Is Democracy Overrated?

It was a rainy, warm spring day in Hong Kong, and I was whiling away the afternoon with a Punjabi friend who I’ll call Rakesh. He told me he preferred the stability and order of China – both Hong Kong and the Mainland – to the chronic chaos of his own country.

I’d never been to India, but based on what I’d heard and read, I was inclined to agree. Still, it’s unsettling to hear someone so resolutely give up on his own country in favor of another.

India was in the midst of its 2019 national elections as we spoke, complete with the sort of chaos Rakesh had been hoping to escape when he emigrated.

“At least India’s a democracy, though,” I said. “Doesn’t that give you some hope things will change for the better?”

“Democracy is overrated.”

Rakesh was no budding tyrant or autocrat. I’d never seen him be anything but kind, helpful, and considerate, whether with friends or strangers. His abiding interests in life were family, business, and education, each of which he felt he could best pursue in distinctly undemocratic China.

That raised another question that had been intriguing me. “Regardless of how you feel about their governmental systems,” I asked, “why has China has made so much more progress than India? They’re both large countries with similar-sized populations, they both emerged from foreign domination at the same time, yet China seems to be leaving India in the dust…”

The question hung in mid-air for about 30 seconds before, in a sudden burst of synchronicity, we turned to each other and simultaneously mouthed the word, “Religion.”

According to an article I had just read, one of the burning issues in India’s election campaign was not poverty, not housing, not environmental concerns or desperately inadequate infrastructure, but – wait for it: “cow welfare.” The ruling BJP Party, dominated by Hindu fundamentalists, had seized the high ground by appointing a special minister to safeguard the rights of millions of “holy” cows that roam wild across India, often wreaking great havoc on farms, homes, and people.

Sounds crazy, right? But before we get carried away sneering at other people’s strange religious beliefs, we should bear in mind that they would no doubt find our own Christian and Jewish fundamentalists equally bizarre and dangerous, especially since religious extremism plays every bit as big a role in our politics as it does in India’s.

It’s a problem that in recent years has gotten worse, not better in both countries. It’s hard enough finding common ground with someone whose political views differ from our own; it’s next to impossible when those views are dictated by a deity only he can see.

Although America has long prided itself on offering its citizens “freedom of religion,” it has failed spectacularly when it comes to providing them freedom from religion. Contrary to what you may have heard, China actually does a better job of this than we do. Their constitution (yes, they have one) guarantees that “no state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or not believe in, any religion.” But it follows this up with the bit that’s missing from the American constitution: “No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the state.”

Such a clause would never fly in America, because our government, from the local to the national level, is shot through with fanatics who use their religion as an excuse for damaging people’s mental and physical health, disrupting people’s ability to live according to own beliefs and consciences, and to poison the educational system with prejudice and superstition. Whether or not you want to believe China lives up to its constitution (for what it’s worth, I’ve personally witnessed Chinese Muslims and Christians attending religious services without the slightest bit of harassment), it’s hard to argue that our own freedoms aren’t at risk from the religious extremists who wield power in the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court.

If Donald Trump succeeds in his current coup attempt – a possibility I wouldn’t rule out – his perverse partnership with the fundamentalists will have attained near-dictatorial power, and the bitter irony is that it will have been done so by (more or less) legal means, using the institutions of democracy to destroy democracy.

I’m not a nostalgic or romantic. I know our democracy has never lived up to its own hype. But for a long time, we were at least headed in the right direction. My parents were already alive when women gained the right to vote. As a child and teenager, I saw the franchise extended to millions of African-Americans. We’ve witnessed the first black president and, were it not for that vestige of slavery and aristocracy known as the Electoral College, would have seen the first woman president as well.

But progress hasn’t just ceased; with the country now predominantly ruled by a far-right political and religious coalition that enjoys the support of no more than a third of our citizenry, it’s clearly headed backward, and fast. The problem goes deeper than religion or racial injustice, and it’s at least in part a product of our modern age. Two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans, despite their rough-hewn ways and limited education, were remarkably sophisticated and responsible when it came to civic engagement. If Americans ever lost that quality, he warned, their democracy would probably vanish with it.

We’ve lost that quality. Although on paper the general population is more educated than ever, the high school and college diplomas that most people hold stand for less and less. Rampant grade inflation, combined with the proliferation of crackpot political theories, and wild-eyed flat earth-type conspiracies should make that clear.

What’s more, the world we inhabit today is infinitely more complex than in de Tocqueville’s time. An American choosing a president today is making life-and-death decisions about countries they might never have heard of, scientific processes they have no comprehension of, multi-trillion dollar budgets when they can’t even balance their own checkbook.

As a country and a culture we’ve always cherished the common man or woman, the simple soul who – perhaps simply by virtue of being American – supposedly possesses a higher wisdom that transcends boring old “book-learnin.’” But maybe it’s time we considered the possibility that, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, not knowing anything is no longer enough.

For a couple of centuries the USA has taken a chest-thumping pride in being “the world’s greatest democracy.” If that were ever true, it isn’t now. To be a democracy means to be governed by the will of the people. “How can that be,” I’ve been asked by more than one curious foreigner, “when you allow the person who got fewer votes to be president?”

We risk getting confused when we assume there’s only one way of determining “the will of the people,” and that it has to be done the way we always have, dating back to when the US was a frontier nation with a population barely large enough to fill one of New York City’s boroughs. The chances of that system changing, though, are slim. The Electoral College is not going away, at least not as long as it enables a minority party to run roughshod over what the majority wants. Ditto for the senatorial system that gives vastly more power to empty fields and forests than to the cities where most Americans live.

Our biggest drawback, though, is not the clinging to outmoded traditions, nor the failure to understand how those traditions work against the interests of those they are meant to serve. Even the fact that the average citizen simply doesn’t know enough to weigh in on many vital political and economic choices, while regrettable, could be remedied by more and better education.

The most dangerous thing is that we don’t know – and here I include all of us – what we don’t know. Getting a grasp on the scope of our ignorance is the foundation of all learning, something any decent professor quickly inculcates into his or her first-term freshmen. But in the era of an all-pervasive internet, where Youtube videos and Twitter one-liners qualify as “research,” everyone’s already an expert. You can tell them, but you can’t tell them much. Even when you do, they’ll assume you’ve been brainwashed by the wrong Youtube and Twitter posts.

You might infer – and you’d be correct – that I’m not overly optimistic. We might be able to wriggle out of the existential dilemma facing American democracy, but I’m not sure how. A new Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt might inspire a transformative burst of energy and creativity among the people, but I see no such character on the horizon. Even if such a person were to emerge, you can be certain they’d be turned into a supervillain by half the internet, and crucified for being too moderate and “reformist” by the other.

What would I do if I were younger? Move, probably, even though I’d feel guilty about deserting the field. And it’s not like American democracy is alone in facing these challenges. We rose higher and have further to fall, but much of the western world is in a similar pickle. Several European democracies have already deteriorated into borderline autocracies, and several more teeter on the brink.

As an older person, I can see the appeal of living somewhere else, too, but unfortunately the USA casts a long shadow. When Great Britain lost its position as the planet’s dominant superpower, it at least had the decency to genteelly fade away. I have a hard time envisioning the USA making such a graceful exit; the current government has all but formally announced that if we can’t rule the world, we’ll take the world down with us before we let anyone else take over.

Interesting times, no? Not what I asked or bargained for. Or voted for, but I guess that’s yet another intrinsic flaw of democracy. You can’t always get what you want, and sometimes you don’t get what you need, either. If you’re someone who believes in prayer, I’d recommend making use of it. If you think your political party or movement will save the day, get cracking. And if you believe that knowledge is the key to everything and the truth shall set you free, better fire up the old internet. Those Youtube videos aren’t going to watch themselves.

7 thoughts on “Is Democracy Overrated?

  • Daniel Garcia

    You are seeing China through Pyrovision Googles. Being part of the minority your entire life should have teached you that bigger buildings, highways and weapons are not the whole “progress”. They have an overpopulation problem and they don’t care about individuals anymore.. feelings don’t matter, personal beliefs don’t matter, opinions don’t matter. They (top group, gov, elite) just saw Communism wasnt going to take them out of oblivion and they started to embrace free economic and capitalism elements.. just for the sake of power.. individuals don’t matter.

  • Andrew

    If you get rid of the electoral college or the senate how would the red states be represented?

    Where would you move?

    • The government is meant to represent people, not “states,” which are arbitrary designations at best and, not being people, are incapable of having opinions.

      No system is perfect, but our current system enables a minority to completely control the government, even when that government’s policies run directly counter to the needs and desires of the majority. You might just as well ask, “Who is going to represent the people of New York or Los Angeles or Minneapolis or Houston when the votes of a few farmers in Indiana or ranchers in Wyoming or an oil company tycoon like Charles Koch count for so much more than the votes of working and middle-class people in our big cities.

  • Doug1943

    That clause in the ‘Constitution’ (ha ha) of China about religious groups not engaging in politics is meant to protect the ruling dictatorship. Secularists in America have too narrow a view of religion and religious groups: sometimes they are the way that ordinary people use to advance their interests: thus, Blacks in the American South, or Cromwell’s Puritans.

    The Electoral College was designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority. There is indeed a case against it, but those who would replace it should consider how to protect the interests of the minority — including those minorities you don’t like — if you make this change.

    However, whatever Constitutional arrangements a country has, its democratic system won’t work unless there is a fundamental consensus among the great majority of its inhabitants.

    In many countries, this is not the case, namely, those countries blessed with serious ethnic diversity. There, civil war is always simmering. (That favorite Leftist slogan, “Diversity is Strength”, for anyone familiar with the world outside the US, just evokes a horselaugh. It’s right up there with Orwell’s “War is Peace”.) Amy Chua’s WORLD ON FIRE shows what happens when a country with a tribally-divided population gets ‘democracy’.

    This is the case with India, that prisonhouse of nations. China is lucky that its Han population far outnumbers the other tribes, and the Chinese government makes doubly sure that any tribe desiring to get out from under the Hans gets ‘reeducated’.

    This is the situation towards which the US is moving, with ethnic conflict overlaid by class conflict. Its college-educated caste despises the white component of the bottom half of society as much as Hindus despise Muslims, or Sunnis, Shias.

    Some extreme form of federalism in the US — letting Red and Blue states fully express their own cultural-political preferences — might go a long way to resolving tensions. But that solution is probably too radical for many people to contemplate. So hold on to your hats!

    • China’s constitution is no more “ha ha” than that of the USA, and it does protect the Chinese people’s freedom of religion (and freedom from religion) at least as well as, if not better than our own.
      Whatever criticisms one might make of the Chinese system, it does not allow an extreme religious minority to impose its dogma on the public as our unelected Supreme Court recently did with the abortion issue. And to those who might argue that the right wing religious faction of the Supreme Court was appointed by a duly elected President, I would point out that the Chinese constitution does not allow the person who got fewer votes to be “elected” over the person who got more votes. Nor does it have an institution like the Electoral College, which was originally created to preserve chattel slavery.
      Obviously there are many faults in the Chinese system, but the Chinese could argue, with some justification, that their version of democracy is only 74 years old and still very much a work in progress, one which, nonetheless seems to enjoy greater support among the Chinese people than Bush, Obama, Trump, or Biden have ever been able to elicit from the American public.

      • Doug1943

        Gee, this is the EXACT same argument that supporters of Joseph Stalin used to make.
        China is a one-party state. Only one view of politics is allowed: try to express any other, and you’ll end up in a re-education camp. The “Chinese version of democracy”, indeed. How about “the Nazi version of religious tolerance” or the “Klan version of racial equality”?

        You have to be terminally naive to think that “support” for a single party, where visible non-support lands you in a camp, is the same as support for a party in a multi-party democracy.

        Someday we’ll have a Chinese Khrushchev who will say what everone knew anyway about Mr Xi, and, hopefully, a Chinese Gorbachev who will dismantle the one-party totalitarian state.

        • With all due respect, I sincerely recommend that you learn a bit more about the Chinese system of government before commenting further. Some knowledge of China’s history and culture would provide some useful context and perspective, too. For instance, it doesn’t seem to be common knowledge among Westerners that never in approximately 5,000 years of its existence have China’s people (ALL its people, not just the elite 5 or 10% who historically enjoyed wealth and power) been as free, as healthy, as rich, and as self-governing as they are today. Is there room for improvement? Of course; even the ruling Communist Party acknowledges that China still has a long way to go (though they have already passed us up in such important metrics as life expectancy, public safety, literacy, and the elimination of severe poverty and homelessness). Your critique of China does not exhibit any actual knowledge of the subject – you certainly don’t sound like you’ve been there and witnessed how the Chinese people actually live today – and reads more like a laundry list of US government propaganda points. Like all effective propaganda, some of these statements are fabricated around a kernel of truth; others are just brazen lies (on the government’s part; I’m not faulting you for having been taken in by them). The funny – but not funny ha-ha – thing is that despite being supposedly so unfree and oppressed, the typical Chinese person knows more about the USA than even most educated Americans know about China. And yet despite possessing this knowledge, there’s practically no popular sentiment in favor of making China more like the USA. Read some books, go there and check it out, then get back to me and we can continue this discussion.


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