Representative democracy evolved in medieval Europe from Roman inspiration. Representatives from estates were chosen to advise the monarch.
Monarchism gave way to democracy in Europe in representative form during the 17th century. Despite the antagonism that led to revolution, colonial America largely followed British tradition in selecting its polity.
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Representative democracy is not about citizen involvement in decision-making. It is instead about assuring the public that there is some feedback mechanism to governmental performance. Whence competitive elections, which are basically exercises in brand-name publicity, coupled with some shaggy demagoguery over issues.
Money as power is as old as money itself. After the founding of the American republic, Thomas Jefferson mulled over democracy as being just a myth. “The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history – whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite,” he said.
Even where the guise of democracy operates, the world’s nations are ruled by an elite. Votes are effectively bought, as costly publicity is necessary to be elected. Hence, the politicians not already wealthy must have patrons to finance their campaigns.
In the US, the rich decide who may run, especially for higher offices. Of the 115.6 million families in America, just 358 pay over half the tab for presidential campaigns.
In contrast to presidential systems, parliamentary democracies are more hardscrabble, as the national leader is chosen from the majority party or coalition, decided in numerous regional elections throughout the country. Certainly, money always matters, but parliamentary democracy is a practical improvement over the presidential system when it comes to outright purchase of elections.
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The greatest irony of representative democracy is that it is seldom representative. The American constitution established a federal electoral system skewed against cities. Senators from rural states representing less than 13% of the population have the power to pass legislation.
US presidential elections are also disproportionately favorable to rural areas, thanks to an idiotic electoral college.
The electoral college was conceived to avoid the concentration of power which would result from a 2-party system, which was anathema to the founding fathers. The incredibly stupid design of the electoral college, which quickly triggered a 2-party regime to take advantage of the system, puts paid to the myth that America’s founding fathers were wise men.
Elections for the lower house of Congress are also rigged as a tyranny of the minority, though by constitutional neglect rather than design, as the constitution was silent about how states should allocate their electors. The customized drawing of electoral districts, called gerrymandering, lets a party in power undemocratically stay in power. The advantage of gerrymandering was discovered almost immediately. Gerrymandering was labeled in 1812.
In the last few decades, Republicans have been especially adept at keeping power despite getting fewer votes. The Republican majority in the Senate was achieved with only 46% of the vote. Democrats have to win by larger margins to be elected.
Britain also suffers from electoral skew. The flaw is the first-past-the-post electoral regime, which the US also uses. In first-past-the-post, a set is awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes in an individual race, rather than allocating seats by proportion of total national vote.
First-past-the-post is not itself an obvious flaw in the US because only 2 parties effectively compete. By contrast, Britain sports several parties.
In the 2019 parliamentary election, Brexit polarized the British electorate. Those who wanted to remain in the EU had a choice of parties, whereas the Conservatives were the voice of Brexit. The result was that it took over 9 times as many votes to elect a Liberal Democrat than a Tory. British political scientist Sara Hobolt observed that “when you don’t have 2 parties, the first-past-the-post system is really bad at translating voter beliefs into seats.”
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Owing to growing economic and societal schisms, democratic politics have become more divisive throughout much of the world in the early 21st century. This trend is particularly pronounced in the governmental dynamics of European parliamentary democracies.
Across Europe, politics is becoming more fragmented, and governments harder to form. Smaller parties, among them populists and single-issue outfits, pop up and steal support from traditional powerhouses.
One reason for rising fragmentation is growing inequality. Between the mid-1980s and 2008, the income of Europe’s richest grew 10%, almost 3 times faster than the poorest 10%.
As wages became more dispersed, voters’ preferences fragmented, with the rich supporting the status quo and the poor opposing it. Polarization among the public begets fragmentation in parliament.
Simultaneously, the concerns of urbanites increasingly diverged from those of rural folk, creating distinct pockets of voters to which smaller parties can appeal.
Another factor is plummeting partly loyalty. Dissatisfaction has been the impetus for abandoning traditional parties, which are often seen as representing the status quo.
Some electoral systems are designed to keep smaller parties out of power, thus ostensibly discouraging fragmentation. But such mechanisms have proven ineffective in the face of growing alienation.
One adaptive strategy has been to form “grand coalitions” that range across the political spectrum. Such coalitions governed Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands in the 2010s.
Wide-spectrum coalitions can reinforce the divisiveness dynamic, as voters become frustrated with the stagnation of colorless centrism. This furthers a drift toward extremes and issue-oriented parties.
Coalition governments tend to be short-lived and often unproductive. Coalitions comprised of widely disparate parties struggle to pass laws.
Because coalition governments promise largesse to a greater number of groups, they tend to be expensive. From 1970–1998, adding a party to a European coalition government meant an increase in governmental spending by 0.5% of GDP. For economically weak countries like Greece and Italy, this has been a significant fiscal problem.
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There is one salient dysfunction in democracy, regardless of form: an inherent temporal corruption in its bias toward short-term performance. The frequent elections that characterize democracies are entirely of the moment in approval. There simply is no long view.
The societal effect has been profound, in creating ping-pong policies between successive parties in power. This short-termism has been a major propellant in the increasing divisiveness and dissatisfaction that has become the norm for democracies in much of the world.
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Skepticism to authority naturally arises in representative democracy, abetted by the incompetence and corruption so commonly displayed by elected officials. This loosening of authority’s hold fosters an independence of spirit and sense of autonomy to which government officials bristle.
Reluctance to defer to authority stiffens the resolve of authorities to enforce their will. The obviousness of this is apparent in any encounter where a policeman is not instantly obeyed. From such encounters, division between authority and its subjects widens.
American political scientist George Keteb noted that “representative democracy induces or encourages a general attitude toward all authority in society.”
It is unsurprising that representative democracy and capitalism go well together. The dynamic alignment is such that the 2 systems essentially feed off each other: both in mutual regard between business leaders and political officials, and in the slosh of money which flows from political contributions by the wealthy and is re-turned in kind by government largesse toward those who need it least. In 1828 President John Quincy Adams lamented, “how much, even in this free country, the course of public events depends on the private interests and passions of individuals.”
Authority figures in both the public and private sectors chafe at restraints on their will. In both sectors, abuse of power is so commonplace as to be unremarkable.
American diplomat Henry Kissinger quipped that “90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name.”
Just as voters and workers learn to look with a jaundiced eye upon their leaders, so too those in power quietly nurture contempt for those below their elevated station. Few veteran politicians think much of the acumen of voters, just as any corporate executive takes “good help is hard to find” as axiomatic.
Lip service becomes a norm, furthering everyman skepticism against the system. Thus, representative democracy subtlety fosters societal division, and disrespect for the institutions of government. As Aristotle anticipated, the societal dynamic of representative democracy has shown itself to be self-erosive.
The world grew more democratic after the 2nd World War. In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies. By 2000 only 8 states had never held an election.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, the spread of democracy regressed as the masses realized that democracy is plutocracy in gauzy disguise.
Strongmen who promised muscular correction found favor with the rubes who make up voting majorities. Autocracy is appealing to the ill-informed and xenophobic. A father figure is something simpletons can understand, as American President Trump illustrates.
Democracy and liberalism are separable. Whereas voters like the idea of democracy, they can be illiberal about its exercise, irrespective of ideology. Voters may elect a government that promises to censor speech they dislike, or support a referendum curtailing the civil rights of an unpopular minority.
Whereas democracy can be illiberal, liberal institutions can be undemocratic. In a liberal democracy, power is dispersed in a check-and-balances scheme to check corruption. This scheme only works when the political system has not been thoroughly corrupted, as it has in the United States under Republican rule.
The paradoxical system of illiberal democracy and un-democratic liberality is now under siege by voters who have been ill-served by it. They don’t understand the theoretics, which don’t really matter. What does matter is that the system is rigged against them. For those struggling to get by, a strongman promising to give them a break by breaking the system seems like something long overdue.
The transition from ostensible democracy to autocracy is becoming a well-worn path. As most people agree that democracy is a good thing, leaders do not openly admit their plan to strangle it. Instead, modern aspiring autocrats subvert the essence of democracy while maintaining its outward appearance.
There are 3 steps to felling a democracy. 1st, create a crisis if one is not already at hand. 2nd, cite enemies to overcome. 3rd, nobble institutions that might get in the way. By then, a state may pose as a democracy and be anything but.
In his bid for the presidency, Donald Trump portrayed a disintegrated America (which miraculously was doing swimmingly well once Trump was president).
Trump’s chosen enemy was immigrants; an ironic choice for a nation of immigrants, but an effective dog-whistle to his racist base. Racism in America runs rampant and is only thinly disguised by toothless legalistics.
Trump triumphed by stiff-arming the courts whenever possible, abetted by a partisan bench stocked with Republicans at the courts’ highest levels.
Autocrats invariably attack an independent press. President Trump continually derides unfavorable media coverage as “fake news.”
The coup de grâce for the death of American democracy while maintaining its appearance has been the gaming of the ballot box. Republicans have accomplished this using a variety of measures.
1st has been tailoring suffrage to supporters. Republicans have selectively suppressed voter registration and eliminated voters from registration rolls, thereby limiting the opposition. As a further measure in that direction, Republicans ensure that there aren’t enough voting booths on election day in areas which might rack up votes for the opposition. These measures work because most states are run by Republicans, and partisans pose as election officials.
The United States is unique in allowing state laws and officials to govern and run federal elections. The Republican supreme court dismantled key federal protections against discriminatory practices in 2013. Since then, jurisdictions with a history of systematic racism, whose elections used to be subject to federal supervision, have shut down 20% more voting stations per capita than in the rest of the country.
In many US states, convicted felons cannot vote. Over 6 million Americans have been stripped of their voting rights because of felony disenfranchisement laws. Unsurprisingly, this disenfranchised group unable to vote is largely black – a minority group which religiously votes against Republicans when it is allowed to vote.
The 2nd level of rigging the vote is exactly that. As Joseph Stalin aptly observed, “the people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.”
Computers have been used in US elections since the 1960s, when punch cards and computerized card readers and tabulators were introduced. Computer experts have warned all along about the hazards of computerized voting, to no avail. From all around the country for over a half century to present day, numerous instances have been documented where electronic voting systems went awry. The only response has been to intensify the computerization of elections.
There is significant fraud in American voting, though the extent is unknowable, as partisan election officials run an opaque process. As states do not cross-check registrations, duplicate voting is easily accomplished.
What is known is that ballots are falsified or discarded on a whim, after the vote is known to election officials. Especially in districts with a lot of poor voters, electronic machines tend to break down and votes go uncounted. States forbid recounting when recounts are most needed.
The US uses ~350,000 voting machines. All electronic voting machines are connected to networks which can be hacked. Regardless of voting machine type, states don’t conduct decent postelection audits to check whether the tallies are accurate.
Rigging vote counts is just one way to subvert elections. Another way is to target voters, by tampering the registration rolls. This too has been done, repeatedly.
The American voting-machine industry is an oligopoly of 3 companies with close political ties to the Republican party, and a revolving door between machine vendors and election officers. The industry provides electronic voter registrars as well as voting machines. The criteria for rational criminality are “means, motive, and opportunity,” all of which are ever-present for the people who run US elections.
14 states use electronic voting machines which leave no paper trail – there is no way to tell whether vote counts are accurate or have been altered.
Georgia runs a thoroughly rigged election system in favor of Republicans. 1 Georgia voting precinct with 276 registered voters tallied 670 votes in a 2018 election. Georgia election officials discard absentee ballots when they don’t like the vote. This corrupt tallying comes after various methods to suppress voting by those not inclined to vote Republican. Georgia is merely exemplary of state elections systems run by Republicans.
There is no federal agency, such as the Department of Homeland Security, that concerns itself with the veracity of elections. State and local officials responsible for elections admit the process is subject to irregularities, but paradoxically insist the system is fundamentally sound. Efforts to investigate are roundly denounced as a threat to democracy.
Unsurprisingly, Congressional Republicans have repeatedly voted against measures that might help states improve their voting systems, including refusing to provide funding to ensure ballot counting.
In June 2017, an American government intelligence specialist was imprisoned for leaking secret government evidence that the Russians had hacked American electronic voting machines in the 2016 election. 39 states were affected, but no public disclosure was made about whether the outcome was altered.
There should be little doubt that Russia’s “extensive, sophisticated” effort delivered the presidency to Donald Trump, in that the outcome was determined by slim margins in only 3 states, and Trump’s opponent won the election by a 3 million vote margin.
The 2016 election was not the only one handed to a Republican through fraud this century. In 2000, the Republican majority in the supreme court unconstitutionally decided that George W. Bush was to be president.
The government is desperate to keep any information about election illegitimacy a secret, for public knowledge would rightly undermine confidence in the US election process.
American voter tolerance of its dysfunctional electoral system can only be chalked up to ignorance or indifference. American society is riven by inequities; its politics merely symptomatic.
Mexico has a more secure and transparent election process than the United States, and Mexico is no pristine model of copacetic election practices.