The Consequences of Democracy

Colombia got to the right destination, but took the wrong route.

Various individuals at one time or another have tried to distill an overarching philosophy of society from the complicated and messy record of history. Perhaps no historical philosophy is more fascinating than the one laid out by the Italian Giovanni Vico in his 1725 work, The New Science.

Vico believed that the first primitive societies grew out of the fear from inhabiting a confusing world without easy explanations that impelled individuals to form early family structures that provided a measure of security and support. As a social process began to take shape, explanations were given to assuage the fear of the unknown in the form of primitive religion and mythmaking. As a result of these explanations, Vico referred to this early period as the “age of Gods.”

As these social units became more complex and passed from families to tribes, an “age of heroes” superseded the “age of Gods,” as the heads of these units established authority and used epic poetry and other storytelling to solidify their exalted positions.

In the main, these aristocratic societies were successful in their intention to give a measure of community and security to individuals; so much so that in time the people seeking protection from them became bold enough to demand more and more rights and privileges for themselves – ushering in an “age of peoples.”

Self-seeking and individuality within society can ultimately erode the foundations of society and Vico theorized that this would usher in a final “age of chaos,” leading to widespread fear and instability and a return to the beginning of the cycle.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

I very much doubt that Vico’s conception of history is rigidly true in a literal sense. Nevertheless, much can be learned from his philosophy. For one, his ideas about history caused him to view institutions as the fundamental determinant of success. Each age and culture has unique needs and the success of that culture depends on how well the institutions that have been built to mediate those needs function. Substantial research today validates this aspect of Vico’s thinking – the success of every country and society on earth today is intimately linked to how well the institutions of that society function.

Among the vital institutions common to countries that have achieved affluence and success in meeting the needs of their population are democratic institutions. These institutions include the modern concept of universal suffrage in addition to vital institutions that include a constitution, limits to military power, and curbs to corruption.

Fueled by dissatisfaction with the status quo, voters in many countries have turned their backs in recent elections on what most “experts” would have told them was in their best interests. In May of 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines on a platform of extrajudicial killings for drug traffickers and political enemies, misogyny, and an independent path from The United States. Duterte garnered 39% of the vote compared to 23% for his nearest rival. Then in June of 2016, the United Kingdom voted for what many considered unthinkable – an exit from the European Union on the strength of working class English voters who had grown frustrated with immigration and regulatory regimes they felt were being imposed upon the UK. The vote was a close one, with “leave” receiving 52% of the vote. Colombia followed these votes by turning down a peace accord in October by the thinnest of margins (50.2% to 49.8%) that had been endorsed by its president and nearly every international entity that commented on the plebiscite. Finally, the United States turned populist in November by electing Donald Trump President of the United States.

These decisions by the voters of four very different nations have two important things in common. First, voters expressed a dissatisfaction with the status quo and with those who had been powerful political forces and secondly, in my personal view, in each case the voters of those four nations voted against their self-interest. In three of those cases, however, it appears that voters will have to accept the long term consequences of their democratic decisions. Duterte is currently President of the Philippines. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and his successor Theresa May appears to be moving slowly towards a negotiated exit. And despite the occasional murmur from some about options within the Electoral College, there is little doubt that come January Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

Whether voters behaved intelligently in these elections, the voters will get to experience the benefits or tragedies of their choices. That is how democratic systems are supposed to function. Despite the potential dangers in honoring the election results in these countries, a far greater danger lurks in abandoning long-held notions of democracy.

By contrast, it appears that the peace deal between the Republic of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be implemented in a modified form after only needing approval from the Colombian Congress. To be clear, I am in favor of the peace process in Colombia and wrote about the reasons why Colombians should vote in favor of peace in the October plebiscite. Colombians however did not vote in favor of that peace process.

The new agreement does seem to address concerns expressed in the lead-up to that vote which includes provisions that will make it harder for FARC members to be successful politically and more protections for rural landowners. If, however, the new agreement genuinely does address the concerns of those who voted down the previous agreement why not let those people vote once more?

Even if the implementation of the modified peace agreement is a positive moment in Colombia’s history, the process by which it will be implemented threatens the long term viability of democratic institutions there. This is worrisome. It is worth noting the dearth of participation in the plebiscite itself. According to The New York Times, 19% of Colombia’s electorate supported the peace process and 19% opposed it. Meanwhile, 60% of the electorate did not even bother to vote. Based on subsequent events, why should they have? We live in a time where apathy is fueled by a feeling of helplessness. A time where people feel as though the votes they cast make no difference at all.

Countries which are neighbors of Colombia have seen a serious erosion in the democratic institutions in recent years that they had tenuously developed. Venezuela has all but abandoned democracy following the late-1990s “Bolivarian Revolution” that resulted from a disdain of the political class and resulted in a Constitution that, among other things, forbids the impeachment of the President. Brazil’s democracy is being seriously tested by widespread institutional failures that have fostered rampant corruption. Mexico has yet to fully gain the upper-hand on the drug cartels ravaging parts of that country. And drug and gang-related violence continues to plague Central America.

Each year Freedom House publishes a ranking of each country in the world on the basis of political freedoms and civil liberties. The chart below shows the aggregate scores received of some selected Latin American Countries as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States as reference points in both 2016 and 2006.

The first number reflects the 2016 score and the second the 2006 score for each country.

Freedom House aggregate score rankings are for selected countries in 2016 and 2006. A score of 100 would imply complete freedom and a score of 0 would imply no freedom.

Freedom House aggregate score rankings are for selected countries in 2016 and 2006. A score of 100 would imply complete freedom and a score of 0 would imply no freedom.

Of the eleven Latin American Countries displayed, eight suffered declines during this decade and Colombia was one of only two Countries to show marginal gains. All Latin American Countries, save Chile, still fare measurably below the freest Countries in the world.

Democracy may not be in immediate danger in Colombia, but that should not encourage complacency. Human nature and the history of the region inform us that if the institutions of democracy are not nourished they can easily collapse. This is particularly true when individuals and groups feel that participating in democracy does not result in the people’s will being carried out.

No would have predicted the political year of 2016 that is concluding and no one can predict how the next year and subsequent years will take form. But, overriding the will of voters in Colombia engenders the realization of a sobering reality: if this situation is replayed all too often – essentially a movement to push the country backwards into the “heroic age” of an aristocratic class, and possibly into an “age of chaos.”

3 Responses to "The Consequences of Democracy"

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    • Ben Comston   February 22, 2017 at 5:11 am

      Thank you very much. I hope you still do.

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