Why Is Democracy So Difficult?
In 5000 years of recorded history the vast majority of governments have been non-democracies. Some have resulted from strongman power struggles, and others have been hereditary monarchies, but few have been democratic. Historically democracy has been a brief flame that has sputtered and died. The classical Greek city-state of Athens is known as ‘the cradle of democracy’. However, historians state that actual democracy in Athens was brief, lasting only one hundred and forty years, from 460 BCE to 320 BCE.
Democracy then disappeared from the world for over 2000 years, reappearing with the founding of the United States in 1783. For 223 years the presence of the United States triggered a remarkable expansion of global democracy never before seen in world history. The expansion has been so dramatic that some people naively think that continuing democracy expansion is inevitable, forgetting that democracy is fragile and easily overthrown. Ominously, and perhaps unknown to most Americans, the global democratic expansion peaked in 2006, and has been declining ever since, according to Freedom House.
Why is global democracy in retreat, and more generally, why is democracy so difficult to sustain? There are three reasons. First, democracy is, by necessity, a complicated form of government. As Winston Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Presumably he was referring to the layered complexity, the slowness, the inefficiency, and the constant messy process of bargaining and negotiation that make up democratic governance. Democracies allow for freedom, which means that people will openly have strong differences of opinion about everything. These differences make compromises inevitable if policies are to be created and implemented. Consequently no one is ever completely happy with the results of democratic governance, and some people are very unhappy- all the time.
This dissatisfaction is exacerbated by a second more fundamental reason for democratic fragility. Evolutionarily speaking we humans are primates, one of the great apes. Most primates, and most group-living mammals, form dominance hierarchies as their social group structures. Dominance hierarchies are pyramidal in shape, with an alpha individual as top leader, and various rank/status levels descending to the bottom level. This social structure format has been evolutionarily successful, because these species survived for millions of years.
Humans also form dominance hierarchies. Every formal organization in the world, even those called cooperatives, are dominance hierarchies, where individuals at lower levels obey individuals at higher levels, with an alpha individual at the top. Most human groups are also hierarchies, especially those groups that are formed to achieve goals. Some family and friendship groups are not so obviously hierarchical, but close study of these groups reveals more subtle forms of pyramidal placement and dominance. Given this, it is not so surprising that almost all governments, and societies, in human history have been pyramidal dominance hierarchies.
Perhaps global democracy is in retreat simply because people in various countries are retreating to their evolutionary comfort zone.
Finally, in animal and some human groups alpha individuals hold their top leadership positions only as long as the decisions they make increase group survival and prosperity. Therefore the expectation that leaders will make good decisions is often a reasonable expectation for individuals lower in the hierarchy to make. In democracies this expectation is difficult to fulfill because democratic governance strips alpha leaders of much of their power. Democratic power sharing creates in some dissatisfied citizens a longing for a strongman, a supreme alpha who has magical powers to solve all problems instantaneously. Evidence of this longing are everywhere- the popularity of superhero books, games and movies has never been greater.
The reasons for democratic decline are powerful, and therefore the reversal solutions need to be equally powerful. Perhaps it is time to do a much better job of seriously educating Americans about democracy, with specific courses in middle school, high school, college and beyond. Perhaps it is also time to include mandatory voting as a citizenship requirement. Perhaps it is time to try the many other suggestions made by concerned observers to increase democracy awareness in lackadaisical Americans.