Strife Feature – Can We Trust Ourselves? The Evanescence and Revival of Democracy

By Ashley Pratt

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) poses for a photograph after addressing pro-EU “Vote Remain” supporters at rally in Bristol, Britain June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Geoff Caddick/Pool

Over the past year, various political events have raised questions about the Western emphasis and reliance on democracy and democratic values. Despite predictions made by newspapers and pollsters, the world watched the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. In the months after the referendum, ‘the will of the people’ was invoked more than once to argue for staying the course on Brexit. There were also those who asked whether the people had in fact willed incorrectly, or whether it was the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people to make course corrections when democracy resulted in potentially catastrophic decisions.

Across the Atlantic, Americans were watching the rise of a failed businessman-turned-reality television star who first joined the Republican presidential primary, then won it against all expectations; then ran a campaign filled with dog-whistle racism and encouragement of (and alleged commission of) sexual assault. None of this stopped him, though, from winning the national election and becoming the 45th President of the United States of America. The general understanding is that the will of the American people elects the President, but in the world’s foremost democracy, the candidate with the largest proportion of the vote did not place her hand on the Bible on Inauguration Day. Many Brits watched in horror, appalled that the same forces that persuaded their fellow citizens to vote to leave the EU were at work in the victory of a right-wing populist candidate in the U.S. election.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte ran for the presidency of his country in an election held in May. He was democratically elected to the position on the platform of cleaning up the Philippines’ drug problem, among other promises. Rival candidates claimed he would be little more than an executioner. In the intervening months, he has admitted to killing people with his own hands. However, he is the democratically elected executive, chosen by the people, among them those in whose deaths he possibly participates or at least orders. Just days ago, a referendum in Turkey gave Erdogan extensive new presidential powers. What do these results and others like them mean for the global political community’s reliance on democracy?

This article will examine both longstanding and more modern critiques of democracy and ask: What are we to make of the democratic foundations of modern political society? Are they strong enough to hold all of the weight we expect them to carry? There is, in the liberal democratic Western discourse, a notion that democracy will course-correct itself. All too often, though, commentary overlooks the fact that democracy is not tamper-proof. Can democracy as a means in and of itself ensure consistent societal improvement and progress towards societal equality? We are accustomed to believing that, as Martin Luther King Jr. offered, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, since the quote made its way into the vernacular, many have argued that we must bend it. Does democracy rely on the natural moral arc of the universe, or is democracy the act of bending?

The roots of modern democracy can be traced back to the Enlightenment when the old became new again and much was made of the Greeks and Romans. When the lauded intellectual and philosophical father of the modern age Immanuel Kant set out to describe his imagined world consumed by “perpetual peace,” it was not to democracies he turned, but to republics.[1] He distrusted democracies. Kant’s republic was founded on three principles: freedom for all men, one common unified law for all subjects, and “the principle of legal equality for everyone.”[2] Such a vision neither looks nor sounds very different from the same principles on which the United States of America was founded. Kant took issue with what he refers to as the “despotism” inherent within democracies, “because it establishes an executive power through which all the citizens may make decisions about (and indeed against) the single individual without his consent.”[3] To Kant, the contradiction of “one and the same person…at the same time [being] both the legislator and the executor of his own will” was no more apparent than the similar contradiction at the heart of a democracy. Kant would rather suffer under the despotism of an individual than the despotism of the masses.[4]

Pressing forward chronologically, a new question arises. Is a presumption of democracy as the teleological end for systems of government simply another mechanism for neocolonial enforcement of western ideals? The Enlightenment had very little faith in women, people of color, or even the common man. Modern democracy could be the fruit of a poisoned tree. Throughout modern political philosophy, there is a through-line that democracies – especially liberal democracies – are inherently better than any other form of government. Rawls advocated a realistic utopia of liberal democracies that were on good terms with just but hierarchical (nondemocratic) societies and allied with them against unjust hierarchical societies. However, he had some arbitrary ideas on how human rights are required for a hierarchical society to qualify as just as opposed to unjust. In the field of international relations, readers consistently encounter democratic peace theory, the idea that liberal democracies are less likely to go to war. In response, many theorists append “with each other”: liberal democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, but still just as likely to go to war with non-democracies. Democracy may not be any more inherently peaceful than autocracy, but simply provide a modern nation with more allies.

The foundations of democracy are one thing; what of its use in practice today? In a ‘post-truth’ world, the very foundational concept of democracy – that the best, most qualified candidate will receive the most support – is not at all certain. Populist anti-establishment sentiment throws its weight against those with the most experience in government. In some cases, this is because they have records that are completely legitimate cause for mobilizing against them; in other cases, it simply prevents the wisdom of experience from being placed where it can do the most good. The same is true for the sort of reactionary sentiment that wanted out of the EU; rather than vote in a way that alters the parts of the status quo that are disliked, British Leave campaigners upset the entire table. It remains to be seen if any good will come of it.


“Congratulations to the new president of the United States Donald Trump and to the American people free!” Marine Le Pen tweeted.

Such anti-establishment sentiment is not the only issue in modern elections and referenda. If ‘fake news’ and verifiable, objective facts look overly similar to large sections of the population, there is no reason to think they will ask questions of sources that tend to confirm what they already believe. Democracy relies heavily on free, open exchanges of information and a civil society capable of distinguishing between fact and absolute fiction. There will always be partisanship in government until such time as the global structure achieves some cosmopolitan utopia (which does not appear to be on the horizon). However, for democracy to have any hope of serving the people, there must be a modicum of faith in the press.  Someone somewhere must be assumed to be trustworthy and to be telling the truth.

Many of the governments we call democracies today are in essence democratic republics. An actual democracy is a government in which all citizens vote on all matters. Republics are usually made up of representatives or some patrician class who do the actual voting, though there may be varying levels of input from the common citizen. Does this help forestall the despotism Kant saw as inherent in a democracy? If consulted, many of the planners of the various democracies might confess to building republics for simplicity’s sake: there were too many people for them to vote on each issue that arose. Logistically it simply was not feasible. Here again, however, a structural issue emerges: can a system of government conceived by people who generally distrusted the white man on the street – and gave little or no thought to the women and men of color – ever evolve into a system that is truly egalitarian and just?

The global political order today is not all doom and gloom, despite what the BBC Breaking News banners might suggest. This October, an anti-immigrant referendum in Hungary did not pass after 50 percent of the electorate chose not to cast a vote; Polish women’s protests prevented abortion laws that infringed on the rights of people capable of bearing children in that country. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his far-right Party for Freedom recently lost the general election in that country, despite their anti-Muslim populist rhetoric that has recently been popular with voters, both in Europe and in the United States. Democratic principles are not only mechanisms for showing the worst sides of a population. The voice of the people is just as loud when it speaks to demand a more open, egalitarian, compassionate society. If democracy becomes an end in itself, the very principles it is entrenched to protect may fall by the wayside.

Are those principles strong enough to hold what we expect them to hold? We the people who rely on democracy must be willing to face and acknowledge its weaknesses if there is to be any hope of keeping it functional. To know what lacuna are built into democracy and then act accordingly, building safeguards and shoring up weaknesses, is the best option for democracy’s survival. Democracies were built to be malleable; the people must take advantage of that malleability.

What do democratic decisions like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and Rodrigo Duterte’s election mean for our reliance on democracy?  They mean it is working. They mean that the people will get exactly what they ask for. They mean that an electorate who will not critically engage, an electorate that does minimal independent research, an electorate of analog people in a newly-digital world will get exactly what they vote for. Confirmation bias did not disappear when the entire world of information arrived at our fingertips. Kant didn’t think women were people in the same way men were; most of his contemporaries, many of his heroes, and no small number of those who followed him all agreed. Kant was an intellectual giant, and he may have been right – democracy may in fact be the truest despotism. But Winston Churchill also looms large over our global political landscape, and he said, quoting an unknown writer, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms.” In September, Germans go to the polls, with the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland as one of their options. The French will vote until the 7th of May; they have their own far-right candidate, Marine le Pen, with whom to contend. If 2016 was the year that shook our faith in democracy, 2017 is capable of becoming the year that restores it.

Ashley Pratt is an International Relations Masters student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She previously completed a degree at Arkansas State University in theatre with a minor in philosophy. Her research interests are on insurgency, just war theory, and human rights.


[1] Kant, Immanuel. “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” 99. In Kant’s Political Writings, 93–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 101.

[4] Ibid., 102.

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