Hardly anyone in the West can be found to argue against democracy; it's considered a truism that democracy is the best form of government. Countries moving towards democracy are making political progress while those with other systems are politically backward. When applied to systems of government, the word ‘undemocratic’ has become a synonym for ‘bad’.
You'd be tempted to think we knew what democracy was.
You'd certainly be excused for thinking we believed ourselves and most western countries to possess democratic systems.
But do we?
Representation in the UK has travelled a long road from the days when the leading citizens of each borough used to select two of their number to travel to the capital for short assemblies. These meetings were called to decide basic issues of taxation and supply, and after them MPs returned and explained matters to their fellow citizens.
From the enfranchisement of the masses to a restructuring of political parties to reflect the changed electorate took maybe half a century. From there to the voters' realising their votes weren't making any difference took another fifty years or so. From that realisation to giving up voting took about fifty more.
A whole class of people who know no trade but politics has grown up and taken control. They've been aided by manipulative, self-interested groupings known as political parties.
Whatever this system should be called, I doubt if it's democracy – timocracy or plutocracy maybe. The literal translation of democracy in ancient Greece was ‘government by the people’. Government by the people as a whole was practicable in the city state. Representative democracy, evolved to apply the same idea to larger states, was hijacked by the party system as soon as the expansion of the franchise pushed communication with the electorate beyond the financial reach of most independent candidates.
In the UK, with mass party membership a thing of the past despite the recent accession of numerous hard left activists to Labour, candidates are chosen by a small group of party members in each constituency. Combining this degraded system with parliaments lasting for several years results in something more reminiscent of what Lord Hailsham called ‘elective dictatorship’ than government by the people.
Churchill described democracy as the worst system of government except for all the others that have from time to time been tried. Not a good thing – just the best of the available evils.
The drawbacks are obvious. Why was I condemned to live in a democracy where every fool's vote is equal to a sensible man's? asked John Wyndham. There spoke a man in the Platonic tradition; everyone should stick to what they are good at, a neo-Platonist says, and most people are no good at statecraft.
Isn't it true of any specialist subject? If you were about to undergo brain surgery would you rely on a brain surgeon or take a vote among all the patients in the hospital? Would you rather your airliner was flown by a pilot or elect someone from among the passengers?
If we agree specialist tasks should ideally be performed by specialists, then a democrat presumably believes running the country demands no expertise?
Let's go further. How many who live with the supposed blessings of a democratic system can define democracy or enumerate its benefits? Even elected politicians, who surely ought to know, are regularly heard to make a simplistic equation between democracy and majority rule.
If democracy were indeed the same thing as majority rule then of course it would be far from the best possible system of government. It's not hard to show examples of what J S Mill called ‘The tyranny of the majority’.
Suppose a society to be divided upon ethnic, religious or economic grounds, such that one section was always outvoted. Is it democratic for the majority to rob, persecute or enslave that minority? If not, then majority rule (alone) is not democracy.
More crudely, the doctrine of the mandate is widely taken to mean a 'democratically' elected government is empowered to put into practice any element of the manifesto upon which it stood. The voters who supported that government are held to have endorsed everything it proposed, even though many voters are not expressing support at all but voting tactically - choosing a lesser evil.
If it is undemocratic to claim a mandate for something people have not consciously endorsed, is it any better to give them what they do want? Populist politicians regularly promise impossible or damaging policies so long as the people want them. These politicians may not care about deceiving the people; their objective is simply to be elected.
The huge debts which threatened economic collapse in so many countries recently were the results of the unsustainable mortgaging of tomorrow to pay for today. Ask people if they want goodies and of course they'll agree, as long as someone else pays. Deficit financing effectively makes our children pay. Eventually the pile of debt becomes unserviceable. Yet riots and demonstrations attended upon attempts to return to affordable levels of public spending.
Under many supposedly democratic systems even the principle of majority rule breaks down. Total power is handed to the largest minority. The 2010-15 UK coalition government was the first since the Second World War to be formed by MPs who collectively received more than fifty percent of the popular vote. In spite of this, previous minority-supported governments enacted widespread and radical changes to society.
So if democracy is not government by the people, by a majority or even by the largest minority thereof, what does it actually mean today?