Identify the main elements of democratic political systems and suggest ways in which they might be undermined.
Democracy is a system of governance that gives all qualified citizens an equal opportunity of involvement in the creation of laws, proposals, and general development. This is possible through direct democracy, where the people themselves determine the laws and policies by which they are governed, although this is often impractical in populous states. Instead, most countries govern through representative democracy: this may be constitutional, parliamentary, or presidential, but the main feature is that people affect political life through the representatives they have chosen through elections (Howards, 2003).
Democracy is the most popular form of governance in the world, preferred for the prestigious freedom that citizens enjoy in executing their choices. It can be defined through several basic features: holding free and fair elections, protecting human rights, applying the law to all citizens equally, and affording citizens the right to involve themselves in civic and political activities as well as citizens’ rights such as freedom of speech and the press.
In a representative democratic society, people elect representatives to carry out their needs, trusting that they will carry out their duties efficiently, responsibly, and honestly. Democratic systems can be undermined by bureaucracy, including legislative and administrative checks on power, or corruption of the elected representatives from known or undeclared outside interests.
A liberal democracy is a form of representative democracy and may take various constitutional forms: it may be a constitutional monarchy (e.g. Japan, Australia, and UK) or a constitutional republic (France, India, and USA). In presidential democracies, the government is headed by a directly elected president, who is also the ceremonial head of state. There is a focus on global institutions such as the United Nations and the attractiveness of creating democratic international institutions and promoting the spread of liberal-democracy. The constructivist places emphasis on the importance of how states construct their identities and marks an inherent shift into the globalisation of politics (Held, 1995).
In parliamentary democracies, the government is headed by a prime minister and their cabinet, who must maintain the confidence of parliament, while a president or king acts as the ceremonial head of state. Many newer democracies such as Australia have chosen an intermediate system: the cabinet is responsible for the day-to-day administration of government through its ministries; the president has the power to nominate the prime minister, embargo legislation, and to make or approve certain judicial and governmental appointments. By partially separating these powers, combined with an independent judiciary, this system aims to prevent the abuse of power.
A state’s democracy can evolve over the course of history. Australia’s system of government grew over time from single governors representing the British Parliament to the fully elected representative democracy that functions today. Australia has been a leader in many important democratic steps such as granting women the right to vote and introducing the secret ballot. The Australian political system has one undemocratic feature usually overlooked: the division of the country into many electorates. Decision requires a majority vote in a majority of the subdivisions, i.e. a qualified or special majority, rather than a simple majority. A party may receive a majority of the popular vote nation-wide and still not get a majority in Parliament; this can also happen in the UK and other countries (Department of the Senate, 2004).
Citizens living under a democracy have basic rights that the state cannot take away, guaranteed under international law. Rights “structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016); democracy provides a natural environment for the protection and effective realisation of human rights.
Democracy attaches greater importance to plurality of opinion than quality, and since every person does not possess the same degree of political talent or specialist knowledge, a democratic government cannot ensure better administration of public affairs. It also requires compromise. Groups with different backgrounds, interests, and opinions must be willing to negotiate and co-operate.
A disadvantage of representative democracy is a paradoxical feeling of disenfranchisement, that one’s vote does not matter, which can lead to low voting turnout when it is not compulsory. Whether the decision not to vote is caused by the voting system (for example “safe seats” where a political party has a comfortable majority), contentment with the status quo, or indifference, it is hard to ensure that all opinions are represented. This disproportionately affects particular segments of the population: in the UK: voter turnout is higher among older people than younger people. There are also many instances where some members are unable to vote; many Aboriginal Australians were unable to vote in the 2016 federal election due to their remote living arrangements away from polling stations (McLennan & Bamford, 2016).
Democracy is seen as one of the ultimate ideals that modern civilizations strive to create, or preserve and has come a long way since Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people.” (Raaflaub, Ober, Wallace, Cartledge, & Farrar, 2007). As a system of governance, it is thought to allow widespread representation and inclusiveness of as many people and views, feeding into the functioning of a fair and just society. Democratic principles run in line with the ideals of universal rights, such as the right to free speech, fair trial and legal due process, etc.
Importantly, democracy serves to check unaccountable power and manipulation by the few at the expense of the many, because fundamentally it is governance by the people, for the people. This is often implemented through elected representatives, which therefore requires free, transparent, and fair elections, in order to achieve legitimacy. Democratic elections also usually implement a secret ballot to circumvent people’s votes being bought or intimidated.
However, even in established democracies, there are internal and external pressures threatening the foundations. A democratic system’s openness also allows it to attract those with vested interests to use the democratic process as a means to attain power and influence, whether or not they hold its principles high. In principle, there may be various ways to address this, but in reality once power is attained by those who do not genuinely support democracy, is it rarely given up; although there are many constitution ways to avoid a dictatorship. True leaders understand the limitations inherent in power and choose to view their role as one of influence (Tansey & Jackson, 2014).
Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. In many developing countries, the problem is that democracy was imported from the West rather than built up by their own peoples, and so they’ve not developed a taste for democracy. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife, such as politicians being incentivised to work against the public interest due to party agenda (Haugaard, 2010).
The recent British EU referendum shows the advantages and dangers of the plebiscite as a democratic tool. While some argue that referendums are the ultimate in direct democracy (Smith, 2009), others say that the electorate already gets a chance to vote on “big issues” in a general election, and referendums impede effective governance (Eavis, 2016). For example, in California, they have passed so many referendums that the state is seen to be ungovernable (Ecomonist.com, 2011).
A majority of elected MPs in Parliament wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, but the majority of the electorate did not. In this case, the democratic decision made at the ballot box is only as well-educated as the people voting. Additionally, the mainly pro-European Government and Parliament are arguably (if not legally) bound to carry out a process that they actively campaigned against .
Giddens (2002) highlights clearly that many of the key political and democratic challenges moving into the globalised world cannot be managed just at the level of the nation state. He argues that we need to either to find ways of extending democracy to the transnational and international space; aided by organisations such as the United Nations and European Union or the key issues affecting our future will be determined in non-democratic ways. Culture, according to Giddens (1991), becomes more democratic as more people have more of a say in how culture will inform their lives.
Many contemporary critics argue that Giddens’ view of contemporary societies as too optimistic. Bauman agrees that uncertainty in society requires most individuals to constantly engage in ‘identity construction’, but he points out that the wealthy and powerful – often leaders with political ties or influence – are the ones both creating and benefiting from an unstable, rapidly changing world; these people are much more able to defend themselves against the negative consequences of living in a ‘runaway world’ (Bauman, 2007).
With all these changes, a free press such as social media is essential; however, it can sometimes act as an aggressive and counter-productive agent, given their inclination to drive the agenda instead of objectively reporting on it (as the press is meant to do, although sometimes this isn’t the case); it has also been argued that it can undermine democracy. In a democracy, social media not only enables advocates of a political agenda to organise like-minded voters more quickly and efficiently, but social networks also allow people to form an ongoing bloc actively pursuing that agenda (Radcliffe, 2011).
Democracy can be noisy; autocracy can be surreptitious. Autocratic governments tend to do their work behind closed doors and barred windows; democratic officials have to work out in the open; often when they work in secret, it’s usually for detrimental pseudo-autocratic reasons that become a scandal when revealed. Although the democratic system is not perfect, it needs to undergo change with all the advancements of the media and technology. Media and political landscapes are very different from what they once were as conditions change we need to develop from the democracy of the past.
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McLennan, L & Bamford, M. (2016) Federal election 2016: Complaints growing in WA’s north about late changes and limited polling options http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-04/remote-voters-miss-out/7567860
Raaflaub, K., Ober, J., Wallace, R., Cartledge, P., & Farrar, C. (2007). Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp9pt
Radcliffe, D (2011) Can Social Media Undermine democracy? The Huffinton Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dana-radcliffe/can-social-media-undermine_b_1011290.html
Smith, G (2009). Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation (Theories of Institutional Design). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 112.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (June 8, 2016) Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights/
Tansey, S. and Jackson, N., (2014) Politics: the Basics, London, Routledge.