Why is Democracy Failing?

The faults in the democratic system have been with us for quite some time but they became more obvious with the arrival of new techniques for manipulating voters in fast and inexpensive ways, such as via Twitter. The financial crisis of 2008 and the following austerity accelerated the widening of those tectonic shifts and became the source of the current wave of populism. The poor feel they paid for the greedy bankers. Its most obvious manifestations were the UK’s EU referendum result, and in the US, the election of Donald Trump. There is no doubt that there will be more examples of these trends in the future.

The impact of globalisation, the rise of ‘false facts’ and of ‘click-journalism’, the widening gap between the richest and the poorest, the simple desire to give politicians a kicking, all of these have been identified as the likely causes for the rise of populism. These are plausible causes, but the true drivers of change are ill-understood and barely-discussed. It is the job of strategists to help political and business leaders to understand what is happening and to formulate plans to make resilient and better futures.

On the other spectrum of the democracy crisis we have the imbalance of rights and responsibilities, freedoms and restrictions. All of us would love to have unrestricted freedoms but from today’s perspective it is a dream. Freedom to sail on the free Internet is just one such example. That is what we do daily, where we provide our private details to a company that gives us a ‘free’ application in return. That ‘return’ could be a restriction to our freedom of privacy in various aspects, including knowing our voting preferences. That’s what was discovered in March 2018 in the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal. Both companies are suspected of stealing personal data of about 50 million users to enable political parties to carry out personalised marketing campaign to impact the outcome of Brexit and the presidential elections in the USA in their favour.

Some of many faults of democracy are presented further on based on the analysis carried out by Sean Lusk in his book ‘Rethinking Public Strategy’ (Lusk, 2014) and other political thinkers.

Political Elites

Those seeking power, get there by using sophisticated socio-technical tools, which in the end deliver to them the votes of the voters, who cannot clearly see the real intentions of those that will govern them. The voters cheated out will later on complain that ‘they’ – the politicians – should never be trusted, since they just cannot understand ‘us’. That may lead the voters to make a conclusion that in today’s society it is ‘us versus them’.

It is only a short connection from ‘us versus them’ to the next idiosyncrasy of our democracy, to another convenient sticker that has been skilfully applied by various populists. It is the use and abuse of the ‘elite’ label by both wings of politics trying to blame the elite for their voters’ misfortunes. The left stands behind the ‘poor’ people shouting – look, it is the elite that care for their interests only; they will never understand your needs. Those on the right shout to their middle class voters – can’t you see the elite favour the poorer and all those migrants for whom you have to pay.

The hate of the elites is an instinctive fear among many who believe the elites consider themselves morally superior to other human beings. But that hate and mistrust goes much deeper, as some philosophers such as Kevin Williamson have argued. It is the conviction of the ‘have nots’ that modern intellectuals and elites have a condescending view that they (the Elites) not only know better how people should live their lives, but also how to run lives of the ‘have nots’ down to a minute detail.

These assertions have some merit, especially if we narrow it down to political elites. However, I do not believe that the society could survive without political elites. Humanity needs ‘elites’. If we did not have them, we would have not survived, as other anthropogenic species such as Neanderthal. It is the elites that may save us. But the elites need to change. Perhaps the solution is not to get rid of the elites altogether, but rather have better elites, so that they execute their tasks far more effectively and justly. In practical terms there are several ways to achieve that objective:

  1. Increase the separation of powers. I propose in detail later on, how a new system of democracy, which I call Consensual Presidential Democracy, can achieve that. Basically, we need the political elite to become almost exclusively the law makers and leave the running of the government, the main source of potential wrong doing by the elites, to experts and technocrats, which does not necessarily mean running a ‘technocratic government’ in a traditional meaning of that concept.
  2. Reduce the maximum number of terms that an elected politician can serve, to two. I was recently at a debate in the UK Parliament on the crisis of democracy. One of the politicians suggested that there is nothing wrong of being a ‘career politician’. After all, it’s a profession like many others such as doctors or engineers. Well, I would strongly disagree with such a view. Politicians are our representatives. And there is only one elected representative for a given ward or electoral district. You can change your doctor or an architect, any time you want. But you cannot do so with a politician, unless he is recalled because of a misconduct.
  3. Increase the accountability of politicians. The elites who are in power and are to serve us, are also humans. They may be brighter, more intelligent and knowledgeable than an average citizen, but they are humans like you and I. So, they are also driven by their greed, need, and fear. They cannot be left on their own but have to be controlled by a much stronger system of accountability.
  4. Make a thorough review of the lobbying system
  5. Reduce the party funding by individuals to say, an average monthly salary, and finance election campaigns from a public purse, which may also have some disadvantages, but is a much safer system for the electorate to elect their representatives.

We need to make the elites more accountable and more trustworthy, rebuilding the fabric of the society for the 21st century. The way how those who govern us can and should do it better on behalf of all of us, rather than primarily for the elites, is the main theme of this part of the website.

Generational Divide

There is a kind of ‘generational war’, in which younger people fight older people for scarce physical and social resources as lifespans lengthen. Think about the current problems in many European countries in financing the Health Service, paying for residential homes, lengthening the retirement age and increasing the payment for retirement by mainly younger people. On the other hand, in western democracies, financial and political power belongs predominantly to older people. Of course I would not suggest that all older people have all the power, only a relatively small minority has it. Property is in the hands of the old, while student debt is mounting, older people have pensions and they are staying longer in the jobs. Younger people are facing the problem that the house prices are rising much faster than their salaries, and more of them are unable to own their house. That’s why home ownership, e.g. in the UK, is falling. The consequence of this is that younger people feel they have little stake in the societies, of which they are members, and therefore begin to stop caring about the future of the society they will be living in. That’s why they participate in the elections in ever smaller numbers, being outvoted by the older people. To change the situation, governments need to better balance the proceeds from economic success between the current and the future generations.

Social atomisation

The neo-liberal period, which some people call Reaganomics has been dominant since the early 1980s. In most general terms it intended to promote individualism and corporate power over state power, or other forms of social organisation. What was less foreseeable in the early 1980s was the impact of technology and, in particular, of the Internet on, what Sean Lusk calls, social atomisation. It is not simply that people form communities using social media in preference to more conventional forms. It is the increasing commoditisation of social discourse, which is having the biggest impact. Almost everything that once required a meeting, a commitment of time and often of negotiation, can now be dealt with in a couple of clicks transaction. This brings great advantages. But it also turns us all into customers, with high expectations and minimal obligations.

The combinatorial effect of Generational Divide and Social Atomisation on current trends destroys a notion of a citizenship as it has been conventionally understood for generations. Older people hope to live for decades more: their sense of obligation to younger people is limited by the general human reluctance to give away existing advantage. We hope, naturally, that our children and our neighbour’s children will do well in life. But what are we prepared to do about it? Very little, it seems.

Political symmetry

In the last few years we have a new term in politics – political symmetry. What it means is that most voters consider that each party is essentially the same, on average bad and, with no real intentions to realize the promises it has made in its election manifesto. At the same time, there are parties and electoral programmes that are substantially inferior relative to other parties, more detrimental or even dangerous from the point of view of the voters. How can you compare the Weimar Republic’s election programme with the programme of the Nazi Germany’s NSDAP party, or in the most recent USA elections – the programme of Donald Trump with that of Hillary Clinton’s? In order to make a reasonable choice you would have to know a lot more.

But politics has become so complex that to arrive at the core truth based on an exchange of arguments during a debate would take a lot of time and require considerable broad knowledge in many interlinked areas. Not every voter has that knowledge and time to listen to the whole argument and then be able to make a rational choice. And that is the problem in modern societies, especially during election campaigns, which populism skilfully uses to win votes. It simplifies the issues being debated, by either telling half of the story convenient for populists to convey their message, mostly true, and totally omits or distorts the other half, far more complicated, which if told would have completely reversed the original conclusion. One of the best examples is how BBC reported in 2016 two sides of the Brexit campaign. It tried to stay impartial by giving each side the same time for reply, and ensuring that each side had the same chance to present its argument. In such a situation, the Remain campaigners, whose arguments required far more time to explain a problem because of its complexity, had seldom any chance to explain properly the real issue.

One of the question you may have is how can democracy survive such pressures that come to the fore very clearly during the election debates. Should every voter, including those that have hardly any knowledge, or are illiterate have the same electoral rights, as the ones who have a much better judgment? It is a difficult, almost existential problem for democracy, which should not be ignored. I shall return to this issue when discussing electoral systems.

Clinging to power

In most countries, including the UK, there is no limit on the number of parliamentary terms. The main goal of most politicians is to get into power and cling to it. Most recently it has been exemplified by two attempts to restructure the working of the British Parliament. In 2012 the coalition government started the talks on implementing the Liberal Party’s proposal to “Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber, with considerably fewer members than the current House” (Poll_Station, 2012). The proposal fell through using procedural motions to camouflage the real intention to never pass the bill in the first place, since many of the current Lords would have lost their positions. Even more incredible is the attempt to change the boundaries of the British electoral wards, so that they are approximately equal in the number of votes. Such a logical proposal has been opposed by the Labour Party, using every political gimmick to pretend they have noble intentions, simply to guard its interests of clinging to power. Otherwise they would lose about 50 seats should the proposal become law.


It was Lord Acton, the 19th century British politician, who said “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and that applies to the majority of the countries, which consider themselves democratic. The best example today is Russia, which is formally a democratic country but where almost an absolute power is held in the hands of the president – Vladimir Putin. In March 2018 he won another 6-year term, mainly by having an almost total control of the media, with 75% majority (no significant manipulation of the result occurred). No wonder Transparency International ranked Russia at position 131 among 176 countries (Transparency_International, 2016). The USA is another good example. As in all democratic countries a representative to the Senate or the House of Representatives is elected for a specific period. Even if he is a billionaire, like the current president Donald Trump, there is a tendency to make money by the use of power (e.g. Dick Cheney, Vice president in the Bush administration). Sometimes such corruption is done on a gigantic scale, all absolutely legal, simply by first lobbing for, and then being granted certain rights that large corporation would gain from (e.g. tax exemptions). Once the senator is out of politics he is rewarded by multimillion chairmanships at organizations he helped during his political term at the parliament.

Political Dynasties

Examples of political dynasties in democratic countries are plentiful but the USA and the UK are probably best known. I quote just the names: Joseph Kennedy (USA ambassador in the UK before the 2nd WW) – John Kennedy (the 35th US President) – Edward Kennedy (Senator) – Caroline Kennedy (John’s daughter – US Ambassador in Japan); George Bush (43rd US president) – George W Bush (45th President) Jeb Bush (43rd Governor of Florida and presidential Candidate). Bill Clinton (42nd US President) – his wife Hillary (Senator, Secretary of State, and twice presidential candidate). In the UK, there are at least 90 families, of which members were propping each other in politics, such as most recently the Miliband brothers. This is ten times more than in France (9 families). Nepotism in the UK has reached such a level, that there is a new law proposed to curb it. In 2012 there were 151 of the 650 MPs at Westminster who were employing family members using their allowances for staff, according to the Press Association. The practice is common across parties with, for example, 84 Conservatives and 50 Labour lawmakers employing a spouse or relative.

Long decision-making process

Making new laws or any political decision takes much more time in democracy than in an autocracy. This is the price we pay for having a democracy of the kind we have now. In a new type of democracy that is proposed here, Consensual Presidential Democracy, the time for making legal decisions or a new law can be significantly reduced. However, long-decision making process impact also the well-being and the prosperity of a nation and its overall happiness level. After all, that is the foundation of a liberal democracy, which is to deliver the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For the vast majority of people, the speed in the improvement in their prosperity fills two bottom layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Nourishment and Safety). That is what really counts as good life. Freedom and affinity with others come next. So, let me do a quick comparison between an autocratic state, such as China, and the UK – the oldest modern democracy, on how decision-making process affects some large scale projects and thus the prosperity of a nation.

Structural cracks in democracy

China makes decisions and delivers the results several times faster than established democracies. For example, China built an airport in Shanghai for 20m passengers in 2 years and for 80m passengers in 9 years. For comparison, London Heathrow’s third runway has been in planning for at least 20 years and will be completed, if everything goes OK, in 30 years since the planning begun. The HS2 railway in the UK of the total length of 531km, is to cost £106bn and will take over 20 years to complete. For comparison, the Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway is 1,318-kilometre long (2.5 times longer). Its construction began on April 18, 2008 and opened to the public for commercial service on June 30, 2011, just in over three years. This rail line is the world’s longest high-speed line ever constructed in a single phase and China’s most profitable high-speed rail line. Finally, China has built a specialist hospital for 1,000 patients in Wuhan to treat corona virus, in just 10 days.

So, how can a modern democracy square this circle delivering fastest possible improvement in material life and safety, while retaining at least basic individual freedoms. China’s incredible success in material progress, e.g. getting 600 million people out of utter famine in just 30 years, provides an uncomfortable challenge. How could a new democracy deliver a better approach than China’s both to prosperity and an individual freedom. I propose some solutions within the Consensual Presidential Democracy framework. However, even now, we can see that the root problem is how democracy functions. It 4 or 5-year election horizon determines that most large scale decisions such as education, health service or infrastructure projects are looked from a short-term perspective. Chinese one the other hand look from a very long perspective. Therefore, they have invested heavily in education and in apprenticeships, which allows them now to deliver spectacular projects like the Wuhan hospital.

Is there any alternative to democracy?

So, what shall we do about democracy – abandon it and replace it with something that might work in these difficult times, i.e. by a benevolent autocracy? This is a temptation one might go for, which would more or less mean applying the Roman Republic’s rules with the Cesar and the Senators making ‘best decisions’ in the name of the plebs. Over the centuries there have been a number of such examples:

  1. The Soviet Union, with its First Secretary and the party, ruling in the name of the Proletariat, justified as the Party claimed, because otherwise the capitalist class would keep oppressing the masses
  2. Hitler and the NSDAP Party (which also had ‘socialism’ in its name) ruling on behalf of ‘Deutsche Volk’ – justified by Hitler saying that Germany needed more territory to expand (Lebensraum)
  3. What may surprise you, even the French president de Gaulle’s rule in 1959-1969 might be considered autocratic. His justification was that France was in existential danger because of the war in Algeria and the frequent changes of the government (every few months). That required a strong president elected for 7 years (now for 5 years)
  4. Current Chinese autocratic rule, modelled on the Singaporean autocracy/semi-democracy introduced by Lee Kuan Yew, may be considered a system, in which the ‘elite’ knows best, what is good for the nation
  5. Even today, in view of climate change existential risks, there are people like James Lovelock, the author of the well-known concept of Gaia – mother Earth, and Martin Rees, former UK Astronomer Royal, that advocate a view that perhaps democracy should be postponed ‘for a while’ because the danger for Humanity is so imminent and catastrophic, that an authoritarian rule may be a lesser evil.

But then, Winston Churchill’s in his famous statement said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, and I would agree with him. That does not mean than an authoritarian rule for the world may never be an option to save Humanity, such as China, as the last resort, or a lesser evil to save Humanity. Scenario 3 presents such a plausible model. However, we should at least try our best for as long as it is possible, to improve democracy to save Humanity, rather than reject it

How can we cure the faults in democracy listed earlier? We need to ask some very difficult questions regarding democracy, some of which may undermine our current understanding and acceptance of democratic principles present in various constitutional and legal systems world-wide. The challenges we face today are in some way similar to those ones the world was facing when it was entering the Second World War. If you imagine what it was like in 1939 when Europe had to fight the most horrible war in history, or like in 1940 when Britain was preparing to defend itself with all available means, then it may be easier for you to understand the necessary measures that may have to be taken to save us all. And that extends not just to direct defence against various risks e.g. Superintelligence.

A proposal to improve the democratic system is presented further on as a new type of democracy called Consensual Presidential Democracy. Since most of these reforms, and similar proposals, go against the politician’s personal interests, they may probably be only implemented under duress (social revolution) or when one of the existential risks materialises. However, we should try to advance as many of the changes proposed here, or by other researchers, as soon as possible to reduce the scope of democratic reforms that may be needed when we will be forced to do that. That includes the tasks related to saving Humanity from various existential risks, including Superintelligence, which is the core subject of this website.