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There’s a serious problem with modern democracy, but what is the alternative?

Democracies will not voluntarily and peacefully cease to be democracies. Once people have tasted rights, especially under the umbrella of a righteous political idea, they would not want to lose them

columns Updated: Nov 10, 2016 07:37 IST
Donald Trump,democracy,plutocracy
Protesters in downtown Pretoria, South Africa, November 2. Thousands of South Africans are demonstrating for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma, who has been enmeshed in scandals that critics say are undermining the country's democracy.(AP)

Long before US president-elect Donald Trump was first sighted there were men who feared democracy. Among the fearful were the very men who invented America’s democracy. Wary of the intellect of regular people, the framers of America’s constitution complicated the presidential elections. As a result Americans do not directly elect the president, rather they vote for hundreds of people who in turn elect the president. In practice, the electoral college is a formality and its members have never overturned public will, but in theory they can.

Democracy is strange. No other human enterprise is run the way a democracy is. Corporations, institutions, including Jawaharlal Nehru University, and even families are autocracies. Democracies themselves are not truly democracies. The very idea of representative democracy is to ensure that the State is protected from most of the whims of the masses, and is instead run by an elected plutocracy.

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As proof of democracy’s success, its champions point to disastrous alternatives, and the triumphs of the advanced economies of the West. Most of these democracies, though, made gigantic leaps in prosperity when they were not democracies or when only the educated elites could vote. Their present wealth is built on the headstart won in a period when they were not inconvenienced by democracy. Following Europe’s successful evangelisation of democracy in Asia, several nascent nations adopted an element of democracy than even the colonisers had not started with--universal suffrage. Thus India quickly created an ignorant and incompetent political class that destroyed the nation for decades.

Despite its failures, democracy is widely accepted today as a form of absolute social morality and any challenge to it is perceived by most people as corrupt or insane. No informed devotee of democracy would deny that it is flawed but he would say it is still the best idea there is. But what if the flaws of democracy are much more serious than its fans imagine?

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What if the truth is that as the people of the democratic world become more empowered than ever, and more vocal and more politicised, democracy is becoming an excellent conductor to transmit evil? What if the fact is that the flaws of democracy are amplifying the flaws of human nature?

The 2016 US presidential elections were frequently described by political experts as a consequence of the “dark side” of the Internet. They mean that very dangerous opinions and sheer nonsense are now easily transmitted. But what if it is not the Internet that is dark, but electoral democracy in the age of technology? Like the Internet, elections are becoming almost perfect mirrors of the society, and we are unable to like what we see.

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There is another serious problem with modern democracy. Representative democracy, which is in reality a protection of the State from total democracy, had honourable reasons to exist at the time of its creation. The technology then was such that people could not transmit their wish directly to the centre of power, so they had to elect their representatives. But now technology has transformed, and all around the world there is pressure on governments to deploy direct democracy or referendums on policies.

The idea that elected representatives would work hard to make the right decision on complicated matters so that they would earn the right to be re-elected is coming under strain. People, especially in advanced economies, wonder why they cannot vote on matters directly, as the Britons did to decide Brexit. The more efficient a democracy becomes---and direct democracy is purer than representative---the better democracy becomes in conducting evil, fear, stupidity, prejudice and every other dark shade of human nature. This was evident during the Brexit campaign. It does appear that democracy is how regular people protect themselves from the smart.

What then is the alternative?

In the book Against Democracy, which was released a few weeks ago, political philosopher Jason Brennan argues that democracy is a disaster, and that the rising involvement of people in democratic processes would only make things worse. He argues for a system of government called “epistocracy” or the rule of the knowledgeable. People would have to prove their knowledge, take a test for instance, to win their right to vote. That would eliminate most people. Smart children, whom democracy unjustly disqualifies, may become voters. But such challenges to democracy do not matter.

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Democracies will not voluntarily and peacefully cease to be democracies. Once people have tasted rights, especially under the umbrella of a righteous political idea, they would not want to lose them. Who is going to tell them, peacefully, that most of them are too stupid to vote?

That only the smart must have the right to run the country is a common but discreet conviction among people who consider themselves smart. Conservatives express this wish by fantasising about a righteous dictator, and the leftists, for all their moral charades, convey the same wish when they speak of the importance of “institutions”. For what are “institutions” after all but the fiefdoms of unelectable eggheads.

No matter what the aspirations of the elite are, it appears that a democracy can only be replaced by something worse.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Twitter: @manujosephsan

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 09, 2016 21:30 IST