The vices of democracy
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2008-01-17
After discussing the virtues of democracy in the Movement for Unity in Politics International Congress last November in Loppiano, Italy, Lucca Fazzi of the University of Trent delved on the vices of democracy.

He said: “Apart from these plausible explanations of the current crisis in representative democracy, however, there are other reasons for this process both inside and outside the democratic mechanism. We could define these elements as “private vices” of elective democracy that interfere with its public virtues.

The first vice of democracy is synthesized by the fact that political decisions in an elective democracy system are based only partly on the people’s will. After being elected, the political representatives are more committed to holding power than to fulfill the promises made during the electoral campaign, taking advantage of the average citizen’s short memory and that new and more appealing promises can be made in the next electoral term.

The threat is that Rousseau’s prophesy in “The Social Contract” might come true: “the idea that people elect representatives who rule in their own name is the denial of freedom itself.”

The second vice of elective democracy is linked to a more formal concept of universalism. In theory, universalism can be achieved only when all citizens vote; however it is impossible because only some citizens vote. If in theory everybody can vote, in practice only more interested and organized citizens tend to do so. Modern political systems tend to be universal in writing but selective in practice and the issue of getting citizens to vote is still unsolved. (Young 1991)

A third vice in the elective democratic system is that the interests represented by the elected politicians are those of the majority of voters and not of the ones who weren’t able to elect their own representatives. Minorities and marginal groups tend to be less important than the members of majority groups.

Substantial representation of the electorate is nullified and democracy is in fact more formal than real.

Elective democracy’s fourth vice is that it doesn’t have antibodies to avoid instrumental use of power and real control of power-holders’ accountability. This is limited by information imbalance between citizens and power-holders. In order to achieve this condition citizens need sufficient and uniform dissemination of information, education and awareness.

Lower information levels are associated to easier exploitation; higher levels of education foster participation in voting. The struggle of modern democracy to control the media by political parties is a clear example of how the outcome of general elections is significantly dependant on the ability to manipulate information and influence public opinion.

The fifth vice of elective democracy regards the lack of responsibility of citizens towards the res publica. Tocqueville wrote that citizen “apathy” was democracy’s worst risk, questioning the citizens’ feeling of belonging and spirit of initiative needed to make society and civic spirit work.

Participation pressure exists but is weak, and as time goes by might determine a separation from the institutions, favoring the development of “apathy” and lack of interest towards the common good and institutions.

The notion of responsiveness as the “ability of power-holders to respond to citizens’ demand” is fundamental in defining the quality of democracy. “Responsiveness of power-holders to citizens” is an essential value to be acknowledged for the good functioning of a democratic system and fundamental for “democratic quality” because it involves the satisfaction of demands focusing on the outcome, that is the “capability of a true answer to people’s problems” and concurrently the assessment of the representation in action”, thus “responsiveness is the ability to respond by satisfying the need of the citizens and social society.”

In contrast with democracy, the quality of democracy relates not only to the form but to the essence in the management of power and response of politics to citizens’ needs: a society can be democratic, but with low-quality democracy; in this case democracy is no longer the ideal solution in managing relations between power-holders and citizens, but a solution which must be urgently improved,” Fazzi concluded.

Vices dominate the Philippine model

Fazzi’s vices of democracy strikes very close to home in the Philippines. Political power here is viewed by our politicians as their ends rather than their means to improve lives and develop the country.

Fazzi also echoes this Chair Wrecker’s assessment that democracy can only thrive with an enlightened electorate. The Information and Education gaps that we suffer from prevent us from enjoying the full benefits of democracy. These two gaps allow the oligarchs to manipulate and exploit the majority who are clueless as to how they are being taken for a ride.

Not able to understand what our role is as citizens of a democracy, we are easily driven towards cynicism and apathy. It is difficult to operate a democracy that most Filipinos do not understand.

The Movement for Unity in Politics where Fazzi delivered his talk is another initiative of the Focolare Movement. Politicians from all over the world are attracted to its goal of promoting unity and the noble aspects of politics.

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