Democracy, Why it Matters a Lot
It is not uncommon to hear and read about or even witness the tragic stories of human sufferings in many corners of the globe, in both near and far distant places. It is not also uncommon that they are, more often than not, Man-made tragedies: political repressions, violent social strife, armed conflicts, rebellion, to name but a few. If gauged by their immeasurable and profoundly enduring consequences on human lives, the urgent need to fathom their root cause is beyond any shadow of a doubt. And only then could humanity genuinely answer the yearning calls of the helpless and powerless victims.
Across space and time, political repressions, violent social strife, armed conflicts, etc. are either generated or intensified by mainly three factors: a lack of strong and independent institutions, a high and persistent degree of concentration of powers, and a lack of institutional transparency and accountability.
Yet it is not enough to just identify the causes of these enduring tragedies. After all, the pressing task is to identify plausible measures and workable solutions to deal with them; that is, the real challenge is to unearth the ways in which the aforementioned factors could be mitigated if not entirely eliminated. The aim here is exactly to undertake that task.
I shall contend that a functioning democracy, understood as a political system or a form of government that promotes strong and independent institutions, guarantees the separation of powers, and invariably ensures transparency and accountability of state apparatus, is the ultimate solution. It is absolutely true that I am adopting a functional definition of the concept of democracy; but it is equally true that these are the central goals of a functioning democracy. I shall explore how it achieves best each of these goals and how it is thus better equipped to alleviate the above mentioned tragedies.
To be sure, however, democracy is not an infallible system—it can in fact often be messy, frustrating, and most of all unstable—perhaps the Brexit farce and the Trump White House epitomize best what democracy can entail if or when taken for granted. Nevertheless, a functioning democracy, as described above, works better than its alternatives; and there lies its particularity: “Democracy”, Winston Churchill asserted quite pointedly in 1947, “is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
First, a functioning democracy is more likely to better promote strong and independent institutions. For instance, unlike authoritarianism and dictatorship, both of which succeed only by weakening or dismantling institutions, democracy is based on the core tenet of building and strengthening them. Indeed, both authoritarianism and dictatorship are built around strong leaders, who quite simply strive to project personal strength and guts by amassing political powers at the expense of institutional checks and balances. Quite sadly, however, the fall of these regimes is more likely to bring the country into chaos, state failure, and even armed conflicts as different factions compete for state power—with the rules of the game usually being the law of the jungle; this is particularly true for countries that have witnessed long years of authoritarian/dictatorial rule. Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and today Sudan (amongst others) offer illustrative cases in that regard. Likewise, undemocratic regimes are more prone to chronic instability since they often lack legitimacy beyond rentierism. Though they might manage to stay in power despite popular discontents, these regimes usually succeed in doing so through recourse of coercion, persecution, and constantly manufactured fear of repercussion and oppression for disobedience.
Moreover, to succeed in consolidating power, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes invariably endeavor to centralize and concentrate political powers with the aim of having control over the entirety of state apparatus. The danger, yet again, is that such regimes are more liable to social and political grievances as they are inherently exclusive and blatantly discriminatory. They must, therefore, have recourse to brutal force and political wickedness to remain in power; no wonder coups and counter-coups are likely to become ubiquitous as the military becomes politicized, and politics militarized. By sharp contrast, however, a working democracy functions best through a separation of powers (executive, judicial, and legislative), thus not only promoting institutional independence and broader social inclusion, but also, and perhaps more significantly, allowing for checks and balances of the state apparatus. Moreover, democracy is better equipped to allow broader and more inclusive political participation and social engagements through party competitions, popular elections, and demonstrations.
Finally, by allowing strong and independent institutions to flourish and by permitting the separation of powers and checks and balances, democracy ensures transparency and accountability. For instance, a corrupt or incompetent government will surely be voted out of the office either through (peaceful) protests or through ballots. By the same token, the independence of institutions would also ensure that corrupt leaders are fairly and transparently held accountable for their misdeeds. Undoubtedly, the principle that democracy guarantees transparency and accountability renders it ever more stable and more enduring both as a political system and as a form of government.
In a nutshell, in promoting strong and resilient institutions that have the capacity to resist and absorb shocks (both internal and external), a functioning democracy helps foster the stability and security of the state. Likewise, in preventing the concentration of powers in the hands of despots, democracy ensures that even the most vulnerable social layers—children, women, elderly people, and disabled—would not be encroached at will by the mighty. Indeed, in addition to protecting the most vulnerable from political oppression and persecution, it allows for more inclusiveness and more political participation; thus ensuring that people can express their grievances without having recourse to violent strife, armed rebellions, or revolution, as the system ensures that no one is above the law or immune to transparency checks and ushering in the required accountability.
According to Andrew Heywood, democracy can play an even greater role in alleviating Man-made human tragedies through sustainable peace and security since it fosters the legitimacy of the ruling regime through consent (of being ruled); it also allows rival interest groups to live together with relative peace through compromise, conciliation, and negotiation; and finally, democracy “operates as a feedback system that tends toward long-term political stability” and human prosperity.
If the utility of any political and social system is measured by its ability to protect and improve the wellbeing of its population; and given that the more capable a system of government is in playing a positive role in social and economic developments the more legitimacy it gains; and, above all, given that the value of any form of government must be gauged by its ability to promote independent and resilient institutions, ensure an effective and equitable distribution of powers, and guarantee the accountability and transparency of the state apparatus, there are, undoubtedly, solid enough reasons to argue for democracy to be the worst of all, except for all those that have been tried from time to time.