Skip links

The Democratic Dream

Mirror, mirror on the wall... Which is the most perfect democracy of them all? Democracy or government by, of and for the people, is an idea as pervasive as human civilisation itself, making appearances in Greek and Buddhist philosophies as far back as 600 BC. Our Political Science books appreciate these historic democracies whilst also flouting the skewed nature of China’s undemocratic democracy vehemently. Our news anchors often provoke the question of dystopian administrations while also acknowledging that all democracies have some necessary ingredients missing. A stronghold of global democratic success, even the United Nations is home to international finger-pointing. Countries participate in the ‘Who’s most democratic?’ Pageant only for it to be revealed that each contestant has nasty blemishes covered by thick PR makeup. If democracy came about millennia ago in Athens and has spread to 167 nations today, why is democracy still not as perfect as it could be? And more importantly, do we want it to be? John Rawls called Justice the first facet in Society. But he also said that the first principle to assure justice is individual liberty.

Throughout history, we have seen a tussle between liberty and equality- the crowning jewels of any good democracy. In 20th-century Eastern Europe, socialism caused wars by pushing for absolute equality by interfering in individual liberty and yet today democracy builds itself on Constitutions, basic handbooks of curtailing individual freedom to ensure equality. More blatant evidence of this paradox may be a survey by Pew Research Centre wherein the majority of people in Eastern Europe found the State to be an institution for population-wide benefit whereas Western (and historically, more democratic) beliefs are highly indicative of dissatisfaction with the effect of egalitarian democracy.

Citing the abolishment of Sati and equity-based taxes, one may say that this curtailment of individual rights is for the utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number” but on a closer look may be exposed to a chilling truth: democracy itself cannot promise the equality it was established for. The State, and by extension, politics, has often grappled to legitimize the extent to which a government can poke its nose into its citizens’ affairs. While political philosophy has spoken about the state’s mandated interference in ensuring individual rights to property and expression, there has always been the grey area of disconnect between theory and practice. An ideal democracy has been described as one that takes into consideration effective citizen participation, individual rights, transparency and inclusion.

Although Aristotle and Tocqueville, prominent political philosophers, have recognised that the practicality of the ‘ideal’ democracy is a myth, there is also an inherent belief that the right blend of these traits is what makes a perfect and therefore desirable democracy. The first thing we must consider is that we have already failed at the ideal government. The largest democracies today are, and cannot be anything else but, a representative system. This means that citizens do not directly participate in law-making but are expected to directly participate in law-abiding. It is obvious that having every citizen participate in bureaucracy is an administrative nightmare, but even when direct democratic principles like referendums are employed in decision-making, there are trade-offs made that transcend the ideal. For example, in Colombia, a narrow 50.2% referendum victory pushed the country away from settling its 52-year long civil conflict. Democracy is a way to make unjust actions just: you just have to ask everyone. But does the need for consent from the people, even when they make bad decisions, make democracy bad? And if so, how can we improve it without reducing the spirit of electoral governance itself? In democratic theory, the legitimacy of government comes from the consent of the governed. This consent is dynamic and is much like a license: easily transferable to another government when the electorate grows weary of its incumbents.

The idea of consent has naked limitations- it assumes perfection in an imperfect world. Citizens do not come into the world self-actualized. Democracy assumes that people know all: from which ice cream flavour is the best to which political leader will make their country great again. That may be unrealistic, but in the ideal democracy, it is imperative. Else how could democracy claim its honorary title of Best Form of Government? Utilitarian Bentham would say, “Look at it from a consequentialist perspective- make the best decisions en masse, hegemony is of little relevance.” In a world where we apprehend our self-elected leaders, is consent really valued over efficacy? The ideal democracy demands perfection in participation; the realistic one demands participation and expects perfection. While we acknowledge that democracy is far from free of flaws, the quest for the ideal in politics is unfaltering. Electoral politics assumes the electorate to be complete in their knowledge of their desires, technicalities of the system and the capabilities of their representatives.

Along with this, there is also an expectation for perfect candidates, who are in a constant drive for a perfect government. We condemn leaders for lying on the podium but also expect public policies to be free of trade-offs worth mentioning. Our leaders must suggest laws that are equally liberal, fraternal, secular, economic and equitable, all at the same time. This doesn’t go to say that the laws they propose are this rounded, just that there is an apprehension to confess to the electorate that tradeoffs are necessary to make in order to effect change. When India imposed caste reservations laws it silently asked for the sacrifice of the majority to compensate for the systemic losses of the minority. It did so without recognising that there will be many people upset, because the decision is not, as much as the leaders argue, perfect.

In the argument for absolute secularism, there will be a trade-off between humanity and tradition. In the argument for social redistribution, there will be a trade-off between equality and liberty. In the argument for democracy, there will always be a trade-off between realism and perfection. The ideal democracy leaves room for dissent but does not expect it. If electoral politics can fulfil all needs to a satisfactory degree why would a citizen wish to complain? A stagnation of dissent is more a sign of an ailing democracy than a healthy democracy. As observed with the Black Lives Matter Movement, public outrage leads to institutional change, an essential ingredient for any transparent government. One may argue that the need for dissent arises from imperfect democracy but the perils of a perfect democracy imply being cut off from the folds of time and the generational adjustments so required. Perfection, in all its splendour, may not be worth it. Given the shifting times we populate, there is a requirement of a holistic modern democracy rather than an ideal one. A perfect democracy may be a bookish dream but why must it be a dream at all?

Rysha Sultania
Writing Mentorship, 2021

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.