12 Limitations of Western Democracy
What really ails our democratic institutions.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
This rather famous quote holds a paradox of the western democratic model of governance. On one hand, the quote readily admits the system has inherent flaws. Yet on the other hand, it suggests that western democracy cannot be changed. And this leads to another paradox: why is it, then, we remain content with a system with so many flaws?
In this chapter, I will be discussing the flaws. In doing so, many readers will assume that I am very critical about western democracy. I should make it clear that I consider myself being very blessed to have been born and raised in Canada in the last half of the 20th century. When I compare the opportunities I have had to the opportunities I could have had if I had been born in other times or places, it’s not hard for me to imagine that I would not have acquired the education, experience, opportunity, and freedom to write a book such as this. In essence, my abilities are due, in a large part, to western democracy being able to unlock my human potential.
The reader could also conclude that I am also against “politicians” in general. On the contrary, I feel that many of these people have a difficult and thankless job to do and are not paid enough for the sacrifices they make to serve in public office. Politicians — and the volunteers that work for the political parties — are an important part of the democratic process. Without elected politicians as our decision makers, I believe the alternative of living in a dictatorship or anarchy would have not been conducive to writing a book like this. I also believe that many of our current politicians, with their high commitment of public service, will still find their way into the replacement system of governance I will be suggesting in the next chapter.
To begin discussion, this chapter lists many of the limitations of democracy. Many readers will find nothing new here for the limitations are easily understood. But perhaps reading this list will be the first time many readers will see all these limitations in one place.
Limitation #1: Political Parties Create a Very Exclusive Club
By law, anyone in the western world can belong to a political party of his or her choosing. In theory, any party member can eventually become an elected politician. In practical terms, the opportunity is limited. Aside from the formal processes of joining and rising in a political party, numerous informal features prevent many people from participating in politics.
Political parties are not bastions of like-minded individuals striving for a common goal. Within these organizations, there is often jealousy, pettiness, gossiping, backbiting, power struggles, subversion, opportunism, jostling for position, and ambition. To succeed in the political party arena, an individual has to immerse him- or herself in this atmosphere. For many people wanting to offer their time to make the world a better place, the atmosphere in a political party is a significant barrier to participation.
Another barrier is the moral compromises required for most political careers. Morality and principles are often sacrificed to gain the primary objectives of portraying party unity and winning elections. More is discussed about this later, but for many people, these compromises are simply too much to take, and they stay away from the political process.
The balance between risk and reward in political life is unacceptable for many people. Being seriously involved in politics is a time-consuming activity, usually at the expense of family, career, and recreation. Despite the vast amount of effort an aspiring politician must give to become elected, the failure rate is high. Surviving the party politics, winning the internal party election, and finally winning the general election usually mean that only about one of the ten or so people who runs for public office actually gains the privilege of governance — and many of these winners only survive one term in office without affecting the world too much. The other nine who made the attempt get absolutely nothing — after making a serious life investment! For many citizens, the likelihood of not being successful in the political arena is high enough to keep them out of the process.
So what does western democracy actually do to attract qualified and capable people into the profession of governance? If anything, it discourages them! And society is bereft of having many competent people participate in its decision-making processes. This job is left to those who are willing to pay the initiation price: the hassles of politics.
And this price creates a very exclusive club.
Limitation #2: Political Parties Are Not Think-Tanks!
Political parties would like the citizenry to believe their prime function is to listen to the people and develop policies for the benefit of the population at large. To do this, the “grassroots” of the party are supposedly spending great amounts of volunteer time hashing out, debating, and formulating policy and then bringing this policy to the leadership of the party. The leadership then, supposedly, adopts this policy as its platform or perhaps provides further insight for more policy development from the grassroots.
Nothing is further from the truth! Nearly all of the party volunteers are spending most of their time towards electioneering purposes, not policy development. Although the leadership of any party must create a platform that will attract workers and donors for the election campaign, these party supporters really have not had much say about these policies. The only real policy development the average party worker can do is to support the party more or less as the leadership presents it. Therefore much of the knowledge, experience, and wisdom that these volunteers can bring to the party are never used.
Limitation #3: The Political Process Is Not a Screening Process
Political parties would like the citizenry to believe elections within the party structure (the nomination process) have a very significant role in our democracy. In these internal elections, two or more party members offer themselves as candidates for the privilege of representing the party in the general election and engage in a democratic battle to gain this right. With this process, the party supposedly sorts the better qualified people from the less qualified.
As discussed earlier, political parties actually discourage many qualified people from attaining positions of governance. Much talent is actually being wasted by society in favor of those citizens who seem to have the time, money, and ambition for politics. Even if the party has a pool of good people to select from, they are still missing most of the available talent from society’s rank and file.
The internal party elections are rarely tests of ethics, morality, competence, and problem-solving skills necessary for good governance. To win the internal election, candidates concentrate their efforts on creating a feel-good atmosphere that will encourage other party members to vote for them. Nice-looking pamphlets and banners, handshakes, inspiring speeches, and button-wearing, noise-making supporters are the normal methods to sway votes. Candidates not playing this game simply do not win any party favor.
The internal party election mostly demonstrates the candidates with the better electioneering skills. The successful candidate is likely to have good electioneering skills for the general election. While good electioneering is a very specialized skill set, it has little to with good governance.
Individual party members appear to have a great responsibility in our western democratic system. They are the citizens who have the opportunity to really know the candidates and to select the best one. If they are doing their job properly, then, ideally, all parties should be sending extremely qualified people to represent the party in the general election — and weeding out the individuals who are either incompetent or likely to engage in corrupt activities.
But do the party members really know their candidates? Do they know if a candidate has an addiction problem? Or a family problem? Or is he a tax evader? Is the candidate a bridge-builder capable of bringing people together to solve problems? Can the candidate see above and beyond the clouds of confusion? Can the candidate process information and data? Is the candidate a listener who uses consultation skills to see innovative solutions to problems? Or is the candidate extremely opinionated? Does the candidate have a long list of favors to pay off? What history does the candidate have that suggests he or she will not abuse the position of elected office? Can the candidate bring trust and respect to the position of an elected office?
To answer these questions, party members would have to live or work with each of the candidates on a regular basis. There is no other honest way to select candidates based on good character and competence for governance. Within the party structure, most voting party members do not have the opportunity to really get to know all — or even one — of the candidates. Instead, they rely on speeches, handshakes, and other electioneering techniques to make their decisions. In essence, they’re almost as blind as the general citizenry about the true capacity of the aspiring candidates.
Internal party elections are no screening process for character and competence.
Limitation #4: Political Parties Are Mostly Marketing Machines
When we listen to interviews of today’s political pundits, we will hear many of the same words often used by professional marketers: “positioning, segmenting, differentiating, branding, focus group testing, etc.” It’s not hard to see that a significant amount of what political parties do is marketing: i.e., the selling of their wares, whether those wares be a political ideology, some interesting ideas, or a personality. Without marketing, a political party has no chance of achieving its objective: winning an election.
To many readers, such marketing is a normal part of democracy. In fact, it helps us become better informed voters so that we can make better choices.
However, I do not see much correlation between good marketing and good governance. Both of these are indeed specialized skill sets, but just because one is good at one skill does not mean one is good at the other. I liken these two skills to driving a car and driving an 18-wheel truck. We can say that a licensed car driver already knows the rules of the road and can readily apply this knowledge to driving a big truck. But obviously this knowledge is not enough: this car driver should get some training and his truck license before being allowed to operate a big truck. Likewise, a politician who looks good in the media and can create excellent headlines and 15-second clips is not necessarily going to be good at governance.
The political party is, in essence, a vehicle for an aspiring politician to become marketable to the public. The marketing package that comes with a political party is so strong that an inferior candidate with full party support almost always beats a more competent person campaigning as an independent. In the political world, the marketing is more important than the content.
Limitation #5: Simplistic Explanation of the Problem and Solution
When goods or services are marketed to the masses, a good marketer will not put too much detail in its marketing message. For example, a shampoo manufacturer will not entice buyers by emphasizing its chemical composition, but instead focus on how attractive you will be if you use this shampoo. A car manufacturer will try to sell you on year-to-year reliability of its cars, not the engineering decisions made to create that reliability. Beer companies are famous for creating an illusion that a certain lifestyle will happen if you drink their beer; the taste of the beer — or even the food safety processes taken to make this beer — are unimportant in these commercials.
To market themselves, political parties have to take complicated issues and present them in such a way that they are attractive to the mass media and comprehensible to much of the citizenry. The result is to simplify almost every issue almost to the point where it no longer represents the truth. And it is from these simplifications where we average citizens formulate our opinions, which, directly or indirectly, affect who gets elected and later makes decisions in government.
Many political scientists seem to believe that simplifying complicated issues is a normal part of democracy. In this context, politicians who are good at this task have more right to be in government than those who are not.
But below I have summarized how the various complicated issues facing us are often simplified in the political process. I think most readers can categorize many statements made by elected public officials into these simplifications:
- Political Correctness: “Anyone who is for / against this particular solution is either incompetent or uncompassionate.”
- Ultimate Consequence: “This decision will prevent / facilitate our civilization’s descent into anarchy.”
- Hasty Action is Good Action: “If we are seen to be doing something, then whatever we are doing must be right.”
- Delayed Action: “We need more study to make the right decision (but we hope the issue goes away).”
- Ultimate altruism: “Damn the cost! If we can save one life, then it is worth doing!”
- Avoiding Responsibility & Casting Blame: “We have done nothing to create this injustice. It’s the other party’s fault.”
- World with No Risk: “The public is going to be 100% safe after we make these changes.”
- Limited Alternatives: “There are only two choices: the right way and the wrong way.”
- The Red Herring: “Let’s focus on a smaller problem, so we don’t have to discuss the big problem.”
A common byproduct of simplifying the issue is when politicians make promises they do not keep after they are elected to office. It’s easy to make such promises when in opposition, but once in power, they start seeing all the angles to the complicated issue for the first time. They realize their simple solution cannot work, so it is not implemented. Perhaps worse is when they still implement their simple solution to keep their campaign promise.
I’m not saying that simplistic explanations have no place in public decision making for they do provide the vision to move society in positive directions. The danger lies when the simplistic explanation casts aside other crucial angles to finding better solutions. For example, consider constructing an improvement for a particular highway. We can claim there will be fewer accidents with this improvement, and it could happen to be politically correct to move this project forward. But when we invest resources in this improvement, we could be diverting resources away from other opportunities to lower risk elsewhere. We may even increase overall societal risk — even if our highway is a bit safer.
What we need is a more thoughtful process when trying to predict the outcome of our collective decisions. How will our decision affect other aspects of society? What could be the possible ramifications of our decision? How do we monitor the progress of our decision? When the decision is reduced to satisfying the simplistic explanation, then it’s not hard to see why some public decisions are poorly crafted.
So when we judge our political parties and politicians on their abilities to create simplistic explanations, they are being influenced by the need to make simple explanations to stay elected. But we fall short of our potential to resolve the various complicated issues that face us.
Limitation #6: Elected Officials Spend Too Much Time on Politics, Not on Governance
I am going to give these two words different definitions even though many readers would argue that “politics” and “governance” are actually the same things.
Politics, in this book, involves preparing for and working on elections, getting the media’s attention, meeting with members of the same political party to gain their confidence (and their volunteer time and money), attending or speaking at fund-raising activities for the party, making alliances, engaging in social activities that are meant to increase influence, working out spins on issues, resolving power plays within the party, wrestling with the rules of procedures to gain advantage, interpreting poll results, attending to the needs of the volunteers and donors for the next election, anticipating the actions of political enemies, etc.
Governance, on the other hand, involves consulting citizens from the different sides of the issues, consulting with the experts, working on committees that deal with these issues, and making, communicating, and implementing the decisions that must be made for a society to manage itself well.
Using these definitions, politics and governance can sometimes cross paths. Take, for example, a public meeting over a controversial issue. The politician may be holding this meeting to get the citizens’ opinions and feelings so that he or she can convey this information back to the government before the decision is made. This is in the realm of governance. On the other hand, the politician may be holding this meeting knowing full well the decision has already been made: the meeting is only held to give the appearance of consultation or to gauge how much a contrary decision is going to hurt the party in the next election. This meeting would be under the umbrella of politics. Most public meetings probably have an element of both governance and politics.
It would be interesting to follow some politicians for a few months to determine how they divide their time between politics and governance. But to give them credit, let’s assume that they spend 30% of their time on politics and 70% on governance. This 30% assumption still means a politician dedicates a lot of his or her time to retain or enhance his or her position of influence in the decision-making realm. As far as actually solving the world’s problems, this time is wasted time.
A more discrediting implication is that when average citizens see their politicians doing so much politicking, they tend to believe that too many decisions by government are based on politics, not good governance. Hence, even when good governance overrides political influences, this governance is seen with the same suspicion, doubt, and cynicism as fostered by politics. Therefore, the likelihood of full implementation and success of the decision is lower than a decision surrounded by contention and controversy.
Ironically, when it comes to election time, we voters base most of our decision on how well the politicians and parties do their politics. As for good governance, it is next to impossible to determine how well they perform because most of us will never see how our politicians behave in decision-making processes. We should not be too surprised when we elect “political” leaders more concerned about their position, power, and place in history rather than “governance” leaders who have great capacity to solve problems afflicting our societies.
Limitation #7: Voters are Poor Judges
I have already alluded to several reasons why — when we voters are called to vote — we cannot make a wise choice. We gain our perception from a sensationalist media or the marketing message of the various political parties, which depends a lot on their campaign budget. We know so little about the characters of the actual people we are asked to vote for. One aspiring politician once told me that running for public office was the longest job interview he ever had. But the truth was that even after this lengthy interview process, all his “potential bosses” knew about him was that he spoke the party line really well — and he looked good in a suit.
A second aspect of our poor judgment is based on the short duration politicians spend in public office, usually less than a decade. A common political axiom is that if our country seems to be well run, the governing political party should be voted back in. However, the credit may be more due to that party’s predecessors making some wise decisions a decade or two earlier. So the governing party is actually getting a free ride on the good work of previous governments. Conversely, a governing party that seems to be in a crisis actually may be unraveling some poor decisions of its predecessors. It could be voted out of office next term despite setting up a good foundation for the next government. Because credit is freely taken and blame is freely given, it is hard for the average voter to really know who is responsible for the wise and unwise decisions made by past and current governments.
So it seems folly that we can wisely judge a political party by its past performance. If we cannot judge wisely, then how can we put the more capable people into positions of public decision-making?
Lastly, committee work is the most important activity average politicians do (in my opinion). This is where the fine details of legislation are put together. Yet we average voters rarely see how our politicians perform in this arena. Who has the wisdom? Who has interesting ideas? Who can see different alternatives? Who is a consensus builder? Who can envision ramifications? Who can see the connections between other aspects of governance? Or who dominates the meetings and gives little consideration to other points of view? Or who sees his or her committee work mostly as a stepping stone towards a higher political office? When called to answer these kinds of questions, the election campaign fails to tell us which politicians are better at committee work than others.
We voters in western democracies really are not that wise when determining who should or should not be in public office.
Limitation #8: Political Parties Do Not Plan Well for the Future
Political parties are mostly motivated by the timing of the next election, not the effects of their decision even one generation from now. Their passport to power, or perhaps survival, depends on how they view their legislative, executive, and media actions in the light of the next election. If a particular action seems likely to enhance the electoral success of a political party, the party will take that action. If the action is a hindrance, the party will avoid it. Whether that action is for the betterment of society in the future is irrelevant to the needs of the political party today.
The short-term effects often set the pace; long-term effects are for the next generation of politicians to deal with. Unfortunately, many of society’s ills require solutions that will take a generation or two to see positive results. If the solutions to these problems cannot provide any benefits to the parties by the next election, it is very unlikely that parties will make them part of their platform.
To be fair to the western democratic model, it has made decisions for its citizens that had short-term pain for long-term gain. Public education for children of all economic backgrounds, abolishment of racial segregation, and environmental laws forcing industries to emit less pollution are all good examples of a society making the right long-term choices. But these changes were not initiated by elected politicians themselves, but by ordinary people educating other people and then organizing themselves to exert pressure on these politicians to make such changes. In essence, the people “led” the nation, not the politicians.
To some political pundits, this kind of democracy may be good and normal. Unlike other forms of governance “that have been tried from time to time,” citizens in western democracies can organize themselves to make changes for the betterment of their society.
But making changes in this way often takes decades to effect and requires an immense amount of resources from the citizenry itself. Would it not be better for governments to do the right thing at the right time — instead of waiting for a certain amount of public pressure to coerce it?
Limitation #9: Political Parties are Beholden to Those Who Feed the Marketing Machine
Political parties, as mentioned earlier, are in the business of marketing themselves to have the right to govern. And to do their marketing, they have to spend resources, mostly in donations and volunteer time.
Most volunteers in political parties start contributing their time for altruistic reasons. They sincerely believe that the party or politician they are supporting is the best for the society, and they realize that if they want to get their preference elected, they must participate more than just by voting once every few years. They choose to play a bigger part in the democratic process by becoming active in a political party.
Many volunteer workers for political parties have only a small investment in the political process. They may just show up for election day to be guided by party organizers to perform the rather mundane tasks to “get out the vote.” Or they may spend a few days on the election campaign itself, putting up signs, canvassing homes, attending rallies, or preparing voter lists. After election day, they consider their beyond-the-call-of-democratic-duty to be over and go back to being ordinary citizens. They have no intention of getting something special from the system.
Other volunteer workers put a lot more into the political process. They may put in extensive hours in the campaign to see their preference elected, and they may sit on party boards and committees between elections to keep the election machine at a state of readiness for the next election. There is very little compensation for this type of work even though the worker sacrifices time that could have been spent on family, work, community, and recreation.
Many of these long-term volunteers start to lose their feeling of altruism. They gain a sense that they have been “saving the country” from the other politicians and parties who are corrupt, incompetent, or of the wrong ideology while nonpartisan citizens pursue more enjoyable activities than the often-times rough-and-tumble life of a party insider. So when an opportunity that is not there for ordinary citizens appears, the political volunteer feels justified in taking it.
Some of these opportunities are quite acceptable. Being on a first-name basis with an elected politician and being invited to social gatherings with elected politicians are enough reward for some volunteers. Sitting as “average citizens” on certain government committees in hopes that they can be influential in public policy is attractive to other volunteers. Getting a paying job within the party apparatus that can lead to more contacts and career opportunities are also quite harmless.
But sometimes these opportunities are not so harmless. Getting a government job that could be filled by more qualified people outside the party or getting a business contract based on political connections rather than providing the best bid undermines the credibility of government in the eyes of the nonpartisan citizen.
While these latter actions can be easily defined as corrupt activities that bring discredit to what democracy stands for, the politicians themselves are powerless to prevent these actions from happening. If they do not give out special favors — and are not seen to be giving out favors — they will lose very capable and experienced loyal party workers for the next election. Without these crucial workers, their chances for electoral success are lower. In the world of politics, the “profits” of occasionally giving special favors to loyal workers outweigh the “losses” created by any possible bad publicity caused by this corrupt activity. All political parties have to play this game to some extent or they do not become elected.
Similarly, donating money also has altruistic and not-so-altruistic intentions. Donors of small amounts are usually satisfied with seeing their money going towards a politician or party that shows competence and vision; these donors ask for nothing else. As the donations become larger, the altruism starts to disappear. Being part of a politician’s social circle or having some prestige within the party establishment provide motivation for some donors. Some individual donors will contribute a lot to the cause in hopes of gaining a favor in the future. The larger the donation, the more likely the politician will recognize that donor.
I know of one corporation that paid $30,000 to a political party and received $150,000 in job creation grants two years later. The corporation really did not create any new jobs; these “new jobs” were part of the natural attrition of a 200-employee firm. But this government program was an excellent vehicle for a political party to reward large donors for financing their election campaign. Similar to treating loyal volunteers, politicians need to be seen — discretely — giving taxpayers’ money to large donors. Otherwise, major sources of funding dry up; meaning the party has fewer resources to outmarket its opponents, which reduces its chances of winning the next election.
Unlike volunteers, however, corporations and wealthy people can play more than one party at the same time. Often they give similar donations to two or more parties to cover their bases regardless which party gets elected. The firm I mentioned in the previous paragraph could have also donated a second $30,000 to another party and still made an excellent return on its investment regardless of which party won the election. For the politicians and their parties, they really have to cater to the corporations for funds. Otherwise, their competition gets the edge financially — and if so, quite often electorally. Voters, for whatever reason, do not appreciate a politician or party that is unable to put together a well-financed marketing machine.
To minimize the influence big money* has with political parties, many democratic nations have experimented with various election finance reforms. And in each experiment, big money still finds a way to maintain its influence.
The well-meaning advocates of such reforms fail to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between political parties and their big donors. The parties cannot envision themselves existing in the political process without lots of campaign money. Hence a party will only pass election finance laws when it sees an advantage over its competition. This is not good motivation for campaign finance reform.
In other words, it is not possible to significantly reduce the influence big money has on government if we insist on keeping the western democratic model.
* It is quite common thinking that big money always gets its way with preferential legislation in western democracy — I should make it clear that I am not one of these thinkers. In fact, I believe that big money loses many more battles than it wins in the legislative process in most western democracies. However, it does win some battles. It can also delay unfriendly legislation for a few years or water it down. It can gain access to decision makers more quickly and cut through the red tape. Despite only getting a fraction of what it desires, big money still earns a reasonable profit on its investments into political parties.
Limitation #10: Political Parties Are Incapable of Dealing with Internal Corruption
Honest, competent people do make it into positions of governance. They have worked their way up the ranks of party politics keeping most of their original ethical principles intact. They stay away from corrupt activities and within election laws. They treat all politicians with respect. They do the best job of which they are capable within the confines of the arena they are working in. But sooner or later they encounter a party colleague involved in very obvious corruption — long before the media or opposition politicians ever hear of it. And they are forced to make a decision to either bring this person to some form of justice or let him or her continue with unethical activity.
So what are the implications of honest politicians who bring their errant colleagues to justice?
First, the very process of bringing a party colleague to some kind of internal party trial will probably attract attention the party does not want. The opposition will tout this one act of corruption as the tip of the iceberg. The media will milk this controversial situation as long as the public remains interested. The public will probably unfairly judge the party as being rife with corruption and will not see the step of the party disciplining its corrupt member as being good governance.
Second, an open case of corruption often slows down the process of governance. Attention is directed away from much-needed legislation and other areas of governance. The focus will be on the corrupt party individual, and the government cannot easily move until this issue is resolved or goes away.
Third, many cases of corruption never make it to the attention of the public despite unethical activities being carried on for years. Therefore, the possibility of negative publicity is actually quite low if the party chooses not to invoke self-discipline measures. Even if the corruption does gain the public’s attention, most political parties know they can ride out one or two scandals and not suffer for it at the next election.
Fourth, political parties are quite forgiving of those who have proven they can win elections. Amassing funds and volunteers, motivating those volunteers, and winning the election are the three most important attributes a political party values in its politicians. Everything else — including honesty and competence — is of secondary importance.
Though honest politicians can account for their own actions and decisions while serving in politics, they have almost no ability to provide justice to the society they govern when their political colleagues do not operate under similar moral and ethical principles. As long as our society wants to be governed by political parties, this relationship between honest politicians and their dishonest colleagues will not improve.
Limitation #11: The Adversarial Nature of Politics
Many well-meaning, qualified individuals, who have become very successful in their own fields of endeavor, have offered themselves into the political arena, believing that they have garnered experiences and wisdom that can benefit society. They view a political career as a service to their society, and putting themselves into a position of governance for these reasons is indeed a noble act. Many of these individuals would be an asset for the process of good governance.
So they choose a party that best matches their political inclinations. They work their way up the political party, win the party election, win the general election, and they are now in a position to do some good for the world.
Let’s use a typical suburban family as an analogy to the politician first gaining office. On Friday night, Dad announces to the family that he will mow the lawn Saturday morning. The rest of the family, for whatever reasons, is aghast with this idea and conspire to do whatever it takes to stop Dad from tomorrow’s planned task. In the middle of the night, Son #1 sneaks off to the garage and puts a little water in the lawn mower’s gas tank. Son #2 unloosens the wheels of the lawnmower so they are almost coming off. In the morning, Son #3 dumps all his toys on the lawn and refuses to pick them up. Then Teenage Daughter picks her father’s pet peeve and purposely engages him into an argument. The wife then turns the sprinklers on the lawn: “I thought you wanted to water — not mow — the lawn.” With all this going on, what are the chances that Dad will get his task done?
This analogy may seem a bit facetious, but this same atmosphere is part of the job of being a politician. Regardless of how hard-working, honest, and competent the individual is, that individual has immersed him- or herself into a shark tank, with many people who want to see him or her fail. Opposition politicians look for any weakness that can be exploited; the media look for anything that makes a good story. Bureaucrats, activists, and lobbyists who are not in favor of a politician’s stands on select issues will do whatever it takes to minimize that politician’s impact while in government. The politician also has to contend with politicians of the same party who are jockeying for a position of higher influence within the party itself. In the world of partisan politics, a politician has many more enemies than friends.
Unfortunately, the political processes within governing political parties have room for only a handful of influential politicians. This sets up a contest within the governing party itself to determine which of its many members actually belong to the influential group. If an elected politician or a backroom organizer from the governing party really wants to be influential, he or she must be prepared to do a lot of politicking — to the disadvantage of other politicians in the same party — to gain this position. Building and breaking alliances within the party, assuming greater responsibility for party functions not directly related to governance, poking fun at and chastising opposition politicians, and keeping corrupt party activities silent all become part of the game to become influential. If we insist on being governed by political parties, these unofficial rules for how to be influential in a party will always hold.
The media also have a hand in making life difficult for politicians. The politician has little room for error in how to present a position to the media. If a mistake is made, the media are quite willing to portray the politician in a negative light.
The adversarial nature and partisanship do not contribute to the process of good governance. With constant sniping at each other over who has the best ideas, each political party has assumed that the other parties have absolutely nothing positive to contribute towards solving society’s problems.
With this kind of self-righteous thinking, it’s not surprising that our legislators cannot see many of the angles surrounding various societal issues. Instead, they mimic children in a playground bickering about the rules of a simple game. If the western democratic model is to be the example for its citizens of how to reach collective decisions in other aspects of society, it is a very faulty example.
Many politicians become disillusioned with the process. Many of them give up; others resign themselves to the limitations of western democracy and try their best to work within it. Whatever the cause, most of these well-intentioned individuals are not contributing their full potential to society. Society has underutilized a valuable resource.
Limitation #12: Inability to Positively Shape Society
I think many readers will agree that any society that moves away from the various vices (alcohol, drugs, gambling, promiscuity, etc.) will be a more prosperous and socially cohesive society — if its citizens willingly accept these kinds of change in values without being forced by law. Other positive changes in value systems could be to move values away from resource-consuming recreational activities towards more environmentally friendly pastimes, lawfully paying one’s taxes, and putting some spare time into volunteering. It would be great if politicians could lead the way in these kinds of changes. But in western democracy, they can’t — for several reasons!
First off, they fear voter retribution if they push a moral agenda a little too far. Citizens who hold certain dysfunctional or unproductive values don’t like being told what they are doing is wrong. They would have more incentive to cast their vote towards another political party. A small minority of such citizens (perhaps 10% of the total population) can affect the electoral outcome against a party who seems to be pushing a more moral agenda. So any political party who wants to steer the citizenry into more positive values is probably not going to win elections. In other words, the political party cannot be that influential in getting citizens to become more moral or ethical.
Second, more than a few elected politicians engage in the immoral behavior themselves. With their position and attitude, they will stall the process to move the general citizens towards more positive values. And when these politicians are caught in the act, the value systems of many citizens are indirectly affected by a high profile person behaving in such a way. Some citizens can now better justify their dysfunctional or unproductive actions; others start to see these kinds of values as being normal. The final result is that some citizens have shifted their values in a negative way, which then affects the citizens around them now and a generation from now.
Third, politicians in general are not held in high regard by the citizenry. So when a certain politician speaks or works for a certain moral standard, citizens whose attitudes could be influenced by such a public person do not pay attention because of the lack of credibility.
If we are looking for our political leaders to lead western democracies towards greater morals and virtues, we should realize that only forces outside the political process can make this change happen. Then, perhaps, we will be rather consistent in electing politicians of upstanding character. In other words, society in general must first develop its morality, then it will be able to find political leaders guided by moral principles.
But politicians within western democracy cannot lead the way. If they push a moral agenda too far, they would not be reelected.
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This concludes the first half of Chapter 2 of my book. The second half discusses why popular reforms will not work. For example, I have encountered a handful of Medium thinkers who have posted articles that electing the American president by popular vote instead of the electoral college will produce better democracy in the United States. But when one lines up this reform against the 12 limitations, the reform fails to address even one of the 12 limitations. In other words, the EC debate is a red herring for American political thinkers.
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