The USS Quad Damage

What is democracy, anyway?

I don't mean the literal definition, I mean the working theory in most people's heads

A lot of people are saying “democracy is dead”. Sometimes they mention “in the US”, but often enough you just have to figure that out via context. This is important because the people saying it aren’t necessarily American. It’s one of those strangely specific phrases, which twigs me. You can often source a quote from the way it’s phrased. It could be a specific article on the internet which could then source the material from a press release.

Not saying that’s what’s happening here. “Democracy is dead” sounds like one of those phrases which could be decades old and is only being re-used now. Still, why are so many people saying this thing? And why now? It’s like a year after the elections. I always thought democracy = elections.

This is about the best I could get from Cathy Wilcox (who has better things to do than to talk to me, and I suspect would’ve blocked me had I pushed further):

I’m saying a democracy needs checks, balances and separations of power to ensure it is not abused. They need to be seen to operate!

For the sake of simplicity I’m going to attribute this quote to basically everyone who’s been saying “democracy is dead” of late, but this was obviously a pithy statement by a single person. I’ll just try and extrapolate. Based on the timing, I can only guess this was in relation to the removal of James Comey as head of the FBI. But what does this actually mean? What are the “checks and balances” they’re talking about? What are the “separations of power”? Finally, what is “being seen to operate”?

For “separation of power”, a little before this, courts overturned Trump’s muslim ban which would seem like separation of power is working just fine. Perhaps the separation is the executive (Comey, of the FBI) from the legislative, but considering some of the people making this claim are in countries with the Westmister system, there’s no real separation) between executive and legislative branches anyway.

Perhaps this is a euphemism in the same way people said “the USA's democracy was hacked by Russia”, which I would’ve interpreted to mean that they literally interfered in the voting, which they clearly did not. However, whilst I can see the... metaphor... with the Russian hacking I don’t really see it with the separation of powers.

“Checks and balances” seems to allude to the same thing, but I suppose more specifically with the idea that Trump will likely install a “friendlier” FBI head to avoid scrutiny. It’s true that this is a flagrant violations of “rules” or “norms”, but, much like Trump’s tax returns, these things are mostly common practise instead of hard rules which the president is bound by. If anything, the shocking revelation should be that, as it turns out, the president is bound by surprisingly few rules, and not that this particular president is violating those rules.

The real reason this rings hollow to me, though, is that the president is at a level where he is accountable to the people. It’s not as if a common police officer can arrest the US president. Ultimately, it needs to come from the legislative (all the members of parliament who got elected), and, failing that, Americans literally have the second amendment for such an occasion. The current US president may be freely ignoring norms, but this is not the same thing as a military dictatorship which happened in Burma or Pakistan.

But it’s the final bit of the quote which kind of scares me. Again, I’m generalising fairly heavily from the quote, but I think this is the driving force behind the “democracy is dead” crowd: The separations of power must be “being seen to operate”. That is, I think a lot of people are OK with the president having way too much power, as long as he’s not seen to abuse it. That is to say, instead of attempting to limit the president’s power under all circumstances, many prefer the president have that power, but not really abuse it in a way the majority is not OK with.

Whilst the subtext may well be “Kick Trump out, and let Hillary become president because most people voted for her”, these people are also in effect saying “If most people agreed with Trump, the muslim ban was probably fine”. It’s possible (likely, given the amount of tea-leaf-reading I have to do here) that my interpretation here is wrong, but I also lack another, more reasonable, interpretation.

I’m not saying democracy is in particularly great health. The US specifically has massive issues in their first-past-the-post system, voluntary voting, and massive gerrymandering of electorates (not that anyone was complaining about any of this when everyone widely expected Clinton to win). In addition, democracy in general has had some fairly longstanding issues.

One thing which I worry about is Tweedism. Here’s Lawrence Lessig talking about it being a “democracy crisis”:

The solution, which he mentions in the talk, is relatively easy (engage with democracy), but it is not simple. However, problems with democracy go a fair way back, to Socrates, who has a problem, and by extension the solution, which is simple (teach kids how to vote in school) but not easy. Here’s the slightly baitey “Socrates hated democracy” by the school of life:

Overall, when we think of democracy and the problems it faces, I really look to those two videos to inform me. I worry about those who say democracy is dead when this is just a manifestation of the problem which have been there, sometimes for a very long time.