• Flux Magazine

"Is Democracy Sustainable?" by Riley Lewis

The tremendous significance of Democracy and its appeal is measured by the fact that more than half of the countries in the world are Democratic. Like all institutions, democracy has an origin story that goes back twenty-five centuries to the ancient city of Athens. Furthermore, two things were born out of the discoveries of the Athenians, democracy, and philosophy. These two forces often stood in opposition to each other because early Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, to name a few, were skeptical of the anarchic nature of Athenian democracy.

The anarchic nature of democracy is still with us today; we are left with the same questions that consumed Plato and Aristotle. What is the nature of humankind? What is the common good? Is democracy the optimal form of governance? In Plato’s eyes, Athenian democracy was flawed. People were perceived as impulsive and unregulated, behaving in their self-interest instead of advancing the common good. Moreover, I suspect that Plato’s ideas would be confirmed to him if he were alive today, witnessing chaos unfold right before our eyes.

Let us return to the origin story of Democracy because you might be wondering why it is regarded as the Holy Grail of governance. The idea of Democracy dominated the latter half of the twentieth century, expanding itself to be a global institution through the creation of instruments such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Criminal Court. That said, the new wave of democratic movements, movements that are losing momentum around the world, dates back to three significant historical events; the outbreak of the First World War, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The outbreak of World War 1 was a terrible shock of such great magnitude that it permanently altered the concept of a sovereign state, the ideation of an international community of leaders, and the punishment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1918 in the Hall of Mirrors in Paris, France. The end of World War 1 also resulted in the collapse of the Russian empire, the German empire, and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Ottoman Turks. In other words, several systems of government that had lasted for centuries were unable to remain in-tact, leaving Democracy on the table as a viable option. Following the end of World War 2, we had seen various forms of nationalism, fascism, authoritarianism, and communism crumble, again leaving Democracy as a uniquely viable option.

The economic, political, and social collapse of the Soviet Union, in addition to the brutality of Joseph Stalin, cemented the idea that democracy, or government by the people, was indeed the ultimate pathway to sustainable, peaceful governance. Fast forward nearly 30 years into the future, from 1991 to 2020, and it appears that Democracy is on its last legs.

The great myth about the downfall of Democracy is based on external threats; whether it is foreign election interference or misinformation, this myth is alive and well. The scapegoat tactic is used both because it is convenient and also because it shifts the burden of responsibility for our actions onto external entities. The truth is, in my observation, that Democracy is built on an unstable foundation and is not sustainable. Perhaps this is hyperbolic, so allow me to qualify this statement. Democracy, in its current form, is not resilient. In other words, the sheer chaos that has commenced in the United States, and around the world, in the last three years alone is a feature of the system, not a bug.

I should make this clear now, I am certainly not advocating for monarchy or a group of philosopher-kings to force their way into power. I just spent several paragraphs explaining that nearly every form of government, aside from democracy, seems to have failed at one point or another. That said, I want to revisit the skepticism of the ancient Greek philosophers who challenged the notion of democracy. Greek philosophers were skeptical of the Democratic systems by nature because popular sovereignty is synonymous with majority rule, not necessarily what is best for the common good. Indeed, there is a fine line between democracy and anarchy and the world’s strongest time-tested democracies are currently falling apart at the seams.

By now, you might be wondering what my point is, and I will make myself crystal clear. My point is that the chaos we see around the world is to be expected. Furthermore, democracy is inherently prone to political instability due to the anarchic nature of the world and the selfish nature of the individual. At the end of the twentieth century, democracy appeared to reign supreme as the optimal power-sharing arrangement between the people and their elected officials. The political will for democracy combined with a sophisticated system of checks and balances was supposed to usher at the end of history.

In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton assured the world that power politics had been rendered obsolete in this new age of self-determination and cooperation. This was a wonderful idea at the time, however, the expansion of several authoritarian regimes has rendered Clinton’s idea obsolete itself.

Democracy is traditionally regarded as a morally good system that serves people by the means of an accountable, inclusive government. Government by the people and for the people is not only moral but also ethical, and my goal is not to diminish this idea. However, my goal is to highlight the fact that Democracy is synonymous with representation, but not necessarily with an effective government. My vision is for a resilient political system that produces some sense of stability and order. To that end, my question is about the sustainability of Democracy. I will leave it with you, is Democracy sustainable?

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