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).
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.