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John Simkin

Do we live in a democracy?

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When political leaders explain the reasons for going to war they invariably make the point that the troops will be fighting to defend or to impose democracy. Tony Blair and George Bush are just the latest in using this argument. However, are countries like Britain and the United States good examples of functioning democracies?

My dictionary defines a democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is exercised by the people directly or indirectly through a system of representation involving free elections… the absence of class distinctions or privileges”.

It is true that both the United States and Britain both regularly hold free elections. However, I would argue that in both cases the people in Parliament/Congress do not accurately represent the political opinions of the electorate. The main reason for this is that both countries employ the “first past the post” system. The result is that in both countries a two party system has developed. This is a major problem in the United States as both parties share a very similar political philosophy. Since the emergence of Tony Blair and the election of his New Labour government, Britain has developed a similar problem. The philosophy of New Labour and the Conservative Party is now the same. It is true that this philosophy is also shared by the majority of the population. However, the system makes it virtually impossible for those who hold different views, to gain representation in the House of Commons. Understandably, this has resulted in large numbers of people holding views in conflict with the dominant ideology, refusing to vote in elections.

It has often been argued that the “first past the post” is a flawed system but has the merit of keeping “extremist political parties” out of power. Even if this was true (and I don’t believe it is – see link to article below) this viewpoint is completely undemocratic. It shows that the so called “democratic system” is being manipulated in order to deny a proportion of the population representation in Parliament.

Burnley Could Fall to the BNP

http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics...1126820,00.html

Do other people share my concerns? I am especially interested in hearing from people from other countries. Do you think your system is more democratic that that of Britain and the United States? Is proportional representation a better system than the first past the post system? What about those emerging democracies in Eastern Europe? What system of electing politicians are you adopting?

http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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I think the question posted refers to two problems:

are the political systems we live in (Germany in my case) democracies

how democratic/good/sensible is the electoral system.

Since 1949 Germany has a complicated electoral system combining the first-past-the psot-principle and elements of proportional representation, which means that we have two votes: one cast for a candidate and a second one (the more important one) for a party. The candidates who poll the majority of votes in their constituencies directly move into the Bundestag but the number of seats alloted to the parties is based on the votes cast for the parties. It is a system which since now has not led to a two-party system but which has nearly always led to coalition governments. So you can argue that more opinions and segments of the people are represented not only in parliament but also in our governments.

What we notice at the moment is that even though we have a coalition of two parties (Social Democrats and the Greens) and two/three opposition parties (the Conservatives and the Liberals) the two dominant parties are the SPD and the CDU. When it comes to reforming the German welfare state the programmes if these two parties are very similar. The process Germany is going through at the moment means that all parts of society have to give up some of their privileges, income etc. in order to maintain the core ideals and structures of our welfare system. Many people are frustrated and they see no differences between the parties - no real political alternatives. One result is that the turnout of elections has been decreasing for some years.

This frustration, political apathy is very dangerous. A democracy does not only need people but citizens who are engaged in politics in various ways on different levels of our social and political life.

I still think that we live in a democratic system but that we have to find ways encourage people to use the means of participation which exist (from writing letters, signing petitions to organising demonstraions, joining a party or union) and think of new ways of including people in political decisions.

The history of the Republic of Weimar has made German cautious of referendums, but in some German states (Länder) the instrument of referundumg has been reintroduced when it comes to decision making on a local or regional level. The results seem to be promising.

The task teachers have is to show students how decisions can be influenced, how they can exert their rights and the best way to do this is to make them practise democracy in school.

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Is proportional representation a better system than the first past the post system?

Living in a country with that system I tend to answer it yes. However I have only little expierence with the other system. Our system is at first sight more democratic, almost all votes get some kind of representation. However it has it flaws to because so many parties votes they always have to govern by coalition. This means compromises are inevitable. So many people feel that they never get what they voted for and therefore stop voting all together. That is a far more serious development and I would like to know if other countries have these same problems.

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I would like to say catagorically that neither Britain nor America are democracies. Both because we have no affective opposition, both countries having a choice between moniterist, capitalist parties, and that is not a choice. It puts me in mind of an advertisement that was current many years ago. A typical British landlady asking her tenant "How do you want your eggs? Fried or boiled?".

I Would also draw your attention to the 1974 general election. I was politically active at the time in as much as I was a trade union representative, and kept abreast of the political scene. Edward Heath, the leader of the conservative party at the time lost the election, but was invited by the queen to form a government. The fact that he could not form an alliance with the then liberal party meant that he could not hold a majority in parliament. The queen then had no option but to invite Harold Wilson to form a government. This shows us that ultimate power, admittedly within certain parameters, lies with an individual, not the electorate.

Just as a secondary thought, hopefully provoking further comments and opinions, I hold the view that the Native American Indian, as opposed to the generally accepted Ancient Greeks were the originators of and had the best democratic system in history. Most , if not all of the Indian Nations had a system of power, where a chief or medicine man held sway, under the auspices of a governing council of elders who held ultimate powers of decision making. And yet an individual member of a tribe had the option to ignore protocol, and do what he thought appropriate given individual circumstances. For example, it was perfectly acceptable for a brave in the throws of battle to leave the battlefield if he saw a deer running by and felt that the hunting of the said deer to feed his family was more important than to contribute to the fight. This action would not be questioned by his fellow braves, nor would he be considered unworthy. Real democratic decision making, retaining the rights of the individual.

Edited by profhig

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I would like to say catagorically that neither Britain nor America are democracies. (profhig 24th January)

I beg to differ even though I share some of your ideas concencerning the American and British electoral system and its effects. But when it comes to defining a democracy the electoral system and its shortcomings is only one aspect to consider. There other criteria which define and characterize a democracy like the right of free speech and press and I think we all agree that the media are an effective means of voicing and influencing public opinion. There is the right to form and/or join a party, union, grass-root movement etc.; the right to organise e.g. demonstrations etc.

Looking at the behaviour and attitude of the governments in and of Europe at the moment you can get the impression that after having been elected the Prime Ministers, Presidents, Bundeskanzler, MPs etc. do not care much about public opinion and cannot be controlled continually and effectively by the electorate.

The core of the problem is that we all live in representative/indirect demcocracies and that the only effective influence we seem to have is the ballot paper.

When Germany was reunited again in 1990 it was discussed if our constitution should be changed reinstating referenda and some other elements of direct democracy. The main argument of the supporters of more elements of direct democracy was that that would be a way to engage more people in the democratic process and to make decision-making more democratic. The opponents of the idea of referenda refered to the Weimar Republic and the negative experiences. Unfortunately the opponents won the day and the constitution was not changed.

I personally support the idea of more elements of direct democracy even on a national level (as I said in my previous posting the constitutions of some of the German Laender allow referenda on a local and regional level) because people then can have a more direct say in the running of the country. This also could have the positive effect that people are more interested and enganged in politics.

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Do you think your system is more democratic that that of Britain and the United States? Is proportional representation a better system than the first past the post system? What about those emerging democracies in Eastern Europe? What system of electing politicians are you adopting?

In my view answering a so big question: Do we live in democracy? is a rather philosophical debate that probably will lead us to nowhere.

I'd rather opt for more concrete questions as those refered to electoral system. In Spain we have a sort of "corrected" proportional system that finally products two big parties (Partido Popular - Partido Socialista Obrero Español) and a series of smaller parties that ranks from former Communists (Izquierda Unida) to nationalist parties (Partido Nacionalista Vasco or Convergencia i Unió).

Is a proportional system better than the British first-past-the-post? I would say so, but, suddenly, Italian political system from 1945 to last decade came to my mind.

A very fractioned Parliament with a lot of parties whose elites negotiate and negotiate coalition governments. It was the time of Andreotti, Craxi... Well, I am not so sure. Proportional system reflects better the public opinion but permit the politicians to arrange coalitions that most usually have nothing to do with common interest.

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If I might add my own $.02: Of course we don't live in an Athenian style democracy, nor do we get up every day and vote on all the policy issues that face us. In America, we have a representative democracy; a republican form of government.

As we are seeing in Iraq, what may be the majority rule could turn out to be an "Iran-style" Islamic fundamentalist government, certainly the last type of government we would have hoped or planned for. As the Christian Science Monitor [4/14/2003] points out: "With American assistance, a democracy will replace a dictatorship. But then, as a result, Iraq's long tradition of the minority Sunni Muslims ruling over the majority Shiites will likely come to an end."

When a nation commits its troops to a "battle for democracy", it must be prepared for the people's will.

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It's very important that we educate young people to understand exactly what democracy is, and what it depends on. Many people leave school just thinking that it means that people have the vote. History, Citizenship and Personal and Social Education can help pupils to realise what a fragile, complex and nuanced creature a liberal democracy is. They also need to be taught about 'democratic deficits'; the imperfections and corruptions in democratic systems, whether in the UK, US, Italy or wherever.

I saw a school history question last week which asked 14 year old pupils to identify some characteristics of a democratic system, and thought that this would be a really good test of pupils' grasp of democracy as a concept. They could also be asked to make a list of all the flaws and imperfections which make democratic systems imperfect.

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Many people leave school just thinking that it means that people have the vote

Sadly many of them do not even bother to vote anymore, thinking it has no effect what so ever. At least that is what soem of my students tell me. Anyone with similar expierence?

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I would like to say catagorically that neither Britain nor America are democracies. (profhig 24th January)

I beg to differ even though I share some of your ideas concencerning the American and British electoral system and its effects. But when it comes to defining a democracy the electoral system and its shortcomings is only one aspect to consider. There other criteria which define and characterize a democracy like the right of free speech and press and I think we all agree that the media are an effective means of voicing and influencing public opinion. There is the right to form and/or join a party, union, grass-root movement etc.; the right to organise e.g. demonstrations etc.

Looking at the behaviour and attitude of the governments in and of Europe at the moment you can get the impression that after having been elected the Prime Ministers, Presidents, Bundeskanzler, MPs etc. do not care much about public opinion and cannot be controlled continually and effectively by the electorate.

The core of the problem is that we all live in representative/indirect demcocracies and that the only effective influence we seem to have is the ballot paper.

When Germany was reunited again in 1990 it was discussed if our constitution should be changed reinstating referenda and some other elements of direct democracy. The main argument of the supporters of more elements of direct democracy was that that would be a way to engage more people in the democratic process and to make decision-making more democratic. The opponents of the idea of referenda refered to the Weimar Republic and the negative experiences. Unfortunately the opponents won the day and the constitution was not changed.

I personally support the idea of more elements of direct democracy even on a national level (as I said in my previous posting the constitutions of some of the German Laender allow referenda on a local and regional level) because people then can have a more direct say in the running of the country. This also could have the positive effect that people are more interested and enganged in politics.

I take your point about free speech and press. The problem is, do we really have free speech and a free press? (I am concerned mainly with the British system). A case in point, Robert Relf in the 1970's. When the UK introduced, quite rightly, its anti-racism legislation, Mr. Relf advertised his house for sale to 'a white person only.' He was convicted and served a prison sentence for flouting the new law. I am quite sure that we will all agree that his conviction was morally correct. It does, however, mean that Mr. Relf has had his right to free speech curtailed. However much we dislike his opinions, should he have the right to express them?

As far as free press is concerned, I could not afford to start a newspaper to express opinions I am in agreement with. And ultimately the editors of papers decide what to print, so trying to have my opinions put into print through letters pages etc. is dependatnt on an individuals decision. I would also make the point that newspapers are obliged to print the truth, but truths can be manipulated to read differently than the intention of the originator. For example: the 1984 miners strike in the UK. The Saltley coke works had a mass picket to stop lorries going in. A headline on the front page of the 'Evening Mail' read 'policeman injured on picket line' or words to that effect. Most people who read that headline immediately had the impression that the pickets had caused the injury. Reading on, it transpired that the officer in question had slipped on a kerb, sprained his ankle and no picket was involved. It was a pure accident.But people had already condemmed the pickets due to the headline, and reading on to what really happened did not alter opinion. Readers still had it fixed in their mind that pickets were responsible, in as much as they were there.

So free speech? Of ourse we can never have it. It is more a question of where we draw the line.

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It is more a question of where we draw the line.

Democracy is about who or what draws and defines the line. The realisation of Human Rights for one group of people can in fact lead to the limitation of them for others (in your case the ethnic minorities' rights versus the landlord's rights). But rights can only be defined, limited by the representatives we elected and at least in Germany we have a Supreme Court where we can complain about laws, execution of laws etc. In contrast to the USA the judges of the German Supreme Court are not elected for life but for a couple of years only and even if they belong to one of the large German parties they - up to now - have always displayed their independence from political interference and/or party politics.

I agree with what you say about free speech, the press etc and what you describe is not restricted to Britain, either, you can find many examples of that in Germany, too and considering how concentrated the media corporations are only highlights the problems you mention.

But you can mention these problems, you can publish them, you can inform your students about these facts.

For me the main problem is to find new ways of attracting especially young people to politics and to find new ways of participation and grass-root organisation.

In a way I think "democracy" is always imperfect and always needs to be questioned, rethought, repaired. The advantage is that you can do this in a democracy- faulty as our democracies seem to be at the moment.

Edited by John Simkin

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I think that first of all we have to discuss about the concept of "political representation" There is a good book about this, the classical Robert Dhal's On Democracy, a guide for citizens.

No matter the system you adopt as long as some corrections are adopted:

- Division of the three powers

- all political trends should be represented even if they are held by a minority

- free press and access to every group to express their points of view

- create ways of citizens participation on political issues and in all levels of the political organization.

- Education, as Aristotle said: "A good democracy can only be assured on the grounds of an educated man" No one can give up his political responsabilities. Democracy is not just to vote any four years. The vote is not the only way of exercizing democracy or participation. The vote is the final result of a deeper and longer process and not the means of political decision. the problem, from my point of view, in western democracies is that they apply the vote reductionism and democracy is a more serious question.

- Another point: Respect levels of decision . Don't put a decision in a upper level if it can be decided in a lower level, e.g. a local community can decide about how to spend local budgets, it is not a decision of central govermment.

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Billy Bragg has recently launched a campaign to create a new second chamber. He is arguing that the new second chamber should be elected on the basis of the votes cast in a general election (based on a PR system).

This seems a suggestion that might well get the support of the government. It would definitely be an improvement on the House of Lords. However, it has two major drawbacks.

(1) It will give extra power to leaders of political parties as they would control the list of party nominees.

(2) General election votes do not actually reflect overall support for parties. Voters often choose between those they see as the principal contenders in their voting region. This system would therefore result in an under-representation of minority parties.

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Democracies, monarchies,aristocracies,oligarchies and theocracies have problems with size. We have four levels of democracy in California----- Neighborhood,municipality,state,and national.

The farther away you are,the less control you have over the money leaving your pockets and the greater the anger that someone is getting it,and it isn't you.

Well, we have enough democracy to stop anything from happening.

Currying the majority's favor is difficult and humorous at the same time.All you have to do is look at fashion and listen to music to recognize the limits of the majority and its fickleness. It's one reason we like elites to tell us if the creative juices are not acidic or caustic.

I think the best lesson lies within any classroom. See if the classroom has an orderly system of rule.If it doesn't ,why doesn't it. Madison's Federalist Paper #10 is a great place to begin because he's extremely skeptical about logic and political rule.

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Right, size is one of the problems. Small communities make it better. In Spain we only have three levels: municipality, state and central government. We miss neighborhood. According to Betham electoral districs (neighborhood in this case) should be aproximately of the same size for general elections. Most important decisions about welfare, education and social security should be manage at this level.

About having two chambers I agree, but the second chamber should be elected on regional basis to ensure representations of minorities

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