Support for democracy has always rested largely on faith, and the democratic experiment has declined to such a level that continuing to put hope in it makes little more sense than taking the story of Noah’s Ark literally.
The quest for democracy is based on a principle that has great merit, that the demos – the people – have the fundamental right to a say in who has the kratia – the power – over their lives. But implementing the experiment, however worthy its intent, has been doomed from the start by major flaws, mostly to do with the human psyche.
Some of the flaws are too complex and controversial to be dealt with intelligently in a short article, such as whether the demos has the necessary skills for self-rule, or whether rule should be left to those few individuals who possess such skills. The latter concept is sometimes dismissed as the “divine right of kings,” but that misses the point; there is no logical support for a genetic talent for rule. A much better argument is the success, usually for ill but often for good – stability, poverty reduction, low crime rates – of dictators who have usurped power, not had it handed to them.
But this writer is a journalist, not a philosopher. And all advocates for democracy would agree that its implementation is impossible if the demos are not informed. Hence the provision in every democratic constitution that freedom of speech and, by extension, of the press be inviolable.
And therein lies the problem: There is no such thing as a free press.
This problem goes far deeper than the relatively recent “citizen journalism” enabled by the Internet, which while itself claiming to be democratic has devolved into an indecipherable cacophony of undisciplined opinionizing, muddled analysis, propaganda, outright lies and even, buried in there somewhere, empirical truth. It goes further than the modern usurpation of mainstream newspapers and electronic media by corporations singing a monotonous chorus of neoliberalism that drowns out the cries of the demos for decent wages, decent health care, protection from violence, and hope for a good life for their children.
All the democratic wishful thinking in the world cannot change the fact that printing presses and television cameras and, most important, reporters and editors cost money. And in nearly all cases, that money has to come from sources with their own agendas. This is usually a desire to sell stuff, but can often manifest itself as a desire to promote a political or ideological point of view.
All the democratic wishful thinking in the world cannot change the fact that printing presses and television cameras and, most important, reporters and editors cost money. And in nearly all cases, that money has to come from sources with their own agendas
News websites, even (or especially) when they manage to take more sophisticated forms than “blogs” and other undisciplined social media, though cheaper to operate than newspapers or TV stations, can still be expensive to run, and are not immune to the reality that the higher the quality, the higher the costs. Very few independent news sites have been able to subsist on traditional funding sources such as advertising. This can leave them reliant on investors, some of them with their own agendas. And why not? It’s their money, so it’s fair. But it’s not democratic.
The good news
The concept of democracy may well have always been an unrealizable fantasy, but as with most worthy concepts, the struggle to make it work has had many positive spin-offs. Racial, gender, religious, lifestyle and other forms of discrimination, though they still exist, are much less prevalent in nominal democracies than they were just a few decades ago. Police brutality and corruption have been subdued to nearly tolerable levels in many jurisdictions. Several countries have commendable social-welfare and socialized health-care systems.
Better yet, many of these programs have found their way into authoritarian regimes as well, so there is evidence that the democracies, for all their failures, have led by example. The question is why, and that is beyond the scope of this article. But it could well be that even in places like China, where the demos do not have the privilege of going to the polls, the kratia believes it will dis-serve them at its peril.