A protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a protest against junta, near the army headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Panumas Sanguanwong
A protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a protest against the Thai military junta that seized power in 2014 from a democratically elected government, near the army headquarters in Bangkok on March 24, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Panumas Sanguanwong

The May/June 2o18 edition of Foreign Affairs published a series of essays asking the question: Is democracy dying? The fact of the matter is that the ideology of democracy has had an application issue since its conception in Athens around 500 BC.

Defined as “rule by the people,” democracy is a governance platform in which citizens can directly or through elected representatives affect the well-being of a state’s economy, polity and society. The majority was supposed to be made better off. History, however, has presented a different narrative.

At its conception in ancient Athens, the concept was direct democracy, in which every citizen had equal power to shape the city-state’s well-being. But in practice it only applied to a minority of the population because only adult males were considered “citizens.” The majority, composed of women, children, slaves etc, were excluded. What’s more, citizens’ rights were curtailed by wars and strong leaders who made themselves dictators, culminating in the experiment’ demise around 322 BC.

Democracy of a sort re-emerged when English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, guaranteeing the rights of free men and protection of private property, in 1215. However, “free men” only applied to a small minority (such as churchmen and noblemen). Still, because of the way it was worded, it formed the basis of the US and British constitutions.

In the medieval period, much of Europe was ruled by monarchs or dictators holding absolute power. Having deposed King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell made himself “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” from 1653 until his death in 1658. In that position, he ruled Britain and Ireland with an iron hand.

After Cromwell’s death, Britain returned to monarchistic rule, gradually becoming a constitutional monarchy in which the king or queen was the nominal head of state. Elected members of Parliament ruled supreme, proposing and enacting laws that governed the country and its people.

However, at first only men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote; women did not have suffrage until 1928. In the US, women gained the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the constitution.

Democracy today

Although people in the West are more free today than at any period in history, true democracy remains restricted to the “privileged few,” those who are well organized and connected or with the resources to influence public policies.

In the US, for example, the National Rifle Association, which has spent millions of dollars funding politicians’ election campaigns, is able to suppress the call for tough gun laws.

Under President Donald Trump, US civil liberties might even have been eroded. Undocumented immigrants, for example, are being threatened with deportation. According to CNN Politics, arrests of non-criminal illegal immigrants surged in his first year of office.

Meanwhile in Europe, the influx of refugees from the Muslim world has prompted the rise of populism, with far-right politicians successfully campaigning on 1930s-style racist platforms. To push back, some Muslims have resorted to violent acts, which culminated in a “slippery slope,” prompting governments to impose more illiberal policies such as banning women from wearing the burqa.

Moreover, in many European countries, democracy is somewhat distinct from that of the US: The former is referred to as social democracy whereas the latter is labeled as liberal democracy.

Social democracy

Social democracy is an ideology that calls for government intervention in the shaping of a country’s economy, polity and society. It has been favored by most European nations as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand since World War II because in the past, an unfettered economic system had brought periods of boom (the “Roaring Twenties”) and bust (the Great Depression). Government intervention was thus considered necessary for political stability and social justice. This ideology then spilled over to economics.

Keynesian economics might have been influenced by social-democratic values, calling for counter-cyclical government fiscal policies, increasing spending or reducing taxes or both during recessionary periods.

British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in the 1930s that the markets – capital, product and labor – were not perfect because of institutional forces such as labor unions and monopolies respectively controlling wages and prices to prevent the natural laws of supply and demand from flapping their wings fully.

Keynes’ proposition contradicted classical economics, which called for little or no government intervention in the private sector, arguing that the forces of supply and demand would eventually achieve equilibrium in the financial, product and labor markets. Thus government intervention was deemed not only unnecessary but counterproductive. For example, increased government spending and reducing taxes could lead to unsustainable debts, which could result in higher interest rates and taxes, crowding out private investment and consumption.

Indeed, most Western governments are buried in mountains of debt, which rendered them unable to mount stimulus packages to escape the economic woes brought by the 2008 financial crisis. Persistent high unemployment is a major reason for illiberal policies today.

Liberal democracy

In the Anglo-American world, liberal democracy, an ideology championing individual rights and private-property protection, is preferred. However, these rights for the most part are not equally shared.

In the US, groups with the resources to influence public opinion and lobby politicians are more “equal” than the average American, as indicated above.

What’s more, inequality of influence might have created a dysfunctional government and uncertain economy in that the well-organized minority has prevailed over the majority. According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, 67% of US adults favor tougher gun laws, and yet the minority view has prevailed.

Democracy in the developing world

Many of the new nations in Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America adopted liberal democracy after gaining independence from imperial powers. But for countries with no experience in democracy, the ideology has not worked as well as it should in spurring economic growth and bringing political stability.

One reason might be that it is difficult to gain a consensus on a policy in a society composed of many conflicting interest groups. For example, India has more than 30 political parties vying for influence and power.

Democracy fared even less well in Africa, where most nations underwent internal conflicts after gaining independence from their colonial masters.

In light of the above analysis, democracy is dysfunctional in that the majority of people in neither the developed nor developing nations have really enjoyed the ideology’s benefits. One problem is the definition of individual rights: Where do one’s rights end and those of others begin?

What’s more, most people are not politically active. Therefore, those with the resources to lobby government are more likely to benefit from democracy. A case in point is the US, where groups with the resources to establish media outlets and form lobbies in Washington are the major beneficiaries of democracy.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.