My basic position on democracy is summed up in the following quote, from a comment I made on this entry on Warwick blogs.
… my opinion on representative democracy is that it should be understood in historical terms. It is a step up from what came before it. It was fought for not because it would provide a perfect form of government but because it eliminated the worst excesses of the previous form of government. It doesn’t allow outrageous exploitation of an enormous majority of the population. This is an impressive achievement, but it doesn’t guarantee any more than that. I think the level of exploitation and inequality in capitalist democratic societies amply prove that it only manages to achieve this bare minimum and not a lot more.
I believe that we have to fight for democracy in two ways.
Firstly, we need to fight to protect what we have already got. This is particularly important in these days as our governments seek to overturn our liberties in the ‘war on terror’. Democracy is a fragile thing, and relies on the existence of many elements of our culture other than just voting. It relies on a free press, civil liberties, the rule of law, checks and balances, etc. It is easy to be complacent about it.
Secondly, we need to fight to improve our democracy. There is some hope that this is possible – the Porto Allegre participatory budget is an example of an innovative democratic project. We must also fight to overcome the undemocratic elements that already exist in our democracy; the effect of the two party system, the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and big business in politics, the systematic constraints on a truly free press (as described for instance by Herman and Chomsky in their ‘propaganda model’), etc.
The question has been raised as to whether or not it is possible or desirable to impose democracy on a country. My tentative opinion is that it is unreasonable to expect a country to make a quick transition from a repressive form of government to a Western style democratic one. The reason for this is that the only change that can quickly be made is the introduction of voting, and this is only one aspect of democracy. This is not to say however, that the attempt to make the transition is necessarily a bad thing to do, merely that we shouldn’t expect immediate results, and that we shouldn’t rely on the introduction of voting alone to solve long term problems.