Democracy – what is it good for?

The Lowy Institute has released its 2012 poll covering foreign policy. It canvassed Australian opinion on a wide range of matters such as uranium sales to India, climate change, the war in Afghanistan and US military bases. But what I found more interesting is the buzz generated by the revelation that ‘just 60% of Australians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, and only 39% of 18 to 29 year olds’.

The three questions posed to a ‘representative’ sample of 1,005 do not unpack how people understand the concept. Given how Australians increasingly misconceive elections as presidential (ie American) in character, wherein they make judgments on personality rather than policy, it is a problematic figure.

In the wider context of failed western ambitions to ‘democratise’ parts of the Middle East and Africa, as well as sustained, grassroots uprisings in the wake of global financial crises, what are we to make of democracy in our time?

I have long had issues with its commoditisation. I was born during martial law and was in primary school when the EDSA revolution overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and installed Cory Aquino as president. They were heady days, when the opportunity to write a constitution that encapsulated democratic values such as freedom of speech (brutally suppressed during the dictatorship) fuelled so much hope and pride. There was a nation to be remade.

The US government, prime purveyor of capitalism and democracy, stood by Marcos to the very end, transporting him into exile in Hawaii. He passed away there three years after. Not too long after that, his wife, son and daughter were elected into office. Many of his cronies remained in the corporations and offices that looted the national treasury. Today, the same type of people get voted in. So much for democracy.

Democracy, for all its hallowed virtues, makes too many assumptions about citizens. It assumes that they are politically engaged, that they are capable of making decisions beyond mere self-interest, and that they can identify the policies that are costly and challenging but are the right thing to do.

These assumptions rest on a mythic population that is not just educated but wise, not just financially comfortable but compassionate, not just patriotic but humane. Outside such conditions, people are simply manipulable, exposed to unscrupulous machinations. In countries of bone-crushing poverty, they are manipulated through handouts and parochial appeals. In countries of mind-numbing wealth, they are manipulated through entitlements and emotive appeals to fear.

It is not enough to overthrow an oppressive regime. It is not enough to give people the vote. Government of, for and by the people is not an end. It is a means for achieving enlightenment and justice. It is less a goal than a function.

In this sense, it is no wonder that the Lowy Institute poll found that ‘Australians are quite blasé about democracy’. They think they’ve already made it.

Categories: Politics and Governance

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