Owen Stevens

Yale University - Undergraduate

The Paradox of Democracy

It has grown to be a popular belief that a ‘successful’ democracy is the key to a nation’s prosperity, a trophy of political success. Broadly defined, democracy is a system of government in which officials are selected by the citizens by popular vote. Representatives are meant to act on behalf of the people who elected them, carrying out their beliefs or wishes and turning their ideas to action. On paper, the system sounds perfect: it encourages widespread equality in nearly all regards. When implemented, however, democracy often results in economic and political inequality, narcissistic and unstable leaders, and general inefficiency. In essence, the failure of democracy can be attributed to the inherent characteristic of selfishness vested inside of nearly all people. Democracy opens up the doors for corruption, allowing clever, quick-witted, and power-hungry individuals to convince the majority that they are the best person to lead the nation. As soon as these people come into power, however, false promises are quickly brought to light. Despite the fact that minorities are often misrepresented, corruption is commonplace, and progress is often slowed or even lost, democracy is evolving and improving, and it may be our only hope for a decent form of government.

Democracy favors the majority in a manifold of ways. Elected leaders are favored by the majority (at least at the time of the election), giving the minority little to no say in the political process. In nations where wealth dictates societal influence, democracy is often crushed before it can be implemented. Because the poor always outnumber the rich, the wealthy elite often “resist democracy before it arrives—or sabotage it afterward." This makes the introduction of democracy in unstable or developing nations a dangerous prospect, and this is a big contributing reason as to why democracy often fails. Take Thailand, for example, perhaps the most modern example of a failed democracy. Thaksin Shinawatra, a wealthy Thai businessman, came into power in 2001 as the prime minister of Thailand. His supporters promoted a democratic political arena, in which politicians could battle it out without the Thai Military interfering. The upper-middle-class and the royal elite, however, “advocat[ed] a more limited democracy that allow[ed] them to overrule the masses in poorer northern areas that formed Thaksin's base — ensuring that the current power structure remain[ed] in place”. This is a classic example of the elite resisting democracy simply to secure their status on the social ladder. In order for the elite to allow a democratic government that satisfied the needs of the poor, they would need to be positive that their social status would remain on top. Unfortunately, the two don’t mix, and social mobility can come with democracy. And in the country that “ranks as the most unequal country in Asia” with a massive income gap between the rich and the poor, the elite aren’t looking to let go of their power. In many cases, inherent selfishness strongly manifests itself in the upper class, and their unrelenting alliance to greed prevents democracy from flourishing.

In a democratic nation, disagreement comes with roadblocks and breeds inefficiency. When there is no clear majority, deadlock can occur: the government does nothing because the population (or the elected officials) cannot come to a majority consensus on an issue. In the United States, a deadlock can result in a government shutdown when Congress fails to decide where to appropriate funds. When the government shuts down, over 13 major government departments close, restricting access to Americans who are in need of these services. Even worse, federal employees aren’t paid during shutdowns. All of this can have quite a grand effect on the economy, usually hurting the middle class the most. And all because our elected officials simply could not come to an agreement. On top of that, economic inefficiency often occurs during elections: candidates spend anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars on their campaign to try to convince citizens to vote for them. This money could have funded charities, been attributed to government programs that benefit the economically disadvantaged, or been put towards about a thousand other more beneficial initiatives. Sadly, American society encourages large campaign spending: 91% of the time, the better-financed candidate wins. This troubling fact undermines the very notion of democracy, as elections are supposed to be based on policy and the will of the people, not money. Once again, and rather unsurprisingly, those with power and wealth are able to subvert those without.

Not only can the elite resist the introduction of democracy, but they can also do the opposite: run the democracy. As previously mentioned, the better-financed candidate wins the election the vast majority of the time. Unfortunately, these elite, wealthy candidates are usually defined by greed, narcissism, and selfishness. The reason that these types of people come into power is because they desire power more than anyone else, and they have the resources to attain that power. Once elected, they exploit the very people that put their name on the ballot (among the rest of the population). Take Vladimir Putin, for example. He has clear signs of a narcissistic personality disorder. Widely circulated images of Putin “half-naked on horseback, swimming in ice-cold rivers, hunting with a rifle in the wilderness - clearly suggests someone who is deeply in love with himself”. Or how about Donald Trump, president of perhaps the most powerful nation of the world. His favorite pastimes include ranting on Twitter, picking fights, filling his cabinet and then firing everyone in it, and making derogatory statements about women and minorities. Sadly, these type of people use their power to self-serve and gain popularity, leading to governmental inefficiencies that cannot be solved until the next election day. But they probably won’t be solved then either, as a new and even more egotistical candidate will take the stage. So why can’t altruistic and empathetic people take positions of power? Well they can, but rarely do; these people don’t crave authority, leaving the seat open for someone who does. That’s why in democratic societies, narcissistic or psychotic leaders are the most common. This is the dismal reality of the democratic election process, and yet another fault of democracy.

Democracy was created as an attempt to create a government that considered all perspectives of the people and made decisions on their behalf. It aims to please as many citizens as possible, to improve their quality of life, and to better the nation as a whole. With democracy comes equality, prosperity, and happiness. It sounds like a dream. And that’s because right now, it still is. No existing democracy today functions as it is intended. Loopholes in the system of election and in governmental procedure allow greedy, self-absorbed people to rule to their advantage, to exploit the less fortunate, and to topple the justice that supposedly defines democracy. Winston Churchill, former prime minister of Great Britain, famously stated that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. No form of government ever tested thus far has functioned without major problems, and while democracy has many, it is probably the closest we have ever been to a decent government. As we garner more experience, the system will be improved. It has already evolved in the United States from what it was in 1776— everyone can now vote, minority rights are stronger than ever, and discrimination is fading away. So for the time being, I would say it is wise to live in a democracy, but it is essential to understand the plights of the system if we are to make further progress in improving it.

Works Cited

Amadeo, Kimberly. “Government Shutdown 2018 and 2013 Explained.” The Balance Small Business, The Balance, 29 Nov. 2018, www.thebalance.com/government-shutdown-3305683.

Frum, David. “Why Do Democracies Fail?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 June 2017, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/06/why-do-democracie....

Goodman, Paul. “Pros and Cons of Democracy.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 9 Nov. 2018, owlcation.com/social-sciences/Pros-and-Cons-of-Democracy.

Jordan, Tony, and Sunil Jagtiani. “Thailand’s Troubled Democracy.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 28 Nov. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/thailands-troubled-democracy.

Lowery, Wesley. “91% Of the Time the Better-Financed Candidate Wins. Don't Act Surprised.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Apr. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/04/04/think-money-doesn....

Xi, Sun. “The Failure of Thailand's Democracy?” The Globalist, The Globalist, 23 Dec. 2013, www.theglobalist.com/failure-thailands-democracy/.

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