Democracy: Good for electing or ejecting leaders?

There are essentially two thoughts on one of the saliencies of democracy, namely the value of elections. The one is inherently positive in outlook, that democracy provides voters with the ability to elect the most competent leader. The other one is inherently more negative. It assumes that voters aren't particularly good at electing decent leaders, but at least democracy provides an opportunity to get rid of the awful ones without revolution and bloodshed.

Of the two, which one do you believe to be the feature of democracy that should be used as a selling point?

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"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." - Winston Churchill

Davis, I'm sure you know, but may have briefly forgotten, that elected politicians who fail to speak to their listeners' needs become ex-politicians.

Churchill probably did say that. He is also alleged to have said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other kinds we have tried.

Socrates and Plato, the famous Greek philosophers of classical antiquity, held that a democracy was second only to a dictatorship as the worst possible form of government. They held that the most knowledgeable, educated and intelligent persons made the best, wisest and most benevolent rulers. (That would be the philosophers of ancient Greece and the scientists, academics and subject matter experts of modern times.)

Socrates and Plato criticized democracy in that a majority of the common people (by definition) will always consist of the average and below average, who themselves lack the ability to recognize or value superior knowledge, education and intelligence well enough to select the best leaders.

I think they're right. But I also think a democracy-- with a well-educated populace and strong constitutional checks and balances of power-- is the best possible political solution, assuming a government exists to keep people free and happy, not as a vehicle to support the best possible class of ruler.

Arguably, Democracy is flawed because it favors popular leaders over capable ones. But I do think it's the best system of government that's currently known for keeping people free (or feeling free). So I lean toward the second option.


"Imagine a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and a little blind, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering of the ship, every one of them is of opinion that he has the right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation, and cannot tell who taught him, nor when he learned the skill.

"Indeed the sailors further assert that navigation is not a skill, that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying to takeover the helm, and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard.

"They try to chain up the captain with drink or narcotic drugs, then they mutiny and take possession of the ship. They make free with the stores, and whilst eating and drinking to their hearts content they proceed on their voyage in such manner as might be expected of them. Whomever is their partisan and cleverly aids them, whether by force or persuasion, in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands and into their own they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman.

"They abuse and call good-for nothing the other sort of man, the true pilot who pays attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds and whatever else belongs to his art. It never seriously enters their mind to think of the steerer's art as a professional calling requiring qualification. Now in this ship, which is in a state of constant mutiny, and which is steered by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

"This parable describes the relationship between the true philosopher and his state. The treatment of the philosopher, and the frustration he feels, is so grievous that no single thing on earth is comparable to it. No wonder then that philosophers have no honour in their cities, indeed their having honour would be far more extraordinary. No wonder they are called cranks or good for nothings."

- Attributed to Socrates in Plato's Republic

I'd prefer the positive one. Sometimes I almost wish there was some kind of benign dictatorship, just to stop idiots from voting.  There was a quote that went something like "the rulers of democracy are the voters of the country". But I think it should be: "the rulers of democracy are the owners of the country," i.e. the big business interests.

Sometimes I almost wish there was some kind of benign dictatorship, just to stop idiots from voting.  There was a quote that went something like "the rulers of democracy are the voters of the country". But I think it should be: "the rulers of democracy are the owners of the country," i.e. the big business interests.

You may be pretty close, if you accept the results of a recent research project at Princeton and Northwestern Universities.

Researchers compared 1,800 different policies established by politicians between 1981 and 2002 to the types of policies preferred by average Americans, wealthy Americans, or special interest groups. The policies represented the will of wealthy Americans and special interest groups, not typically the general will of the people, including average and lower income Americans.

The U.S. government represents the rich and powerful, not average citizens. That makes the United States an oligarchy: a country led by a small dominant class who control the general population. 

The consolidation of power continues. The Roberts Supreme Court recently ruled with Citizens United and McCutcheon that Free Speech means an oligarch can buy politicians with few limits. 

Source: "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens”

Honestly, I don't think the democracy I am familiar with is particularly good at either electing or ejecting bad leaders. Here in Australia we vote for the party which we dislike the least, and for some reason, despite both of the two major parties being apparently incompetent, they recieve around 90% of the vote. For some reason, moron voters don't realise voting for a smaller party is not a wasted vote if they don't get in... we have a "preferences" system so the vote gets transferred until it counts.

Matt, I've been politically active for forty years and long ago saw a remark about democracy that I think is accurate: Elections don't guarantee us good leaders; they guarantee only that we can change leaders without resorting to assassination.

About preference balloting, San Francisco has been doing it for a few years. Someday more Americans will see that runoffs between the top two winners distort the process AND cost more money.


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