Why democracy doesn’t work

Voter

A resident casts her vote at Ratta Primary School in Seme, Kisumu County on August 8, 2017. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Until every voter knows why he is casting his or her ballot, then democracy remains a sham.
  • The only time “the people” wield power is during election campaigns when they are being wooed.

One thing that can be said about democracy is that it is a very chaotic form of governance. True, its virtues far outweigh its vices, but still, when one looks at representative democracy dispassionately, the untidiness and inefficiencies become so obvious that one can understand why many rulers would prefer any other system if only to get things done. That is why some sage is supposed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

We may not know what prompted the originator of this quote (later paraphrased by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill[A1] ) to say what he did, but he had a point. Until every voter knows why he is casting his or her ballot, then democracy remains a sham — an exercise held periodically to elect people who are motivated by things that only matter to themselves. This can only change if voters are enlightened, but only a tiny minority are. In reality, ignorance of the majority seems to be an essential component of democracy.

The simplest definition of democracy is that it is a form of government in which the common people hold political power and rule through their elected representatives. In theory, they are supposed to do that, and most constitutions give prominence to the role of “we the people”, but this is rarely the case.

The only time “the people” wield power is during election campaigns when they are being wooed. After that, their rulers decide everything for them and they have little say on whether the policies being implemented reflect what they really need. 

These musings were prompted by a newspaper article quoting a study which indicated that public trust in governments running the world’s democracies have fallen due to the sorry manner in which they handled the Covid-19 pandemic and their economies in subsequent years. According to the survey by a global public relations consultancy known as Edelman, there has been a breakdown in the way the public trust their governments ever since. 

Benevolent dictatorship

The worst affected, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, were democracies like Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States. In contrast, countries that do not practice “pure” democracy like China and some Eastern European countries did a better job of coping with the ravages of Covid, shoring up the economy and creating jobs. While one should not put too much trust in such findings, could there be a correlation between the excess freedoms that come with democracy and the failure to contain the pandemic?

Take for instance what has been happening in the United States. While the country’s government has been insisting on strict adherence to Covid protocols, half the country has been recalcitrant on the issue. And while all the vaccines needed have long been available, a significant number of Americans have balked at any jab whatsoever, and neither the federal nor the state governments have any means of enforcing a sensible vaccine policy.

On the other hand, China, where the virus is supposed to have originated, has stuck to a highly-effective zero-Covid policy. Today, more Americans than Chinese have died of Covid. 

Isn’t this outcome perhaps telling us that in times of calamities, a few robust “anti-democratic” strategies may save more lives than where people are allowed to choose between dying or infecting others because it is their democratic right to do so? Where does one draw the line between individual freedoms and the public good?

I am all for democracy because the alternatives are infinitely worse, but in some life-and-death situations, a whiff of diktat may clearly be indicated. There is a thin line between benevolent dictatorship and dereliction of duty and any functional government must weigh the benefit of one over the other. But that cannot happen in a highly litigious society like ours. Has anyone noticed that these days, no sooner does the President open his mouth than someone rushes to court to cut him off, citing this or other breach of the Constitution?

***

This matter would elicit loud guffaws were it not so tragic. Why would anyone pounce on a bald man, cut off his head and try to sell it? Only a madman, you would say. And yet that seems to be what happened in Mozambique recently.

According to the BBC, some criminals decapitated their victim and wanted to sell his head to a buyer from Mali because they believed that bald heads contain gold. But when the buyer got cold feet, they fled. It appears this is nothing new in Mozambique; the macabre practice was reportedly first detected there five years ago, and apparently the trade is catching on continent-wide. Considering that Mali is some 5,900 kilometres away from Mozambique, this whole thing should send shivers down the spines of all bald-heads in the continent. 

These fortune-seekers may soon make hair-loss an extreme health hazard.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]

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