The Democracy You Learned About in High School – Does it still work?

Remember studying different forms of government in Social Studies class in high school?  I don’t recall the year, the class or the teacher, but I do remember hearing about:

  • Democracy (hooray)
  • Communism (boo)
  • Dictatorship (you know, like Hitler or Mao)
  • Monarchy (an old model)
  • Feudalism (Middle Ages)
  • Benevolent Despot (understood by the class only after despot was defined)
Mr. Roy, Social Studies Teacher

Of course, the students agreed that democracy was the way to go.  In the 1960’s in the U.S., that seemed very clear.  Democracy gave power and freedom to the people and the U.S. form of democracy provided for checks and balances so that one branch of government could not become too powerful. The founders formed not a true direct democracy (think ancient Athens) but a representative democracy.  About fifteen years after the Constitution was created, the electoral college concept was added, which is a point of contention for some today.  However, overall, the founding fathers learned from history and got many things right.   One could make a strong argument that they created a better Constitution than any either before or since.

For the past 50 years almost everyone in the country has accepted without much debate (except at the fringe) that Democracy is the best form of government.  The U.S. has even fought wars and contributed huge amounts in foreign aid trying to spread democracy to other countries.  This ‘democracy-by-force’ strategy has generally not worked too well; about as well as Harvey Weinstein’s ‘sex-by -force’ on reluctant partners. Other countries have been willing to go along after being drugged with an overdose of foreign aid, but when the money stopped it had the same effect as a young starlet seeing Harvey’s hairy back. [insert slamming door sound effect.] 

Lately, some observers wonder if U.S. democracy is all that great.   The country has perhaps never been so polarized, split just about 50-50 into warring camps with completely different visions for the future.     

 Winston Churchill, known for his witticisms, famously said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  

Karl Marx, not known for his witticisms, believed that Democracy had a short shelf life. He predicted that eventually the oppressed would rise-up and overthrow the oppressors.  In his day the oppressed were those who worked in factories under poor working conditions and for long hours and the oppressors were the owners of the factories, the capitalists.  After the overthrow was complete, as the story goes, the factory workers would take over the factory and share in the profits.  Karl’s vision has never been realized.  A few countries have paid lip service to Karl’s philosophy, but it always turns out that the leaders of these countries get rich, and the poor people get even poorer.  Irving Berlin, the composer, once said something like “the world would be a better place if Marx had been Groucho rather than Karl”. Maybe then everyone in Russia and China would be playing You Bet Your Life, but that’s a discussion for another day.  The main point to be made here is that today in the U.S. we are seeing signs of Marxist thinking.  Depending on who is talking, the oppressors are rich people or old, balding white men born in the 1940’s and 50’s and probably suffering from BPH.  The oppressed are poor people or people of color or poor people of color.  All problems can be directly or indirectly traced to Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Elon Musk or, of course, to the previously mentioned group of old white men.  

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Could it be that Marx (i.e., Karl) was right?  That Democracy has been played out?  At least in the U.S. we seem to have uncovered some major flaws in democracy, at least our form of democracy.  

Short termism.  With Presidential elections every 4 years and House elections every 2 years, representatives spend much of their time positioning themselves and raising money for the next election.   Often policy positions are based not on what may be best for the country but on optics or how the press may react.  With cable news and Internet outlets like Facebook and Twitter, the press carries significant clout and they love short termism because they always have something to talk about.  As for the rest of us, we’ve kinda had enough.

China has made great economic progress over the past 30 years using 5-year plans drafted by some of their brightest minds.  Of course, that’s not to say that the U.S. should emulate China’s communist form of government, but by comparison the U.S. has great difficulty passing even a one-year budget. 

Many have proposed term limits on Senators and Congressman to address the short-term orientation.  Since a term-limit law would need to be passed in the Senate and House, any bets on the likelihood?

Voter Ignorance.  Most voters in the U.S. are not well informed.  In fact, most voters are not very smart.  It comes with the democracy territory.  In a recent article in The New Yorker Magazine the author noted:

Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.


A high percentage of the country is firmly entrenched in their political party.  Their party’s candidate could stutter, forget their name, and drool during a debate and they’d still vote D or R without a moment’s reflection.     

Then there’s the bell-shaped curve problem.  What percentage of the population is smart enough to vote?  I’ve never seen a study on that subject.  The guy who entered the capitol building wearing a bison hat comes to mind.  He may not be very bright or as a schoolteacher might say “he just exercised very poor judgment” (especially in his sartorial choices).

 Listening to some politicians, everyone should vote whether they care about voting or can read or write.   Indeed, community organizers complete mail-in ballots for many disinterested but eligible voters while adding the enticement of a Krispy Kreme or Big Mac.  It’s a bit corrupt and not good for cardiovascular health.

Those who don’t care about voting are perhaps more rational than individuals who spend time analyzing and arguing about politics as sort of a hobby.  After all, what’s the likelihood that one person’s vote will be the deciding factor in an election?  It’s about the same as the probability of hitting Powerball two months in a row. 

Some very smart-sounding academic authors have addressed the voter ignorance issue and proposed solutions like literacy/intelligence tests.  Yikes, I think proposing that on Twitter may be dangerous.    At the very least you’d be called a bunch of names that end in “ist”.    But, if you’re not smart enough to figure out how to obtain an ID card, should you really be voting?

John Stuart Mill, a British economist/philosopher who was supposed to be extremely smart, thought that the Oxford and Cambridge-educated should be able to vote multiple times.  In fact, that notion was similar to a law that existed in England in the early 20th Century.  Multiple voting sometimes happens even today in the U.S., although it has nothing to do with Oxford or Cambridge and is not legal.

In a new book, “Against Democracy”, Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown, argues for epistocracy (or rule by the knowledgeable). Brennan argues that it’s entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant, and the incompetent have over others

The problem with these ideas is deciding who is ignorant, irrational or incompetent.  A competency test may work, but we’ve already decided that would be politically unacceptable.  Maybe a panel of the smart, informed, rational and competent could decide who should vote.  Nah!  Some of the smartest people can’t agree on basic facts, at least partly because of built-in biases.  If a member of one party says “gas prices are high” they’re sure to get an argument from the other party.  “High relative to what?”  “What exactly do you mean by ‘high’?”  “Are you implying that gas prices can be controlled by a politician?’  “That sounds racist.”  And so on. 

 The Animal Farm Problem.  Remember reading ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell?  A group of disgruntled animals decide to take over the farm to form an egalitarian society in which all animals are equal. However, it didn’t work out that way.  The pigs took control and became ‘more equal’ than the other animals.  Once they had control, they forgot about the egalitarian idea.

Every form of government seems to be riddled with corruption.  Certainly, Putin, Xi Jinping and Castro are corrupt.  At least they became very rich while serving in their respective communist parties.  Aren’t communists supposed to be poor?  Is there no such thing as a good communist anymore?  I think Woody Allen said, “Communism is like a nude beach.  The idea is much more attractive than the real thing.”

I wonder if we can generalize that the more powerful a politician, the more likely they are to be corrupt.  Come to think of it, has there ever been an honest dictator?

The ‘more power, more corruption’ principle seems to apply to politicians in democracies too.  For example, think of Mayor Daley, Boss Tweed, Richard Nixon, and the list could go on for a few pages including members of both parties.  Power creates temptation because powerful people know no one is looking over their shoulder which makes it more tempting to take a cookie.   The powerful know if an underling squeals on them, they can fire the plebe or maybe conveniently book them in a movie with Alec Baldwin.   

In the U.S., the press is supposed to keep politicians honest, but they have not done a good job lately.  Statistics show that over 95% of political contributions made by members of the press go to the same party.  Does that suggest anything?

Where’s a Cop When You Need One?  When demonstrations or riots break out in more autocratic countries, they are quickly put down.  A good example is the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.  The Chinese government squashed it with such force there weren’t any more riots for a while. The CCP is not known for its liberal policies regarding freedom of speech and expression, but at least everyone knows where they stand. In the U.S., government reaction to protests seems to depend on the politics of the situation.  For example, most politicians did not want to do anything about the BLM/Antifa riots of the summer of 2020.  They let the riots, the property damage, assaults, looting and arson continue with minimal pushback.  No one wanted to be labelled a racist.  Large corporations made multi-million-dollar donations to BLM to show their support and to avoid scrutiny. 

Mobs, especially violent mobs, are frightening.  When they flex their muscles, they can cause anyone, especially politicians, to seek shelter.  Mob rule and the reaction to vocal and violent mobs is another problem with U.S. democracy.  The loudest and most threatening get the most attention and have the most power.

The Ben Franklin Problem.  Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying,When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.”  The people have already figured that out, so are we nearing the end of the republic?  We all agree that poor people should have adequate food, clothing and shelter.  The current debate is about providing college education, health care, childcare, government incomes, …the list could be endless. 

To use an extreme example to illustrate the point.  If I see that you have a nice car and use coercion to take the car, that is considered a crime.  It will lead to time in the slammer.  But, if I vote for candidates who preach that poorer people should get more and if those people then get elected and pass laws to give me what I want, that is not a crime.  It’s considered, not theft but “equity”.  

The only difference between my pointing a gun at you and taking your money and the government taking your money is that a few corrupt politicians in Washington have voted that the latter is alright.  This is a problem with representative democracy.  

Inefficiency of the system.  As mentioned earlier, China does a very good job planning their economy.  In fact, they are brilliant.  Everything they do is not nice or even honest, but it’s all for the greater good of The Middle Kingdom. 

In contrast, the U.S. doesn’t seem to be able to manage a one-car funeral procession.  The leaders can’t agree on much.  Their interest seems to be more on defeating the opposition than helping the country. 

Democratic systems waste too much energy debating, arguing, and carrying out secret and not-so-secret plans to sabotage the opposing party.    The system is inefficient.

Manipulation of public opinion.  Joseph Goebbels was chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, which controlled all information available to the people of Germany during Hitler’s reign.   The governments of Communist Russia and China also carefully manage information that is shared with the public.  In George Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Truth controlled news media, entertainment, the fine arts and educational books.   All centralized governments impose tight controls on information to control public opinion and behavior.

One of the advantages of democracy is supposed to be the availability of better and more accurate information, but every administration controls the release of information very carefully, spinning stories to suit their message.

Another historical advantage of U.S. democracy is that the press has acted as the fourth estate, keeping the government honest. This advantage no longer exists as people have lost faith in the press. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 9% of the population has great trust in mass media.   The media are no longer just reporting the facts.  They’ve taken sides.  They sensationalize to draw a bigger audience, but their bias in reporting is so transparent more people are tuning out.

Social Studies Redux Back to that Social Studies class you took 50 or more years ago.  I wonder if students who take similar classes today all agree that democracy is best.  I wonder if teachers today think democracy is best.  I wonder if I still think democracy is best. 

Actually, I think we may be able to design a better system based on what we have learned in this humble essay.  The leaders of China seem to be smarter than our leaders.  They are not very charitable, but at least they make good decisions for China.  They don’t have to worry about beating the other party because there is no other party. 

The downside of the Chinese system is that, like ours, it’s corrupt.  The leaders enrich themselves.  Maybe we need a system in which the leaders are already rich so they don’t have to manipulate policy to get more money for themselves.  You know, like having Elon Musk as leader.

So, it seems that we are converging on a new system.  It must have these attributes:

  • A single political party
  • Smart leader(s) 
  • Leader(s) already very rich
  • Leader(s) nice, not mean

This sounds a lot like the Benevolent Despot model from high school. 

Hmmm…But, before I fully commit to Benevolent Despot I’d like to do another Google search on the word “despot”.   It sounds too similar to “desperate”.

References
The Case Against Democracy | The New Yorker
Criticism of democracy – Wikipedia
Democracy Is for Losers – American Consequences
Americans Remain Distrustful of Mass Media (gallup.com)

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