Why We Still Need Democracy

Imperfect as electoral systems are, they provide a vital accountability.

Working in bipartisan pairs, canvassers process mail-in ballots in a warehouse at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections headquarters in Glen Burnie, Maryland, on Oct. 7.
Working in bipartisan pairs, canvassers process mail-in ballots in a warehouse at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections headquarters in Glen Burnie, Maryland, on Oct. 7. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a particularly telling tweet after the U.S. vice presidential debate on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Mike Lee wrote: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are.” (He meant prosperity.) Democracy should be the principle that ties the United States together, but as we see more and more evidence that elected officials at the highest levels are not interested in defending it, maybe it is time for Americans to remind themselves why they chose democracy—and why they should keep fighting for it.

Democracy has become so obligatory that Americans may have forgotten why it’s good. In the public discourse, the word practically comes with triumphant chords and maybe an echo effect, much like freedom! But the concept has been diluted with casual assumptions of unquestioned good to the point of largely losing its meaning.

So why democracy? Why, now, is it still the best government the United States has?

One thing democracy offers, above all the other forms of government, is accountability. Democracy lets us hold elected leaders accountable, primarily by chucking them out if we don’t like the job they’re doing. This may seem simple, but it’s important. Consider the assertion, by Amartya Sen, that famines don’t take place in a democracy. Or the scarcity of wars in which both parties are democratic. While these could be attributed to correlation rather than causation, it’s also reasonable to suppose that serving at the pleasure of the people inculcates at least a modicum of concern about their welfare.

It’s easy to lose sight of that attribute because it is so diluted in the representative form of democracy. Take a U.S. senator: In six years, they are likely to make some policy decisions their constituents agree with as well as some they dislike, or they might be corrupt but still carry out their job to voters’ satisfaction. The yea or nay of the ballot does not offer any nuance for signaling which is which. Moreover, the opposition might be equally mixed and almost certainly less well known.

Accountability in the U.S. system is weak. There are some changes Americans could make that would strengthen it: for example, ranked-choice voting and steps toward direct democracy, such as formal systems allowing voters to tell their representatives how to vote on specific legislation. But even as it is today, the system is still better at accountability than an undemocratic government. Authoritarian systems may claim to listen to the people or work in their best interests, but when a leader serves at his (and it’s usually his) own pleasure rather than that of the people, such assurances have little to back them up, and the people have no recourse when it goes wrong.

Self-determination is another phrase that might come to mind. It’s a bit misleading, since democracy is not about each individual getting what he or she wants. But democracy—especially one with complex legislative representation like the United States’—does offer the potential for compromise and interest trading. More importantly, the interests, at least in theory, come from everyone. In theory, it’s not just the elites deciding what will happen and brokering deals among themselves; everyone gets to vote, and since by definition the elites make up a smaller number than everyone else, the nonelites should have a strong voice.

This is important because, despite the claims of those who think a meritocracy would solve all the country’s problems, it is in fact very difficult to know what’s best for someone else. (I say this as someone with a substantial amount of privilege who has spent quite a lot of my career supposedly helping people with less.) Yes, expertise and experience are useful. But they are less useful if you don’t know what problem you’re trying to solve, and it is often all but impossible to identify that from the outside.

Democracy, in theory, lets the people closest to the problem have some say in how their government should fix it. I emphasize in theory because while each person may have only one vote, money buys influence (and fame, less explicably, seems to access some as well). Many, though not all, American representatives come from a small group of the wealthy and well-educated in the first place, and if they don’t, they usually join it while in office. Money buys television advertisements and lobbyists. It’s not completely effective—there have been plenty of elections in which the candidate with higher spending lost—but it certainly sways the U.S. government away from the interests of the many.

But even as it is today, the U.S. system is still better at including the interests of the people than an undemocratic government. Even at the basic level of money, the leadership of undemocratic countries like China and Russia is even more stuffed with the ultra-rich than the United States.

There’s another, more abstract reason for choosing democracy: It promotes participation in government. When Americans engage in democratic processes—whether by casting a vote, attending a town hall, calling a representative, discussing policy choices with neighbors—they are asserting a role in the government and its choices. If people have a role, they are more likely to pay attention, to educate themselves and others, to demand better in return for the effort they are expending. It gives a kind of ownership and, therefore, responsibility. This is an end in itself, as well as a means to having more people contribute their interests, needs, and abilities toward forming a more perfect government.

Needless to say, the United States is not doing terrifically well at this measure either. A strikingly low proportion of people vote in the United States as compared with peer countries. However, it is still far more participation than is possible in an undemocratic government.

Of course, democracy also has its flaws. It opens a risk of oppression by the majority, in which the rights of a small group are trampled because they do not have the numbers to outvote the interests of the larger group. The United States defend against that in part through, for example, the Bill of Rights, which puts certain fundamental principles beyond the reach of democratic legislating. Those principles are subject to constant interpretation and debate in U.S. society; some argue that they don’t go far enough, others that they go too far. But they still give citizens more protection than they would have without them or under an undemocratic government.

Yet perhaps the most pernicious argument against democracy is the idea that the people won’t vote well. That was what frightened the Founding Fathers into restricting democracy to the elite and including plenty of elite safeguards, like the Senate and the Electoral College. And it’s a refrain that continues today, sometimes couched in the guise of “low-information voters” or “people voting against their own interests.”

It’s certainly possible that the people can make less-than-perfect decisions or base their decisions on poor information. However, there’s no evidence that dictators or autocrats do any better. (Contrary to popular myth, Benito Mussolini did not in fact make the trains run on time.) At least in a democracy you have the chance to change your mind in the next election cycle (or with a snap election, in some cases), while dictators are free to keep making bad decisions over and over (see again: famine, wars).

In terms of poor information, that is on everyone. I argue that a democracy that does not include accessible, quality education for its citizens should not be considered a democracy at all. Why put the burden of decision-making on people but not give them the tools they need to do it well? But once again, dictators and autocrats are not always particularly well educated or informed themselves and are often lacking in real-world experiences of one kind or another. Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito only completed four years of school and failed second grade; Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu stopped school at 11; and hereditary dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier were brought up in luxury.

So as much as we may want to critique or complain about the voting choices of the majority, there’s no reason to think their decisions would be any worse than those taken in an undemocratic society and plenty of reason to think they might be better.

Someday we might devise a form of government that works better than democracy as we understand it now. I hope we do, and I hope that until then we make our democracies more democratic. In the meantime, though, we need to defend what we have. It’s far better than anything else on offer.

Malka Older is an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po. She is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, beginning with Infomocracy, and a new collection of of short fiction and poetry, ...and Other Disasters.

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