I like this, towards the end of a long comment from Michael Strong, on this piece by Clay Shirky:
Democracy is a fabulous way to prevent the most horrible errors such as the massive famines, death camps, and large-scale wars of aggression that are characteristic of totalitarian regimes, but one should no more imagine that democracy is a finely-tuned instrument for determining the public good than that a hack saw is suitable for brain surgery.
“Deliberative” democracy, i.e. the sort less like a hack saw, doesn’t work beyond about 10,000 people, he says.
See also Amartya Sen, who also admires what the hack saw can do.
Being an American with a knowledge of history, Strong does not claim that democracy prevents civil war. But I would say that democracy does make civil war far less likely, provided certain other conditions are also met, like a relatively static political entity and not too much tribal voting (i.e. a willingness of at least some voters to vote this way or that way, depending).
In many ways (but not the most important ways), democracy is civil war. Which is precisely why it works as well as it does as a substitute for civil war. Whoever wins the democracy civil war would probably also have won the real thing, using not unrelated methods – bribes, threats, propaganda barrages, opinion polls, friendliness towards turnable enemies, treachery towards dependable friends, and so on and so forth. That being so, the losers take their defeat. Instead of contesting the result of the election by force (i.e. starting a real civil war) they wait for the next round.
Which, by the way, means that the reasonable certainty that there will be a next round is crucial to democracy’s effectiveness. It is often said of Hitler that he was impeccably democratic. He was indeed democratically elected, but promptly cancelled all subsequent elections. At best, democratically speaking, he scores one out of two. Other political strong-arm men, who got power by old fashioned civil warlike methods, but who then left a democratic legacy, that is, they contrived (or at least permitted) the circumstances which would allow elections in the future, get denounced as “totally undemocratic”, when they also score one out of two. And which election matters more, the last one, or the simple fact of the next one, when it comes to how safe and sound life would be right now?
None of which means that I love democracy, merely that I prefer it to civil war, famine, concentration camps etc.. Cue clichés about democracy being the worst system, except … More to the point, here’s what looks like another quite good link to the sort of notions I and Michael Strong agree with.
One of the many reasons why I would like to live for more like the next two centuries, rather than the mere two decades which is my likely best shot, is that I would love to see what happens to democracy in the next little clutch of decades. Currently, it is just growing and growing in strength, for all of the above reasons. I’m not the only one who wants a quiet life, and will settle for a disappointing one if that’s the price to be paid. But, will democracy last? Will it, for instance, attach itself to the emerging government of the world which I believe we are now witnessing in our time? If it does, will it then do anything to prevent global civil wars? If democracy fades, what might replace it?
When I say “democracy” please understand that by that I mean big noisy elections deranging regular television for weeks at a time, political parties, legislative assemblies of self-important bores, lying, cheating, thieving, grandstanding, moral self-aggrandisement and relentless disappointment for almost all concerned, bar only a tiny few particularly rapacious and particularly lucky winners. I do not mean that fatuous construct of political malcontents known as “real democracy“, as in: everything the malcontent wants from democratically elected politicians, however far fetched, such as financial security for all (especially him), equality for all (ditto), openness of decision-making (by others rather than in the unlikely event that he is deciding anything of importance), environmental perfection, and immediate answers to his mad letters or emails to politicians, telling him that his mad arguments, no matter how numerous or how many CAPITAL LETTERS they may contain, have all triumphed.
Speaking of political malcontents, what I want is free markets in everything, a cheap internet connection, a cheap digital camera with a twiddly screen which takes perfect pictures with just the one (mega-mega-zoom when I want it) lens, and to stay comfortably alive for at least the next two centuries (see above). But, I never refer to these desires as “real democracy”.