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A Brief Note on Elections – that Bedrock of Modern Democracy…

This is a brief note on elections – that bedrock of modern democracy.

A key and indispensable pillar of modern democracy – heck modernity – is the notion of elections.  Elections, many believe, are a fundamental way for people to express their voice, and some believe even for people to engage in self-determination as envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations.  Without elections, there can be no political accountability, no political legitimacy.  Oh yes, there might be, once in a while, a government such as the one in China today that gains popular approval without elections, but such a political structure cannot be sustained.  Over time, bad leadership inevitably arises.  Non-democratic political orders provides no means for the people to get rid of a “bad emperor.”  Over the long haul, the only way to rid governments that don’t serve the people is elections.

This may sound all fair and good except in real life, elections don’t work that way.  In real life – elections rarely project a “people’s voice,” too often detracts from the routine act of governing.  And the world has never witnessed – nor do I expect to witness – elections to overturn a truly unjust order.

Let’s pierce the facade using a real example to see how things add up.

In the U.S., Washington just went through a bruising debate on healthcare reform – and ended up with a system that few actually like.  Why can’t the U.S. – with all its might and wealth and resources – with all its people’s attention on a commonly agreed problem – not solve a basic need of the people – healthcare?  One can blame special interest this and that … but why should special interest stand in the way of all-mighty democracy, when the attention of all its citizens are focused on one commonly-agreed problem?

A Wall Street Journal article this weekend titled Tom Coburn: The Doctor Who Is Sick of Washington offers some insights.

Tom Coburn stood for Congress in 1994 as a political tenderfoot for two main reasons: As an obstetrician he thought government was impinging too much on his medical practice, and the nine-term House Democrat who held his Oklahoma district’s seat favored the Clinton national health plan then under consideration. Another reason Dr. Coburn entered the race, he says, was that “the cowardice of career politicians governing to win the next election above all else made me sick.” Twenty years later, he finds himself amid another health-care scrimmage—and in a similar political climate.

“It’s no better today. It’s still here. It’s worse,” says the junior senator from Oklahoma, sitting in a wing chair in his Capitol Hill office earlier this week. His prairie timbre is flecked with the contempt of overfamiliarity.

I don’t think many conscious Americans would disagree with Dr. Coburn’s take.  Many do blame career politicians for the problems in Washington these days.  Yet … why should career politicians be a problem?  I would have thought that career politicians would be Democracy’s best friend.  When politicians stake their career, their name, their livelihood on serving the people, wouldn’t they make better servants than one or two timers who get elected and disappear?

Even if it were true that career politicians who have to answer to the people in regular elections act more “cowardly” than one or two timers (a strange but fascinating observation), why should that matter?  If democracy works only at the whim of the moral character of politicians, then democracy doesn’t mean much.  Democracy might as well prescribe Saints from society to be public servants.  Instead, democracy requires only a government where society’s leaders are forced to answer to the people regularly in elections.  Theoretically, the most decrepit and selfish people can run the government and still serve the people because through the “invisible hand” of public discourse and elections (if you will), only those who serve the people well can remain in the system sufficiently long to matter.

If there is a thing as scapegoating, calling out the career politicians to me seems it.

Dr. Coburn is not the only person talking about “cowardly” politicians.  Former U.S. Defense Secretary recently published a book titled “Duty” where he has also much to say about this.  In the book, Gates revealed (among many other things), how Washington is hamstrung by the constant pressure to answer to the public.  He controversially alleged that both Obama’s and Hillary Clinton had formulated their positions on Iraq based on political expediency – as part of political gamesmanship to win elections – than substantive military or strategic calculations (see, e.g., this article or this article).

We observe the negative influence of electorate pressure in many other places.  Take another example in the TPP (that ignoble big U.S. proposed free trade zone that is supposed to exclude China). When negotiations around TPP faltered late 2013, observers noted that not much is going to happen for a while since 2014 is an election year in the U.S.  It is important to note that the delay here is not due to what is sometimes called a “lameduck” effect where political leaders lose popular mandate, and important decisions must wait for the next leader (or set of leaders) to be elected.  No, the delay is due to the toxic effect of politics that rear its ugly head come every election years.

This represents a fundamental contradiction of democracy today.

Election years, more than any other times, are supposed to be times for people to gain heightened conscious of the issues facing society – for leaders and people to get directly in tune with each other.  But on the contrary, people only appear more confused, issues seem more muddled than ever in election years, and leaders become afraid to speak their mind and lose all ability to lead.

If election years ceases to be times when democratic participation and constructiveness (for the lack of a better term) to shine, when does democracy (i.e. people participation) actually work?

Some blame big money in politics.  It is true that elections have become big business.  In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the candidates themselves spent some U.S. $2 Billion (if you count private money, the total cost is some U.S. $7 Billion).

Cost of recent U.S. elections

Cost of recent U.S. elections (as spent by candidates themselves)

(source: opensecrets.org)

But money is not the problem.  If money could help the people to become more clear minded about issues and candidates to become more in tune with the people, most would probably say it’s money well spent.

The problem is not money.  The problem is with democracy and elections itself, big money notwithstanding!

Are elections really about people meeting in town halls to formulate or project a “people’s voice”?  Or are they more gamesmanship to manufacture “a people’s voice”?

Asking these questions brings me back to the question of China’s Bad Emperor’s Problem” discussed above.  That same question might as well be asked of democratically elected governments.  Can a people get rid of a democratic system that has become rotten at its core?

After some two decades since that question was first asked, in a recent essay titled “The Decay of American Political Institutions,” Fukuyama himself observed:

Many political institutions in the United States are decaying. This is not the same thing as the broader phenomenon of societal or civilization decline, which has become a highly politicized topic in the discourse about America. Political decay in this instance simply means that a specific political process—sometimes an individual government agency—has become dysfunctional. This is the result of intellectual rigidity and the growing power of entrenched political actors that prevent reform and rebalancing. This doesn’t mean that America is set on a permanent course of decline, or that its power relative to other countries will necessarily diminish. Institutional reform is, however, an extremely difficult thing to bring about, and there is no guarantee that it can be accomplished without a major disruption of the political order.

People are finally beginning to consider the notion that democracy per se does not solve the “Bad Emperor Problem.”  To get rid of an out-of touch establishment, normal political processes may not be sufficient – in any political order.

Dr. Coburn (mentioned at the beginning of the post) appear to echo that sentiment.  As the Wall Street Journal article cited above reports:

“I don’t think you fix this place until you have a convention of the states,” Dr. Coburn says. “Only America can change Washington. I’m a big believer in term limits. I think it causes a different kind of person to want to come up here.”

… “Most of what I want to say I can’t say, because then it will be printed and then I won’t have any relationships left up here.”

Democracy and elections are said to solve a basic government vice – to control out-of-touch leadership.  But in the end – there may be no substitutes for good, responsive politics.

The Ancient Chinese knew and taught about the importance of virtuous leaders and da tong (大同).  The character of a political order should be judged on substantive metrics such as how well the government is serving the people, not by superficial metrics such as whether or what types of elections it holds.

When President Xi recently urged the members of the CCP to continue to toil to “serve the people,” many in the West seem to sneer.   Serve the people?  How quaint.  Why not just submit to democracy?

But as I hopefully have shown above, democracy is not a proxy for more responsive leadership.  In a recent interview when Gates was asked how people can make a difference in public life, Gates answered “[i]t’s important to have people who are willing to embrace public service for its own sake rather than out of personal ambition or some other motive.”

But such sentiment is more about da tong (大同) than democracy!

If by now you still believe that democratically elected governments inherently serve the people better, at least do not take it in blind faith.  The original founders of the U.S. understood that democracy was but an experiment, an experiment that must be constantly and vigilantly watched, not a forgone conclusion that is to be presumed and worshiped.  Concentrate on running that experiment instead of preaching pre-ordained prescriptions.  That was as true then as today.

  1. Black Pheonix
    February 2nd, 2014 at 12:27 | #1

    I recently came across Tiger Mom again in the news, and reminded myself of the Thomas Friedman’s description of China as having the “can-do attitude”.

    I find the interesting correlation that Chinese people don’t wait for the “system” to help them.

    In Tiger Mom, Chinese parents teach kids basically that, you can’t wait for the teacher to TEACH you, you have to go LEARN it yourself. Doesn’t matter if the system is stacked against you, You have to overcome the system.

    Thus, Chinese kids learn from early on, that the “system” is not there to help or spoonfeed them.

    Similarly, Chinese adults tend to distrust the “system” (any system), and they do whatever they can (within some moral bounds) to succeed. They trust the “systems” to a point. But they depend on their own can-do attitude.

    *The problem of “democracy” and “voting” does come down to to the “spoonfeeding”.

    The public grow too dependent upon the “system” to solve their problems, all kinds of problems.

    “voting” ceases to be an approval process of the politicians, but becomes so critical to specific solutions, that it basically now disrupts the original “democratic” process.

    Indeed, as some have pointed out, the elected officials are simply not given time or scope to do what they need to do.

    Yet, the contradiction is, the Voters expect them to solve the big problems, holding them accountable essentially for things that they cannot do.

    So, both in US and other democracies, Elected politicians are fearful to do any thing that might cost them votes, but spend a lot of time making speeches that don’t really matter.

    The “democratic system” is simultaneously too important and useless. Too many people look to it for solutions, and yet nothing big can be done, because the system is fundamentally designed to restrain the government.

    Democracy in fact is rather like a game of “tic-tac-toe”. It’s very simple, it’s easy to play, but when both sides are sufficiently educated in the game, neither can win, neither can lose. The game always end in stalemate, nothing is achieved. (And people quickly lose interests in the game).

    YES. “Democracy” = “tic-tac-toe”!

  2. Machiavellianism
    February 2nd, 2014 at 21:29 | #2

    Rational ignorance is one of the main reason why democracy doesn’t work. People only have one vote and won’t influence an election, it is rational for most people to not spend time researching the issues. Attempts to curb a problem could be to require a poll test, but that is full of obvious problems. Democracy depends on voters being informed on issues that they cannot have an impact on, which is to say it depends on voters being irrational.

    Even if it does work, democracy is wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonist opinions present in any pluralist society. It attempt to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, by excludes an understanding of how certain things work, but rather encourage a sheer observation and serves to displace them.

    The essence of politics does not reside in the moral high ground of democratic systems, but in the power to forming an organized existence role that political struggle engenders.

  3. N.M.Cheung
    February 3rd, 2014 at 18:32 | #3

    Does election solves anything? Consider the school board elections in Texas, where creationism candidates won and now textbooks in science has to teach creationism together with evolution. In ancient Athens, citizens voted to condemn Socrates. Elections are not the holy grail as touted by the liberal democrats. U.S. Constitution is very much outdated and needs change yet it’s structurally impossible to change when half of the people. mostly the bottom half don’t bother or hopeless to vote. Even tea bagger like Coburn might wish to roll back 50 years and unable to accomplish anything except obstructing.

  4. ersim
    February 4th, 2014 at 05:28 | #4

    I never did give credibility to the concept of what I rather call DUMBocracy. Specially when the great majority of the population are politically illiterate when it comes to “voting”.

  5. Matchut
    February 9th, 2014 at 07:57 | #5

    From my observations here in Canada: We currently have only specific employers and industries that have unionized employees, and unions are accorded quite a lot of power and protection under Canadian laws, so there’s a real system of inequality in Canada’s labour environment that feels almost like a government-enforced aristocracy. As far as I can see, unions must either be greatly expanded or greatly reduced in order to make the situation more equal and fair than it is now.
    At both the federal and provincial levels, the major left-wing parties nominally want to increase union power and/or expand unions, while the major right-wing parties nominally want to decrease union power and/or reduce unions. I think most Canadians either want to expand unions greatly or reduce unions greatly; I don’t have a source, but I’m guessing that those who want to keep the current situation do not make up a plurality.
    But of course, parties are more concerned with being re/elected than with adhering to their nominal ideology. So the left-wing parties don’t want to alienate the anti-union voters, and the right-wing parties don’t want to alienate the pro-union voters. Essentially, no party is politically willing to significantly change the current system either way, so the existing inequality and unfairness, which probably isn’t even favoured by a plurality of the people, is always preserved.

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