Democracy in Danger

While most of America is focused on summarizing the GOP convention and getting ready for the Democrat circus to move in to Charlotte, NC, other, more fundamental questions are looming in the background. The crisis in Europe is of a dimension that the democratic system of government itself is in danger. Back in June, four out of ten voters in Greece backed parties with an authoritarian ideology – they view the democratic society as merely an instrument toward a higher ideological goal – or with outright totalitarian principles. The latter breed of political parties is the most dangerous of all, obviously: if they were in power they would not even try to use the democratic form of government. They would abolish it. This opens frightening perspectives for the future. There is a theoretical possibility that, for the first time since the 1970s, Western European countries could be ruled by non-democratic regimes.

Since the fall of the Greek, Portuguese and Spanish military dictatorships some 35 years ago, there has been an overwhelming consensus in Western Europe about the superiority of parliamentary democracy. When the Berlin Wall finally came down, Eastern Europe embraced this widely spread way of governing a nation state.

For good reasons, obviously. The only form of government that is preferable to parliamentary democracy is our American constitutional republic. But in the face of the enormous economic crisis in Greece, a large number of voters turned to parties who are willing to part with democracy. How is this possible?

To find an answer, let’s go to South Africa. This nation has an even shorter history of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy than Greece – 18 years, or roughly half of what Greece has been blessed with since its military rule ended. South Africa is mired in social and economic problems at a level that to some degree matches the Greek crisis – and in some ways exceed it in severity.

Mark Barnes, columnist with Business Day, has some thoughtful reflections on democracy in a country that has some of the highest rates of corruption, crime and poverty in the free world:

On Sunday, I was in an old South African situation discussing the new South Africa’s challenges. I was driving with Elias, a black man. We were talking about Marikana and water supply and … you know, our stuff. He identified the root of the problem as the inability of a revolutionary movement to transform into a government. He asked what I thought; I wanted to know what he thought. Then he said: “Why don’t we try going back to apartheid?” I was taken aback, to say the least. I said he was mad, and we both had a good laugh — relieved, I guess, that there was no possibility of us going back there.

There is one side to this rhetorical question that we should not dismiss with a nervous laughter. Putting all other aspects of Apartheid aside, pre-democracy South Africa had one thing going for it: it was a stable, predictable economic environment. Even for those who do not have access to power, it can be preferable to live in a predictable, stable everyday environment, if the choice is to be allowed to cast your vote but not be able to secure your property, even your own life, as you go about your daily business.

This, of course, does not mean that tyranny has anything to offer that democracy cannot do better. But this rhetorical question about going back to Apartheid puts words on what we are willing to sacrifice for the individual freedom that comes with a parliamentary democracy. This is the exact same question that Greek voters asked themselves when they voted for neo-Nazis or Hugo Chavez-style communists.

That is not to say that the black man in Mr. Barnes’s story actually would vote for Apartheid if given the chance. But the rhetorical question is in itself a way to play with a thought that otherwise would be political taboo.

Back to Mr. Barnes’s column:

So, what did I suggest? The popular choice is not always right. Democracy can result in the most ambitious, misguided psycho becoming the leader (no names, but you know they’re out there). In a moment of anger or as an act of protest, the populace can elect a leader and see to its own demise.

Can you say Obama?

Mr. Barnes then goes on to ask how we can make democracy fool-proof. His answer, which has a slight touch of tongue-in-cheek to it, is actually a more profound challenge to the conventional wisdom that parliamentary democracy (or, by consequence, the constitutional republic) always leads to better results than any other form of government:

That is the fundamental flaw of democracy. What about a kind of voting licence, with a points system? At birth, your identity number includes four digits that determine your voting power. Everyone starts with 1,000. Then you get merits and demerits: • Education: you get 10 points for every grade you pass at school, with bonus points for leadership roles (captain of the tennis team, or prefect). More points are awarded for all forms of tertiary education or skills accumulation, with bonus points for nurses, teachers and police officers (public service professions).

Obviously, he goes overboard here. If public employees have more of a say in the size of government than private-sector employees, then our road to big government is wide open. Somewhere he knows that his list of merits and de-merits is just a playful way of asking a serious question:

Of course we can’t do this in real life — how would we work out the price per point on the “informal” market? But if we all started behaving as if we could, we may just elect a leader who will help us find that rainbow. We have to.

The rainbow being the promise of a better South Africa after Apartheid. But beyond that, his fundamental question is really about two things: that democracy requires more civic skills of all citizens than tyranny; and that democracy can lead to its own demise.

Basically, these two issues are two sides of the same coin. The problem is well illustrated in the struggle for the future in Greece. Greek voters have used their one-man-one-vote power to create a welfare state that is now sinking the country into economic ruin. It is easy to make the argument that voters in Greece were uneducated about the macroeconomic ramifications of their own decisions. Now that voters see how the welfare state is in trouble and they see the contours of a difficult choice down the road between the welfare and parliamentary democracy, they have expressed a preference for the welfare state.

Since it was democracy that led to the welfare state, then should a majority of voters choose totalitarianism at some point, democracy will de facto be responsible for its own demise.

In the case of South Africa, voters are struggling with the fact that they have elected massively corrupt, and tragically inept, leaders. They are asking themselves if democracy is worth the levels of crime and economic hardship they are faced with. In both countries, democracy has been a culprit in a deterioration process that is now threatening democracy itself.

Is there an antidote that can save democracy from destroying itself? Yes, there is. But that is a question we will have to return to.

Stay tuned.