Democracy came from two Greek words, “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos”, meaning rule or power. Combining the two terms, that gives us “people rule” or “people power”. In theory, this system of government gives ordinary people the power to influence and change the government. The first modern democratic system established in England, in 1689, 327 years ago. But in what way did democracy really progress? More and more countries are adapting democratic institutions, and almost every country now claim to be democratic, but in reality how democratic did our world transform into, and what could authorities do to improve upon our current system?
Thomas Jefferson said “democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” In other words, democracy progress when people are willing to make it better, and democracy regress when people are not willing to make it better. Jefferson, along with other early thinkers that invented representative democracy, wanted to establish a system that the government can be peacefully transitioned from generation to generation, controlled by the people, and audited by the people.
In theory, a Jeffersonian representative democracy would live forever, as people always want to progress, not regress. Yet, as common sense tells us, no system is perfect and no system lives forever, and Jeffersonian democracy is no exception. Jefferson and other founding fathers, fearing a central government too powerful, established a complicated system of separation of power to limit the scope of government; that system included a legislative branch called Congress, an executive branch headed by an officer called President, and a judicial branch with judicial powers vested in a supreme court. Separation of power brought several positive remarks on democracy—when a president is too powerful and abusing his power, Congress could impeach him, and when Congress is abusing its legislative powers, the Supreme Court has the power to override Congressional laws.
Again, this system would work perfectly in theory, but not long after Congressional representatives became directly elected, political parties form and the system altered. First-part-the-post, plurality winner-take-all electoral system in the United States exaggerated margins of victories of victors, and the system resulted in a two-party rule that sustained until today. Two-party system has obvious strengths—policy implementation is much easier. But its weaknesses overshadow its strengths. In an election, the people have a choice, but not much; little viewpoints are represented in a two party system, and losing candidates in tightly contested elections do not receive any credit. If an election, in a winner-take-all plurality electoral system, has an outcome that the winning candidate wins 51% of the votes, while the losing candidate wins 49%, separating them few hundred votes, the winning candidate gets all the credits, while the losing one gets none.
Indeed, plurality winner-take-all electoral system has become one of the biggest flaw of western democracy. In a plurality system only winning candidates have an influence on the government, and that influence can hardly be offset by the opposition party. In Canada, for example, a majority government can enact legislations easily, as the government holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Even if all oppositions vote against a piece of legislation, the government, holding a majority of seats, faces little barriers from enacting that legislation.
The flaw in the plurality winner-take-all electoral system is so significant that people wrote books and dramas on it. In Netflix’s award-winning series House of Cards, Francis Underwood is running for president of the United States. In Season 3, Underwood is the incumbent president after the former president was impeached, and by constitution, vice-president Underwood succeeded him. Underwood made a pledge to not run for reelection, but he has eaten his own promise. When this scene happened, Underwood is facing a tough primary challenger; he is behind in polling and his opponent caught a substantial piece of dark story of him.
This scene reinforces the notion that the winning candidate gets everything, and the losing candidate gets nothing in a plurality winner-take-all race. Winner-take-all races create an substantial burden on each candidate running for office and make he or she do whatever possible to make he or she the winning candidate. From this scene, we can easily see that elections are not beauty contests or amiable competitions that losing candidates still get recognition, and votes, at least in the eyes of politicians, are more important than anything else, even if that “anything else” contains their legacy.
Electoral system is far from the only problem that democracy is facing currently. Indeed, democracy is not just about holding elections. Civil rights and liberties guaranteed, rule of law present, high political efficacy, meaning that most people believe that they can change the government, are all characteristics of democracy. In 2010, a Supreme Court of the United States decision cited as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission severely undermined political efficacy in the United States.
Citizens United is a non-profit organization aimed to promote conservative causes and to raise money for conservative candidates for elections. Before the 2008 election, Citizens United released a video describing then-Senator Hillary Clinton in order to prevent Hillary from being elected president. Citizens United wanted to release the video for “on-demand broadcast” for a fee, but they could not do so because a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act prohibited corporations and unions from using treasury fund to fund a candidate for election. (Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 1, 558 U.S. 310) Citizens United sued Federal Election Commission in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. The district court sided with Federal Election Commission, and Citizens United subsequently appealed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, but it declined hearing. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and ruled that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit organization or for-profit corporation.
The ruling had an adverse impact on American electoral politics. Before Citizens United, corporations could only donate to political action committees, with a spending limit of $5,000 per candidate and $10,000 to a political action committee. Citizens United overruled that limit and corporations can donate whatever amount they want to a candidate.
There is an old Chinese idiom saying if A is given money by B, then A must work in favor of B, and that applies perfectly to this situation. When a candidate receives donations from a corporation or an individual, then he or she must work favorably for that corporation or individual. Conventional wisdom tells us that what is good for corporations might not be always good for us, the ordinary people, and sometimes they blatantly suppressing people’s rights in exchange for more profit or tax breaks. Corporations gave candidates donations, and candidates returned them tax breaks, subsidies or/and government contracts. Is this what democracy is about? Is this what the framers of the constitution intended?
Dred Scott is was a slave whose master brought him to Illinois, where slavery was banned. At the time, slaves moving into a free territory are generally freed automatically. Dred Scott petitioned for freedom, and he won, but his master appealed, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled Dred Scott was nothing just a property of his master, and was subject to his master’s control no matter where he moved.
Scott ruling benefitted no one but a few top elites. Citizens United served the same purpose. Citizens United gave a few business moguls and large corporations the power to buy elections outright. Representatives lost their purpose, as they only need to represent companies, not the people. It took America 19 years, and a bloody north vs. south civil war to repeal Dred Scott, and northerners are generally against slavery; however, this time, almost all politicians in the United States, except Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, embrace Citizens United.
Instead of being written by me, these two paragraphs are actually what I paraphrased from the Boston Globe, Senator Bernie Sanders’s words and what I implied. “Citizens United” reduced citizens from equals to inferiors, creating class differences even in the most basic democratic value—value of vote.
In addition to elections, democracy also includes several other key values such as rules of law, independent, impartial judiciary and civil rights and civil liberties guaranteed. In today’s North American society, independent judiciary is generally respected and hailed, but we are still a far cry from rule of law and guaranteeing the people civil rights and civil liberties.
In Canada, the Harper government introduced Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51) to the parliament. A provision of the act included warrantless searches and seizures of any private citizen posing a threat to the society or engaging in terroristic activities. This act is extremely similar to the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (Patriot Act), including provisions to engage in warrantless monitor of phone records, internet browsing records and collection of other statistics. Right of Due Process, meaning that a state must respect all legal rights owned to a person, is circumvented, and the government can be in control of private citizens’ personal life, instill authoritarian values and reducing democratic values.
NSA surveillance, police brutality, government negligence in people’s conditions and harsh criminal penalties are only just a few governmental actions instituted by our supposedly democratic government. These suppressive actions, reducing citizens to be inferiors, are not values of democracy, but values of authoritarianism. As outlined in the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution, [no person shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor [shall any states] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The key, to democracy, is people. In a true democracy, political legitimacy is given to the authority by the people, and can be taken away by the people, not kings, princes, dukes, or gods. Representatives truly representative, judges duly carrying justice for the people, executive doing what the people demands and executes order based on such demands, and these, are the perfect explanation of democracy.
Do we truly live in a democratic society? The answer is clear. It is true that the society that we are currently living in has democratic values, and the people can potentially have a substantial force throughout the society, as in the case of Bernie Sanders and his progressive coalition, but these forces are never large enough to shake the government into a machine that actually works for the people, as the ones in power full use any counteracting force to stop progressive forces from overcoming their forces, such as through media influence and public opinion manipulation.
Maybe some day we can have a real democracy, but first end government surveillance, police brutality, unlimited campaign spending and harsh criminal penalties. These processes take decades, if not centuries to complete, but benefits of having a government fully controlled by the people and responsive to the people will make the already great human race even better.