was designed for gridlock. I like it that way. For others govt deadlock is such an emotional issue, truly bizarre.

    Kenny is correct, there’s a substantial minority of people who are healthy and capable yet who expect the govt to solve their problems and believe the govt is the only one capable of solving their problems. I generally categorize these people as “losers”, ignore them, and go about my own pursuit of happiness. They kind of remind me of college kids on campus spewing communist/socialist nonsense. Perhaps they are the same people. I ignore them too.

  • bob sykes

    Democracy is mob rule.

  • Mrs. Davis

    they’re actually looking to get the goodies of life from someone else by voting.

    They’re still subjects, not freemen. And we foster the illusion by viewing elections as evidence of representative limited government of the sovereign people by themselves when absent freemen they are merely choosing their new masters.

  • Jack McHugh

    Democracy itself creates the incentives for politicians to behave in ways that are held in contempt in other areas of life. Peoples who are more mature in the democratic habit accept this. I don’t know if the incentives to serve the system ahead of the people have gotten more out of balance than usual, or if government has become so large, pervasive and intrusive that their doing what they always do is much more destructive now.

  • Paul

    It is always interesting to see what Churchill presented as an unattributed citation cited as an authority. It is an assertion made without supporting arguments; at the time that Churchill offered it, mass universal-suffrage democracy had not existed very long at all, in historical terms.

    Let us accept that Churchill himself created the phrase, and added “it has been said” as a rhetorical flourish. Do we then accept him as an authority? A greater political philosopher than Aristotle, to cite only one example of someone who thought otherwise?

    Or do we wish to offer reasoned arguments on the matter? In this case, in which ways, for what purposes, is democracy “better” than all of which others? Based on what historical evidence?

    I submit that we do not wish to consider the matter deeply and offer reasoned arguments — as these will necessitate explicit metaphysical commitments which we children of liberalism are desperate to avoid — but to reassure ourselves by citing axiomatic assumptions.

  • Silverfiddle

    Kenny has hit upon the crux: Progressive governments have raised expectations to unreasonable heights.

    These governments have promised everyone cradle to grave free lollipops and rainbows, and life just doesn’t work that way.

    They’ve also exemplified Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” believing they could straighten the curves and level out the hills and valleys.

    There is no substitute for free people in free markets solving their own problems. Government’s job is to keep the marketplace clean and well-lighted.

  • Richard F. Miller

    Dr Mead, beware the American media Rorschach. A narcissistic reading of ink blots tells us more about the subject than the object.

    If you’re looking to make some reality based linkages, try this one: lately, there’s been a wave of anti-democratic sentiment on the lips of several political (Perdue, Orzag) and media (Friedman) types. Those of a certain age may recall that when the Carter administration collapsed, none other than his former counselor Lloyd Cutler published a book essentially calling for the abolition of the Constitution while NYT’s Anthony Lewis greeted Reagan’s election as an indictment of democracy, small d.

    Such an establishment, continued into our own day, is likely to “see” their own discontents in the blots.

    Recall if you will the attraction that Fascism and Communism once held for so many of our elites before Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz and the gulags burst the bubble.

    Our democracy will survive our faithless elites.

  • Luke Lea

    “They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”

    Maybe it has something to do with that “donor class” David cay Johnson writes about — the ten thousand or so wealthiest families in America who bankroll both political parties, don’t pay their taxes, yet still control the agenda in American politics. How else explain the continuance of our current trade immigration and trade laws when they are opposed by overwhelming majorities of the American people. The one ray of hope I have seen was in that recent speech by she who shall not be named.

  • Luke Lea

    Incidentally, Walter, (I guess we’ll be on a first name basis for this particular comment) regarding she who shall not be named I referred to in my previous comment, I respect your caution in getting out front with respect to her, but doesn’t she fit squarely in that Jacksonian tradition you sometimes sing the praises of?

  • Gene

    WRM’s statement that “the American political system has been rendered impotent by petty partisan squabbling,” is a common but ridiculous argument I’m starting to hear everywhere. The fundamental assumption behind this, that there is some set of policies out there that everyone can somehow live with, that majorities in Congress can somehow agree on, is utterly false. This argument ignores the fact that fundamental and important differences about the size and role of government, and about government’s relationship to the private sector, exist in the American public. The stark divisions among political camps in America, and the bitterness between them, is a reflection of those philosophical differences. The nastiness of political discourse is not the cause of the divisions between us, it is the consequence of those divisions. This is a battle that won’t be over until a) events or developments occur that make some current arguments moot, or b) one side or the other is discredited enough to actually lose the political battle. WRM’s casual assumption that a mythical “common sense” set of solutions is out there just waiting to be plucked out of the trees does not actually further the debate.

  • John

    We should keep in mind that many European countries do not have open primaries like we do which allow anyone to run for office. In Europe, you get to vote, but you have to choose between whatever candidates the political elites decide to offer you. The Tea Party movement would not be possible in Europe.

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