The Disappointment of Democracy

What if the problems of the 21st century are simply so complex that democracy can no longer solve them?

By Ian Morris

With barely a week left before Americans head to the polls to decide who will be the most powerful person on Earth, it would be odd to devote this column to anything other than politics. Voters face a choice between the two least popular candidates in presidential history. Poll after poll reports that solid majorities dislike and distrust both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and millions of Americans seem appalled by the entire electoral process. When audiences cheer on a presidential nominee who refuses to commit to abiding by the outcome of the election, something has gone seriously wrong.

Nor are Americans alone in feeling that democracy is letting them down. This year has been a bad one for democracy across the board, at least if we judge the decisions it has delivered by the standards Stratfor columnists normally apply. Britons voted to leave the European Union; Colombians rejected a peace treaty that would have ended half a century of civil war; Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, who promised (and delivered) extra-judicial murders; and Iceland’s prime minister resigned after his party won fewer seats than the new Pirate Party, led by self-described anarchists committed to (among other things) making Edward Snowden an Icelandic citizen. Nor does 2017 promise to be much better; the far-right populist Marine Le Pen is widely favored to win the first round of France’s presidential election.

Opinions vary as to why all this is happening. Some say that we, the people, are being misled by cynical, self-serving populists who exploit our basest instincts to further their own pursuit of power. Others argue that nothing has gone wrong at all, because the true cynics are the Stratfor-columnist types who promote a globalism that only works for people like themselves. The voters are simply giving notice that they will no longer stand for it.

The most radical conclusion, though, avoids the blame game altogether by thinking the unthinkable. What if no one is cynically manipulating anything? What if the 21st century’s problems are just so complex that democracy can no longer solve them? Although it may not be wise to say so in polite company, perhaps we need a better way to translate information into political action than by submitting it to the whims of poorly informed, selfish and scared people.

Like most radical challenges to the existing order, this one comes down to a simple counterfactual question: If not democracy, then what?

Weighing Other Options

The most famous answer is surely Winston Churchill’s: “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Anyone who suggests that democracy’s day is over must show either that he was wrong, and that some other institutional arrangement has in fact done better at making wise decisions, or that some entirely new system will outperform anything yet tried.

In an earlier column, I talked about the second of these possibilities, focusing on the idea — popular in some technological circles — that supercomputers and algorithms will soon be powerful enough to weigh the facts and make better decisions than our puny human brains. Here, however, I want to look at the first possibility, that Churchill misread the historical record and that democracy is not always the least bad option.

One way to test Churchill’s proposition is by looking at societies that had democratic institutions but decided to turn their backs on the ballot box. The most famous example is one that Churchill knew well: 1930s Germany. With unemployment, inflation, street violence and the loss of national greatness apparently beyond the control of democratic politicians, Adolf Hitler got enough votes in 1933 to be appointed chancellor, despite having made it abundantly clear that he aimed to create a one-party state. Eighty years on, we often forget that as late as 1938, his seeming success in solving Germany’s problems had made him one of the most admired politicians in Europe, and that millions of people were concluding that totalitarianism answered the democratic counterfactual. By 1945, of course, few citizens of democratic countries still felt that way, and Josef Stalin got a rude awakening when he assumed that Eastern European electorates would embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat and vote their democracies out of existence.

Nazi Germany obviously offers little comfort for those who favor nondemocratic decision-making, but perhaps it is such an extreme case that we should ignore it. However, there are plenty of other examples we can look at. World War II did not discredit nondemocratic rule as thoroughly outside Europe as it did inside the Continent, and citizenries have several times concluded that military or other authoritarian regimes could hardly perform worse than their incompetent or corrupt democratic representatives. The authoritarians’ record, though, remains unconvincing. From Juan Peron to Vladimir Putin, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have tended to be more repressive, violent and stagnant (both culturally and economically) than even the worst democracies.

But correlation is not causation. Countries such as prewar Argentina and post-communist Russia were dysfunctional long before their dictators came along, and had they remained democracies it is possible that they would have fared even worse than they did by turning to authoritarianism. (The same claim is made particularly often for Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.) To test Churchill’s claim properly, we need to compare like with like by looking at countries that are doing well in most regards but shifted from a democratic form of governance to some other type in the hope of doing better.

Unfortunately for this analysis, there are not many such cases. And in fact, the most interesting one lies in a place where political analysts rarely look anymore: ancient Greece.

The Jewel of the Mediterranean

The Athenian democracy of 2,400 years ago differed from modern democracies in its scale (its territory had only 350,000 residents and could be walked across in less than two days), economic structure (about 1 resident in 3 was a slave), institutions (there were no political parties, few representative offices and direct votes on each issue), and franchise (women could not vote). However, among the free male citizens — roughly one-sixth of the population — it was every bit as egalitarian as modern democracies. Ordinary citizens could speak in the assembly on any issue they cared to address, as well as vote, and the rules went to extremes to ensure that as many citizens as possible participated.

Historians normally see the fifth century B.C. as Athens’ golden age, when it was the most successful of the roughly 1,000 Greek city-states. Between 508 B.C. (when the democracy was established) and 431 B.C. (when the Peloponnesian War against Sparta began), Athens’ population nearly doubled while standards of living rose by some 50 percent, both huge increases by ancient standards. Athens also established itself as the cultural and economic center of the Mediterranean, as well as played the dominant role in Greece’s military resistance against the Persian Empire. Athenian democracy made many good decisions across these 77 years.

But Athenian democracy changed significantly over this period, too. Between 508 B.C. and the 460s B.C., a handful of wealthy aristocrats tended to dominate proceedings, organizing factions by distributing patronage and cutting deals behind closed doors. In the late 460s B.C., a new generation of politicians fought back by relying on rhetoric to sway the mass audiences in the assembly, breaking up the older alliances. The historian Thucydides says that by the 430s B.C., Pericles — the best known of these new men — was so effective at convincing the citizenry to follow him that Athens was no longer really a democracy at all. Pericles led Athens to war against Sparta in 431 B.C., but after he died two years later the leading speakers divided bitterly over war policy. Because no one could recapture Pericles’ dominance, our sources tell us, politicians turned into demagogues, offering the people whatever they thought would win votes.

In most ways, Athens was still the jewel of the Mediterranean world in the 420s B.C. Its trade was booming, its architects were putting the finishing touches on the Parthenon, and Socrates was at the peak of his intellectual powers. However, the war against Sparta was no longer going as planned. It was not a disaster, and when Athens and Sparta signed a truce in 421 B.C. it accomplished most of the goals that Pericles had laid out 10 years earlier. But all the same, increasing numbers of intellectuals were asking whether democracy was really capable of being virtuous.

Soon, confidence in public figures collapsed. In his 424 B.C. comedy “The Knights,” Aristophanes cast the Athenian People as a fundamentally good but befuddled old man being hoodwinked by the demagogue Cleon. To outmaneuver Cleon, establishment figures engaged in a race to the bottom, setting up a sausage maker (the most revolting profession imaginable) to challenge him for the People’s favor. The two politicians hold a public debate before the People, in which the sausage maker shows himself to be even more vulgar, boastful, selfish and crass than Cleon, accusing him of absurd crimes and finally winning the debate by promising free handouts that could never be paid for. (For obvious reasons, the play continues to resonate with satirists.)

But contempt for democracy was not limited to comedy. Socrates also argued that democratic leaders were by definition dishonest, and intellectuals of all kinds insisted that instead of pooling citizens’ knowledge to find the least-bad outcomes, democracy pooled their ignorance to find the exact opposite. And although Athens remained in almost every way the most successful Greek city-state, when Athens suffered a major defeat in the renewed war against Sparta, a powerful clique persuaded the assembly to vote itself out of existence in 411 B.C. in the hope that a narrower government would get better results.

Instead, the junta sent Athens spiraling toward disaster. It made such a mess of things that democracy was restored within a year, but the democratic assembly performed no better, scaring Athens’ top general so badly that he fled into exile and throwing away the last chance of a negotiated peace. After Athens finally surrendered in 404 B.C., the Spartans imposed a very narrow government on the city, only to see it sink into political violence and civil war. Democracy was re-established in 403 B.C., and one of the first things it did was pass a law of amnêsteia, literally “not remembering,” decreeing that almost all the crimes committed during the civil war must be forgotten in the name of choosing peace and reconciliation over justice and revenge.

The fourth-century democracy was far from perfect (it is best known for condemning Socrates to death in 399 B.C. on charges that even pro-democrats recognized as being a transparent end-run around amnesty). Within 50 years, though, Athens was once again the Greek world’s economic and cultural center. Here, it seems, democracy was indeed the worst form of government except all the other forms that were tried.

There Is No Alternative

These comparisons suggest that no democratic society in 2,500 years has successfully answered the question, “If not democracy, then what?” From classical Athens to Nazi Germany and beyond, whenever the rule of the many has been replaced by the rule of the few, the elite have consistently performed worse than the masses. When Greeks finally abandoned democracy late in the first millennium B.C., it was not because they had found a superior alternative: It was because their entire city-state system was absorbed into larger empires.

The real problem for every political system is one familiar to any manager: How should information be translated into practical action? In classical Athens, just as today, the big questions required specialized training that most people simply did not have. Barely 1 Athenian citizen in 10 could write his own name, let alone understand the strategic implications of invading Sicily in 415 B.C. (According to Thucydides, most did not even know how big the island was.) Similarly, although today nearly all Americans are literate, how many really understood the intricacies of repealing the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999? Or the likely consequences of intervening in Syria in 2012?

Democracy has found two ways to make decisions. The Athenian way was to have politicians weigh information and put competing interpretations before lots of men, each of whom had little specialized knowledge but — by definition — an average amount of wisdom. The modern way, in our much bigger societies, is to ask lots of people with little knowledge but average wisdom to pick representatives who will make the decisions for us. The alternatives to democracy, by contrast, all rest on the claim that they can identify a few people who know more or are wiser than the rest of us. The historical record suggests that they are rarely, if ever, right.

Earlier in this column I quoted the words of one Conservative British prime minister, Winston Churchill. I will close with words attributed to another, Margaret Thatcher. In the late 1970s, some newspapers nicknamed her “Tina,” an acronym for what was supposed to be her standard conversation-stopper in Shadow Cabinet debates: “There is no alternative.” (In reality, this was a favorite phrase of her Shadow Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, but it suited Thatcher’s public persona so well that it stuck to her instead.) History suggests that we should hold a Tina theory of democracy. Much as its decisions might horrify us, there is no alternative.


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