David Barnett

British Council


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Why is Democracy too easily perverted?

It is said that the first great example of Democracy in action is when Pontius Pilate asked the crowd whom they wanted to release, Jesus or Barabbas and the crowd said Barabbas.

A few well-placed agents provocateurs can do the trick, or financing an electoral campaign or a good old-fashioned bribe...but whichever country you are in...democracy is being compromised.

Why is this and why are we so used to it that we are downright apathetic when it comes to correcting it?

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    Feb 2 2012: Argumentum ad populum
    The logical fallacy of 'appeal to popularity'
    Definition: Most people believe in 'X', therefore 'X' is true.

    Add this as the metaphorical icing for a country where very few understand politics and have a history of voting for people for the wrong reasons and bingo! There's your problem.
  • Feb 7 2012: Honestly, I think it all boils down to the fact that we as humans are flawed. I know I believe that there is such thing as a "human nature". When people take charge of things, we tend to mess up. We do that with democracy. It doesn't matter where you are, or what form of government you have. We do it in everything. Rousseau once said, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau was driving the point that man is essentially good, and that it is outside forces that corrupt him.

    I disagree. We as humans are "chained" by our own natures. This doesn't mean we're completely hopeless. It does mean that it is easy for us to make mistakes. Even in a democracy.

    I do not know if this is the answer you're looking for, but that is how I feel on this matter. Democracy will always eventually, inevitably, be compromised due to the fact that we are human. We CAN fix that democracy, too. How? ... I have to think about that one a bit more. ^^
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    Feb 4 2012: Douglas Adams expressed himself well in "So Long, And Thanks for all the Fish"

    “It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see..."
    "You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"
    "No," said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
    "Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
    "I did," said Ford. "It is."
    "So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't people get rid of the lizards?"
    "It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
    "You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
    "Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
    "But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
    "Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"
    "I said," said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, "have you got any gin?"
    "I'll look. Tell me about the lizards."
    Ford shrugged again.
    "Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them," he said. "They're completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone's got to say it."
    "But that's terrible," said Arthur.
  • Feb 2 2012: Because democracy itself is perverse.

    A system in which a successful outcome is two people voting the third killed can never be just. You may as well ask what a respectful rape is. There is no such thing. Subverting the happiness of one person in order to please two can never be just, no matter how long your Constitution is.
  • Feb 2 2012: I don't think Democracy is easily perverted, humans are. Democracy did not kill Jesus the Romans did, Democracy did not buy the jury-mob, the temple priests did. Democracy presented itself as an opportunity for one group to maintain their arrangement in place with their Roman master and avoid a revolution (if we consider it a historical fact and not fiction). But I digress...

    I think we arrived at Democracy because we were not apathetic but because we are dynamic and involved. Social change of that magnitude takes time, a very long time. These changes are also very complex and have conflicting solutions and unintended consequences. Our current system with all its flaws is much better than anything we have seen before, but it moves slooow and it will improve over a long time. In this age of immediateness we want change now as if we can just press a button and presto!. People claim for a revolution rather than an evolution and I think this is dangerous, especially if conditions are not there. But I digress again....

    You want to know why people is apathetic when it comes to corruption? Because it feels like Groundhog Day. Doesn't matter what you do it always comes back to status quo, the cycle never ends. There will always be another politician, another CEO, another thief. Plus there is a widespread belief that the individual cannot make a difference, and that perhaps is the real Achilles heel of Democracy, the individual realize that a collective voice is always more powerful but incredibly hard to focus, and so the individual loses interest thinking no one can fix that.

    And then we write about it in TED...
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      Feb 3 2012: I seem to remember the Jews accepting all responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus...Pontius Pilate actually did his utmost to save him...what do you think the washing of the hands was all about...but I don't want to turn this into a religious debate.
      • Feb 3 2012: I am sure Pontius was, as the prefect of an occupying empire, a good, good man and that he washed his hands many times to claim innocence for crimes these people committed against each other. After all he was only following orders, and Rome was very respectful of their colonies and their wishes… maybe that’s why Jesus said "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's” had he said differently, he would have been executed without any hand hygiene…

        I am also sure that no one in the church made changes to the gospels, ever. The notion of editing the gospels and the bible to accommodate Romans and standardize the faith is just crazy. I mean, it's not like the Christians were being wiped out by Romans; and yes, the gospels were written decades after they happened; and yes Paul never met Jesus and was not really technically an apostle because otherwise there would have been be thirteen; and the Trinity? That came later too. Changes to the gospel? Nah…

        I am also convinced that this debate, that has had an entire people (Jewish not Jews) stigmatized and considered guilty for what a few did in an impromptu referendum of dubious historical fact, is simply the consequence of them killing the son of god, sorry dudes. Not even the Germans only 65 years later of killing millions of people are so stigmatized, sorry it was the Nazis, but not ze Germans…well, if “it” happened…

        But I digress…

        Since there is enough doubt, in the end it is seems that it is clear Democracy did not kill Jesus… corrupt men did.
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    Feb 1 2012: Life is complex and competitive.
    While humans are limited, complex, tribal, a mixture of self interest and community spirit.
    Corruption is more or less of an issue in some places.
    There are so many of us and we want many different things.
    We are not that great at making complex decisions and nearly every one benefits some more than others.
    There will always be compromises balancing the will of the people and efficiency, consistency, fairness, stability etc.
    The first is choosing leaders to govern on our behalf rather than voting for every issue.
    These are usually political insiders. Vested interest.
    Democracy is an awful mess - but the best we have come up with to organise reasonably fairly.
    To work as best as it can it needs other effective institutions, supportive social norms, and a whole lot of human effort.

    Mob rule, majority takes all, money politics needs to be balanced out with other principles - minority rights, rule of law, evidence based policy, eliminating extreme democratic distortions.

    Current systems, processes, practices have a lot of momentum. I suggest our forebears fought hard to achieve democracy. It takes a lot of energy to improve and protect it. We don't even agree on what to do to improve it.

    Apathy - well that's just human nature. Its hard work now for some future benefit versus watching tv now. Just like we'd all like to get fit, lose some weight, exercise more, eat healthier study something, learn a language etc but most of us avoid the pain and grab a burger.

    Suggest when the motivated few stand up and start to get organised for a cause then we can join them and make a noise the politicians can not ignore. There is power in numbers. Technology makes it easier than ever to communicate and organise.
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      Feb 1 2012: I guess I would then point out that democracy is the more complex machine (or is it like a more complex game?). I think you are actually saying that democracy is a deliberate effort against our own nature. That nature is to stratify ourselves within the larger group, allowing a few individuals with some small advantage to derive inordinately greater power from the rest. It's sort of interesting that we call it corruption, but really it is the nature that exists ubiquitously without democracy. And what we're trying to do within democracy is to engineer our leadership to be a product of higher ideals and not nature, if that is actually possible. And you've reminded us that without democracy people are left to balance that difference of power naturally, as mob rule versus the monarch, nobility, regime, or dictator. I just think that the shortcomings of democracy have to do with that complexity. It's more subject to destructive mistakes that undermine it. It's fragile. Institutions and social norms are somewhat on the flaky, subjective side. However, we should not casually cast aside democracy any time soon.

      We are now at a time in the world like no other. Now the thing about technology is that it is also subject, as any resource is, to be controlled by those in power . Democracy has given us more progress and therefore more technology. Now just think, if we lost democracy now, the advantaged few could use that technology inordinately better than the masses to subjugate them far worse than they have ever been in our human history. The question is will we decide ourselves to evolve above this older model as a species, or will it be like old school, survival of the fittest? However, the next phase of this natural, natural-selection would seem to be promoting our technology and not our species. Biologically, we may be done with evolution; it no longer competes with technology. If that's the case, losing democracy would be a step backwards for us despite all our advances.
    • Feb 4 2012: "Mob rule, majority takes all, money politics needs to be balanced out with other principles - minority rights, rule of law, evidence based policy, eliminating extreme democratic distortions."

      How do you put rule of law in the "balance" side of democracy, when the laws are penned by that same majority-takes-all mob? I see plenty of people patting America's founding fathers on the back, when democracy and rule of law aided in the genocide of the native population, as did they. Democracy didn't end slavery, a war did. In fact, democracy has been a hindrance to nearly every single act of progress in America since it's inception. Working for the rights and freedom of _all_ people has almost never been the popular view in America.

      If it wasn't for the Constitution being so difficult to change, we would have no rights left at all. As it is, it has been amended numerous times beyond the original bill of rights in order to remove rights and allow inordinate power to the State through popular vote. Mob rule is exactly what ushered in the Patriot Act. Do you think sane people would vote in such a disemboweling of personal rights and freedoms? Mob rule is what passed laws such as arrests for wearing red on Tuesdays or prison time to denying the existence of a god or the entire drug war, which was based on racism and profiteering. These are the fruits of the poisonous tree of democracy, which distorts mob rule as a legitimate form of government.
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    Feb 2 2012: People are easily perverted...
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    Feb 1 2012: here is my take: tragedy of the commons. you know, if you assign 5 men to take care of something, you can be almost sure the thing won't be taken care of. in case of democracy, we assigned millions of people to make concerned and informed decisions. nobody will take the effort to actually look up facts, think, learn theories and follow up on candidates. they just don't care, and play a game instead or watch TV. what difference does it make?

    another approach, but essentially the same thing: lack of immediate and clear feedback. the feedback is late and indirect. so people can do stupid things and they can't link that to the disgraceful results.
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      Feb 1 2012: I get your point, but most of the time, what is there to look up? Almost all politicians simply toe the party line on all the big issues and until a person has been in power, you've no idea how they are going to use or abuse it. And then there are those nameless, faceless individuals who inform the newly-elected President/Prime Minister that what they want to do can't be done for this and that reason...tradition...contracts...upsetting lobbyists...etc. I, like millions of others, genuinely believed that Obama would make a difference at first...but he's obviously had the will crushed out of him and is now just settling back to look forward to the rest of his life sitting in on boardroom meetings and making speeches for vast amounts of money. The two party system sucks.

      Where I live there are many smaller political parties which never get anywhere, and I think this is because (as in football) people want to belong to the winning side. The supporters of Vallecas football club only come from Vallecas, and most people from Vallecas actually support Real Madrid or Atletico de Madrid. What happens? The football league in the end, turns into Madrid Vs Barcelona, every time. And here, it's the PP (conservatives) against the PSOE (socialists)...the PP and their supporters generally come from the middle and upper classes and the older generation of working classes. They tend to be religious, pro-life etc...The PSOE tend to be atheists and liberals and working class. Most of the time, when an individual runs for office, it rarely matters what he/she believes personally as they always toe the party line, so until they've been in power there's very little to indicate what sort of job they're gonna do.

      So, apart from informing yourself what the party line is on an issue, what do you suggest?
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        Feb 1 2012: it is not the case that politicians promise good things, and then don't deliver. yes, this happens too, but it is not enough to explain all things. take the current US elections for example. do we have republican candidates who promise to end the inhuman wars? nope. they don't even promise. they promise they will "crush the terrorist". people want to hear it.

        and there are many examples of real candidates that consistently argued and fought for real solutions, and got negligible votes. here, in hungary, i know at least 3 parties that had good heads and acceptable plans. two of them got half percent. one got 10 once, then 7 then 5 then oblivion. there are real choices, but people don't choose them.

        what to do? nothing really. but if something, we must never stop to open the eyes of people around us. we need to shout into the ears. sheeple! wake up! do you really think that you will be able to retire on government plans? do you really think that they can keep their promises? who do you think will suffer all this? who do you think will pay for this at the end? who do you think will be blown up in a supermarket by a terrorist whose family was bombed? who will repair all the stolen and worn off capital they left rot? who will suffer increasing crime as the police fails? who will suffer the climate change, if it comes? if you trust a blind deaf person to shepherd your flock, who is to blame when it's gone?
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    Feb 1 2012: Democracy requires and active and informed polity of voters who vote their beliefs independent of the perception that only "" type of candidate can win, and with a well developed thoughtful self interest.
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    Jan 31 2012: It is so true. And the lesson I take from it is that we all share some of the responsibility in democracy, but we have to be wide awake and loud mouthed so everyone can know what's going on. In the USA we know it is our responsibiity to be involved to some extent in getting laws passed. And in the example of corruption it would be to get laws passed to investigate and punish those who are corrupting it. Primarily I see how some of the wealthy can influence our politics. There are laws enacted to fight it, and if we wanted we could enforce things more. As an american I believe a lot of the time we are suffering under some form of oppression that corruption causes us, but we still don't feel it enough to get outraged. We're really passive that way. Some would say that's a shame, others can't be convinced it's a bad thing. And not all the wealthy are bad either. Remember we are trying also to learn not to persecute those who are innocent. That's where the balance is. Your own two examples are opposites in the system. We've had witch hunts in this country. It's thanks to our own ignorance. What has to take place is some real education about the fundamentals of this form of government. True democracy means everyone has equal power under and over the laws. As far as my own country goes, I really do believe we're getting what we asked for. As much as the people don't care, they don't have control over their own lives. The majority still don't suffer enough to feel it, and the consequences may still be coming. We could lose democracy if we wait too long to act.

    When the crowd decided to crucify Jesus, they got what they wanted. It was the wrong thing. They have their blame and if you believe in the divinity of Jesus, then you can be satisfied with what those consequences will be by faith. Secularly, we'd say that those people chose to stay ignorant and a great man whose teachings help us to be better was martyred. Let's not choose to be ignorant. We only hurt ourselves.