Democracy is a widespread regime, praised by many, but what about the criticisms that can be addressed to it? Here is an account of the main Flaws and limitations of democratic regimes.
These will be studied in two stages:
- Flaws of functioning within democracies: why a democracy remains an ideal requiring in practice to work on the defects of its institutions.
- Flaws of direct democracy
- Flaws of indirect democracy
- Difficulties in finding a balance of power
- Limits of democratic regimes: why democracy itself, in its nature, carries a permanent risk of drift.
- Problem of citizen vigilance
- Problem of the equality
- Problem of the demagogy
Flaws in the functioning of democracies→
5 books on Democracy
Among the most recurrent criticisms against democracy are those related to the type of democracy itself. This one indeed is envisaged either in the form of a direct democracy or an indirect democracy. These two types of democracy have their own defects, which often echo each other.
1. The flaws of direct democracy
The term direct democracy is used when the whole population is involved in making decisions (e.g. by majority vote), appointing officials, drafting laws, etc. To function properly, this type of democracy must be based on a democratic process. To function well, this type of democracy must meet several requirements:
- A people who are good and make the right decisions: an informed person
- A people whose number of citizens remains manageable: one must imagine the Athenians gathered to vote by a show of hands. Beyond a certain number, the vote count is incalculable and unmanageable.
- A people informed of everything, and interested in everything: they must take part in every decision in every field, even those which are not part of their daily life.
- A people who have free time, to take care of business and to govern.
2. The flaw of indirect democracy
Indirect democracy is established mainly in consideration of the requirements just listed, which are often too difficult to meet to guarantee the proper functioning of a direct democracy.
In indirect democracy, therefore, representatives are elected by the people to manage affairs and draft laws. These representatives have a mandate from the people, and exercise democracy on behalf of the people.
This system is now widespread throughout the world, as in France: the National Assembly and the Senate are the two chambers that represent the people, forming what is called the Parliament.
This solution of indirect democracy is thus obviously characterized by the main defect of not answering the pure democratic ideal, wished by many authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract.
It is indeed a major defect in the sense that the interests of a reduced group never correspond perfectly to the interests of the totality of the people.
A fortiori, since this group of representatives constitutes, in the true sense of the word, an elite, there is a risk that laws, debates and balances will turn in favor of the representatives of the people and not of the people themselves.
→ There never has been and there never will be democracy! – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
3. Difficulties of the balance of powers
The balance of powers, dear to Montesquieu, poses many challenges to democracies. If the strength of the different powers were absolutely equal, then it would be impossible to evolve. It is thus necessary to give the advantage to one of the identified powers in a democracy … which always causes a risk.
Even if there are more powers in a democracy, history has always allowed either the executive or the legislative power to prevail.
When the legislative branch has the upper hand, we speak of a parliamentary system. There are two major problems with this system: 1. if there are many political parties or representatives competing for power, it becomes imperative to form coalitions. 2. power risks paralysis since it requires agreement among a wide variety of individuals or coalitions.
When the executive branch has the advantage, it is called a presidential system. This presidential system avoids both of the above pitfalls by giving more power to a single elected leader who is more likely to commit to a firm decision. However, the presidential system has the opposite drawback, namely the risk of drifting towards a more tyrannical, more absolute system, in which the person of the president would concentrate so much power that he could do without the people and their representatives.
The balance to be struck between these two regimes thus remains very fragile, and is a persistent threat within democracies.
Limitations of the democratic regime
Criticisms of the democratic regime focus on three problems, which we will detail here:
- citizen vigilance, or the risk of being led passively;
- extreme equality, or the risk of not accepting the authority of others;
- demagogy, or the risk of seeking to seduce the electorate at the expense of reason
1. The problem of citizen vigilance
This is a famous criticism raised by Alexis de Tocqueville in De la démocratie en Amérique: the people withdraw into themselves, into their own little pleasures, and abandon political affairs.
” I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who turn without rest on themselves to obtain small and vulgar pleasures, of which they fill their souls,” he writes in the second volume dated 1840.
This withdrawal of the people leaves place to a tutelary power, resulting in a democratic despotism:” an immense and tutelary power, which takes charge alone to ensure their enjoyment and to look after their fate”.
The people try to answer” two enemy passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free”, which leads them to this situation of democratic despotism. ” They imagine a unique power, tutelary, all-powerful, but elected by the citizens. They combine centralization and the sovereignty of the people.”
To respond to this threat, Tocqueville proposes a solution: associations. It is the associations that must play a counter-power, and constantly keep awake the democratic conscience of the citizens.
2. The problem posed by equality
The lack of equality is a problem in democracy. But the opposite, extreme equality, also becomes one, as Montesquieu notes:
“The principle of democracy is corrupted, not only when the spirit of equality is lost; but also when the spirit of extreme equality is taken, and everyone wants to be equal to those he chooses to command him. Since then, the people, not being able to suffer the very power they entrust, want to do everything by themselves, to deliberate for the Senate, to execute for the magistrates, and to strip all judges.”
Montesquieu (1689-1755), de l’Esprit des lois, 1748. Book VIII, chapter II
Formulated differently, Montesquieu’s idea amounts to saying that it is sometimes wiser to accept to delegate a power, to trust another who knows better the job of administering and governing.
But in the case of a society where equality is pushed to its extreme, unreasonable citizens might no longer accept to delegate their voice or their power.
3. The problem of demagoguery
Demagogy corresponds to the search for the people’s favor in order to obtain their votes and dominate them. This term thus joins the notions of electoralism and opportunism; even in more recent political debates, populism, even if there is no current consensus on the meaning of this last concept.
“All democratic societies are hypocritical and they cannot help but be so. In our time, one can only establish an authoritarian regime in the name of democracy, because all modern regimes are based on the egalitarian principle. One establishes an absolute power only by claiming to liberate men” writes Raymond Aron in eighteen lessons on the industrial society (Paris, 1962).
An opposition is formed between the enlightened rulers, conscious of the difficulties, and the ideal and the thirst of immediate pleasures of the people. The people demand that elected officials fulfill all their promises, while elected officials are driven to lie and make promises that are impossible to keep.