May 01, 2006

Democracy is about not getting what you want, and how we all deal with that.

Democratic governments do not execute the will of the people. They can't.

First of all, it would only work if everyone can vote for a party they completely agree with. That's not possible. In extreme cases, such as the one-and-a-half party system in the US's, it is absolutely impossible, but even with 5 or 10 major parties, it simply cannot work perfectly. So, every voter has to compromise to some extent - deciding which party he or she has more in common with.

Secondly, most parties have more than one issue to deal with. Not only do they need to prioritize between their issues, they also become susceptible to horse-trading - getting one of their ideas accepted, in exchange for dropping another. The people supporting the party may not have the same sense of priority, or may consider the deal unfair. So, while a ruling coalition may have a majority, any of its decisions may represent only a minority view of the voting public.

A democracy that closely mirrors the will of the people needs to have several major ("full-service") party. Its health is probably mirrored in the regularity with which single-issue parties participate and gain seats at the table. People need to learn to pick parties based on the degree to which their platform coincides with their own priorities, and realise that they will be disappointed, time and again. Perhaps most importantly, everyone needs to be able to distinguish between normal horse-trading and the betrayal of fundamental principles or specifics of the party platform.

The political structures to create a succesfull democracy are clearly debatable. I think that in most cases, a system of proportional representation is needed to create at least 3 or 4 viable, "full-service", longlasting parties. It's also crucial to make single-issue parties attractive without destroying the long-term stability of the system: they can get a few seats and change the focus of the main parties. I also think that in countries where democracy is unstable, or new, voting needs to be a civic duty, i.e. compulsory.

But it seems to me that the actual implementation is less important than the public's political savvy, and it's ability to compromise. A country that doesn't actively promote moderation and compromise, will have a hard time hanging on to democracy.


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