A complete list of things that are wrong with democracy (updated)

[Last week, a number of readers very kindly commented on this post (comments were all on Facebook) and I’ve updated it now in the light of those comments. I’ve also re-ordered it as a few commenters told me that it could do with ‘mapping’.]


Let us pull together a list of the most common popular criticisms of democracy, and use it to define the mirror image of a bad democracy. A democracy with all of the failings removed — a perfect democracy. Of course, I have no expecation of, or desire for, democratic perfection. That isn’t the point of writing this. I’m well aware of Hannah Arendt’s warning from history about the quest for perfection.

I’m writing this because I think its high time that someone defined ‘democracy’ in the abstract. We know what a concept such as ‘justice’ means. We know what a respectable scientific deduction looks like. Democracy also makes decisions. It is also under challenge from people who think that the task that ‘democratic institutions’ perform (in the abstract) could be done better.

I’ve collated this list in an informal way — reading a few newspapers, looking at some polling, speaking to politically-minded friends, identifying the things that they say are wrong about democracy — the various democratic deficits that are thought to exist. There is one important caveat that readers should bear in mind with this list; I’m looking for things that annoy us about democracy. In asking friends, the most popular answer was that “people vote for [person they don’t like]”, or “parliament voted for [policy that they think is stupid].

I will come on to the question about how far a good democracy can make a bad or stupid decision in more detail later on, but for now, I hope that readers accept that the beliefs or the desires of citizens will have a strong influence on democratic outcomes, and as there are circumstances where a perfectly good democratic decision will result in an outcome we don’t like.

This list is written out here in no particular order: 
1) The things that we say are taken less seriously than the things that some other people say. It’s not fair. Politicians and governments choose who they are going to care about instead of treating us all equally.

2) Some sections of society seem to have a veto over whole areas of policy. Older people are understood to be regular voters while young people sometimes appear to have almost abandoned electoral politics. Some voters are more ‘ignorable’ than others and manifestos reflect this.

3) The electoral system isn’t fair. If you live in the wrong place, you may never hear from a politician and your voting decisions don’t seem to make any difference to an election outcome.

4) Electoral turnout is often pathetic and the political parties often appear to be the same as each other, chasing a narrow bunch of ‘swing’ voters.

5) Politicians all look the same. They all sound the same. A lot of them went to the same school and even more of them went to the same university. They seem to be largely self-serving and out of touch. They almost seem to be a self-selecting bunch of people who appear to serve the interests of themselves and people like them more than anyone else.

6) Politicians seem be able to lie with impunity because we have little redress when they do. Most voters don’t have any real social connection to any politicians, and we don’t expect that they will feel any embarrassment or discomfort because they have ignored our interests.

7) People who have power sometimes make sure that they keep it in a self-serving way — no matter what the voters say. They are allowed to choose the times that elections take place, or use government resources to create political propaganda for themselves. In some cases, they even persecute political opponents, fiddle with the electoral system or curtail press freedom.

8) It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. There’s an ‘Overton Window’ of policies that democracies appear to be allowed to adopt. Genuinely radical and popular policies are, their advocates tell us, ruled out of bounds by an insular and exclusive political class that only appears answerable to a vocal minority.

9) Some interest groups are too powerful to challenge. Corporations and bureaucracies can push elected politicians around too easily. Bankers or civil servants, for example, seem to be allowed to dictate what regulations they will have applied to them. Relatively small and coherent groups can behave in a purposeful way, pushing the interests of the wider public aside. Hiring a good lobbyist or spending a bit of cash on some dodgy ‘research’ can often result in lazy/corrupt politicians and journalists ignoring the public interest in favour of some sleazy special interest.

10) Politics appears to be a process in which power-blocs manoeuvre and negotiate outcomes. We have a clientelism in which powerful interests — either businesses, trades unions, civil servants, key professions or religious groupings — are bought-off. It occupies the space that should be reserved for the sovereignty of ordinary citizens. Any politicians that attempt a ‘brave’ reform that challenges any privileged profession will probably be buying a one-way ticket to political oblivion.

11) Sometimes democratic governments make the wrong decision about what business they should be interfering in. Sometimes they get involved in matters best left to private individuals, and sometimes they allow individuals to decide things that should be decided collectively.

12) Governments sometimes think that they know best. They have all of their clever ways of making decisions, but they know what we — the voters really want, and it’s not always the thing that their processes will give us.

13) Sometimes governments spend too much money and effort trying to get things just right. Sometimes they invest disproportionately too much in a decision when a quicker instinctive decision from the right people could have been better and/or more cost-effective. We sometimes suspect that this is because of political considerations and that being unnecessary rigorous suits some powerful political grouping.

14) Other times, government make snap decisions when they should have researched or consulted more. We sometimes suspect that this is because of political considerations and that not doing so suits some powerful political grouping, or gives an unfair licence to ‘the people who do the doing’.

15) Even if politicians do work out the right thing to do, if often takes them too long. Slow decisions, or ones taken by people who don’t understand the issues can damage the dynamism and success of an economy. Sometimes, it’s better if people just do things instead of agreeing everything in advance. The lack of dynamism can, itself, be damaging.

16) Decisions are often made in too short-termist a way, partly because of the way electoral cycles promote short-termism (bearing in mind that a perfectly good democracy can vote for ‘jam today’ if it wants to). Decisions don’t have to be taken to exclusively please us today though — sometimes the aim should be to give us policies we don’t regret in the long run rather than just pandering to voters’ reflexes.

17) Sometimes, in listening to everyone’s opinions, governments allow the weight of numbers for or against an idea to decide the outcome. An argument isn’t ‘good’ because a lot of people support it.

18) When voters do turn up en masse, they often appear to be criminally misinformed to the point that almost any group of experts or technocrats would probably make a better decision than the people voters chose to do it.

19) Public debate often appears to be spiteful and low-grade. Politicians have an understandable wariness of an electorate that doesn’t always seem to respond in proportionate, reasonable or rational ways. This in turn either deters or excludes contributions from citizens with mild preferences and equivocal observations.

20) Even being part of an active group of voters doesn’t always change things. Global trade-treaties signed by existing governments bind nation states in to rules and structures that make the voters of the future powerless.

21) Our governments appear powerless because of some long-running treaty or loan that was taken out decades ago, preferring to honour their debts to bondholders rather than voters — or simply because they can’t afford to disobey a coercive power.

22) Nations are often obliged to alter their legislation by the European Union (for example) and the ‘great powers’ — the United States, Russia and China also appear to be able to nudge us around when it suits them. Sometimes, undemocratic and unreasonable foreign powers can manipulate our comparatively open and transparent forms of government and take advantage of our democracy.

Those are twenty two things that I think can be found as failings in many or most actually existing democracies. I’m sure that different readers will endorse some of these points more than others, depending upon their own political perspectives, but I hope that every reader will concede that all of these points are, to some degree, a problem — no matter how small.

These are the things that a democracy is not. If we were to try and sum up what a government without these faults would look like, I believe that we can do it into a short paragraph.

Here goes:

If we were able to create a perfect democracy, it would be as participative, efficient, and consensual as possible. It would be sustainable, resolute and robust in itself. It would be as wise as it wants to be. All of these features would be subordinate to the need for it to be as fair as possible.

I would argue that those 56 words define a form of governance that would not have any of the problems that I’ve listed here.

I thought it was worth going to the trouble of making this deduction because, when the word ‘democracy’ is used, it often wouldn’t pass the test set out in those 56 words.

It’s an abuse of language that is often used to hide some serious corruption in our actually existing democracies.

So, what do you think? Can this list be improved upon. Or is it…. er…. perfect?

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