What is democracy about?

In the 2-minute speech that American President Abraham Lincoln pronounced at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, when he was consecrating the battlefield which was the scene of excruciating violence during the American Civil war into a cemetery, the word ‘democracy’ was not once used. And yet, since then, that speech has been cited as almost the foundational script of what democracy is about, and it is worth reading it in full:

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ (italics and bold added)

Whenever a definition of democracy is sought, that most famous line – government of the people, by the people, for the people – is the one that is invariably cited, as the best political system that should be adopted around the world. By and large this has happened in the vast majority of countries, and it is hoped that the remaining 20 or so of the nearly 200 countries in the world will in due course also become democratic.

However, one man was skeptical: Winston Churchill who, when he was not elected in 1945 despite leading Britain to victory in World War II is reported to have said that, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

It seems that his cynicism may not have been misplaced when we take a look at countries which have democratic systems. Just as the strength of a chain depends on the weakest link in it, so too does the strength of a system or institution depend on the weaknesses of the men and women who conceive, set up and run them. There isn’t an ideal system ever – we have to fine-tune and consolidate as we evolve, that is the reality. But if we are sincere in our intent to improve things, then this can happen sooner rather than later.

Of late, democracies have been under strain, showing up weaknesses and constraints. But again, bottomline whatever happens in a democracy – or, for that matter, in any other set-up – boils down to the human beings who are involved in overseeing its proper functioning or being frontline actors in this process. The ongoing prorogation of our Parliament is a case in point, never mind that the Constitution provides for it. The ‘make-unmake-remake, perhaps yes/perhaps no’ film that is being shamelessly played under the very nose of the people surely shows one of the weaknesses.

The concern about democratic functioning is widespread, and in an article titled ‘When democracies deliver mediocrity’ (28 Jul 2014) Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, a visiting senior research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore has some interesting observations to make.

He notes that ‘there is uneasiness creeping into the soul while watching what is unfolding in the world — an apparent difficulty for democracy to score where it may matter as much as fundamental rights of freedom does: The ability to deliver solutions.’ (italics added). This ‘schism between the ability to deliver and freedom’ may result in the ‘possibility of people being disillusioned with democracy’.

He goes on to say that ‘the first political philosopher revealing this danger was Baruch Spinoza, writing in 1675 that democracy is the most reasonable form of government but suffers from the defect of promoting mediocrity,’ adding that ‘Spinoza observed that the majority of people are steered by emotions and feelings, not reason. But without reason, logic and rationality, governing well becomes elusive.’ And this could lead to two scenarios.

1. Demagogues and populists win elections because they flatter and humour the multitude of people not able or willing to see through the maze. But the danger is, they could be ineffective leaders as they pander to the populace – or worse, are closet dictators who eventually subvert the democratic system for their own interests.

2. Wise people cannot accept being governed by those they regard as inferior; they flee the political arena, thus making it easier for less qualified people to get elected into office. This leads to an inevitable decline in the quality of governance, causing people to doubt whether a democracy can produce good leaders.

People can decide for themselves where our democracy currently stands.


* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014

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