Since the French and American Revolutions, the fall of absolute monarchies in the 19th century and the growth of Enlightenment ideals, democracy has slowly become the only acceptable method of government in the West (and in much of the rest of the world). However, after the great rise of democracy in the 20th century following the two World Wars and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this system of governance has seen a gradual decline post-1990s. The West continues to attempt to encourage democracies in those countries that have remained autocratic, authoritarian or despotic. And yet, is democracy really proving to be the best system of government? It appears that all the fears of the early believers in democracy (James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, America’s founding fathers, for example) have come to pass.
The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were not in agreement over the best system of government. Many of the famed philosophers of the time were more in favour of enlightened despotism (such as Frederick the Great’s rule) rather than a republic. And, indeed, those who advocated for democracy were not blind to its flaws. French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu and American founding fathers Madison and Hamilton all had similar fears regarding it. The primary fear would be that a majority ‘faction’ would gain power, and that the rights of minorities would be at risk in this case. These trailblazers did not want democracy to only work for the most powerful social group, but for all. Montesquieu believed that for democracy to work, the people must be governed by virtue: a desire to do what is best for the country, not what is best for themselves. He also claimed that to avoid the problem of majorities vs minorities, democracy would work best in a small state with a homogenous population. Madison had the exact opposite opinion – a majority would be less likely to unite and gain control within a larger group of people. Madison also believed that a larger group of people would inevitably elect the right representatives. Hamilton again feared ‘the tyranny of the minority’ and his solution was the Electoral College (the system of democracy used by the USA, the same system that led to Trump’s election despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote). It seems ironic, if not painful, to see Hamilton and Madison’s solutions to the problem of faction and invasion of minority rights lead to exactly those two things. America has never been more divided, and the rights of women, immigrants and the LGBT+ community are being suppressed as we speak.
Regardless of political preferences, whether or not you see the election of Donald Trump and the results of the European Union Referendum in Britain as cases in which Madison’s fears were confirmed, democracy is showing the flaws predicted by its founding fathers. It has been broken apart by factions. Special interest groups (often not the interests of the majority) govern the masses. As time passes, our political parties move further apart and, in each election, the vote swings further left, then further right.
‘Faction’, as Madison called it, is at the core of Western democracy – we identify as part of a party, and usually vote according to that rather than based on the individual candidates and their personal beliefs. A Labour MP has just been punished for refusing to place party loyalty above personal belief. We are taught to vote for the party and group that has our own interest at heart, thus making it inevitable that whoever is in power is going to fight to protect certain groups’ interests and rights at the expense of minorities. Looking at developments across Western democratic countries– the treatment of immigrants in America and Europe, the attack on female autonomy in certain US states and Northern Ireland to name but a few– it is easy to see instances in which democracy has allowed a majority (or simply a powerful minority) to erode the rights of others.
The role of representatives in democracy was always seen as a way of safely and securely giving sovereignty to the people without giving them direct control. Just as an enlightened despot’s role is to serve his people, a representative’s role is to protect the rights of the people who elected them, using their superior knowledge and enlightened position to do this best. Again, this appears to be a fantasy when we look at today’s political climate – our politicians are in the news for expense scandals and offensive comments more than anything else, and many are more interested in protecting the rights of big business rather than their constituents.
The political climate of the present day is not one Madison or Montesquieu could have predicted, but the shortcomings of democracy clearly were. The question is, when democracy fails in these ways, is it a failure as a whole? At what point must we accept defeat, let go of this political system and attempt to start anew? The problems with British democracy run deep, and the constant failing and splitting of political parties, as well as the inherently divided nature of our nation, is a testament to that. When did democracy begin to fail us? Was Montesquieu right? Perhaps democracy is failing us because we are incapable of being governed by virtue. If we continue to be politically selfish as a society, democracy will continue to lead to faction, and the tyranny of the majority. Maybe democracy can only work if we elect with the good of our country and fellow citizens in mind, rather than ourselves.
art by Mafer Martinez