The Limits of DemocracyPosted OnJune 8, 2013 by
By Tara S Riggs
Revolutions are a reaction to failed government policy and general disillusionment with one’s government. If enough people share the sentiment, revolutionary sparks are ignited and as grass roots movements gain strength, collective groups attempt to overthrow the government. The United States has played a relatively large role in the Arab Spring revolutions and the construction of free and fair elections. Advising countries to “just vote and everything will be okay” seems fairly democratic but these are democratic means and not necessarily democratic ends. In fact, it is arguable that pure democracy governed by majority rule inevitably leads to the subjugation of minorities and to totalitarian systems in which the majority decides the rules the majority has to play by.
It is radical to think that the democracy the United States promotes is “undemocratic.” But, under our standards, democracy as the United States promotes it (the “just vote and your problems will be solved” mentality) leads to undemocratic ends. Dr. Michael Munger of Duke University writes in a 2005 paper that democratic nations have rule of law, liberty and property rights because the nations are wholly undemocratic. Munger uses arguments from political scientists like Fareed Zakaria, who writes that Adolph Hitler was elected via pure democratic means and that the western system of constitutional liberalism has nothing to do with actual democracy (Zakaria The Future of Freedom, p. 17), to Kenneth Arrow. Munger also refers to Federalist 10, an essay by former president James Madison, which offers a direct critique of pure democracy by suggesting that it will always be factionalized — that the majority will always be able to control the minority.
It is hard to think that pure democracy isn’t what we think of when we think democracy. Just voting, as democracy advocates, does not lead to democratic ends. Consider a large class of students:
There is a final exam worth a large portion of a grade. The professor allows the students to democratically chose how grades will be distributed before they take the exam. The majority of students chose not to study for the exam. These students, as the majority of voters in this purely democratic exercise, are able to decide how grades are distributed, while the minority has no say. If you were in the minority that worked hard and studied, you effectively have no say in your own grade even though you worked harder.
This situation leaves the minority helpless to the will of the majority. The United States can have a role in global revolutions, but when we tell a country to “just vote and you will be fine,” we set them up to use democratic means to meet undemocratic ends. As a Turkish revolution is brewing, the Syrian Revolution continues, and Arab Spring nations try to recover and form new governments maybe it is time we change our message from “just vote” to a promotion of a system in which that the rights and liberties of the majority and the minority are protected.