Thursday, December 21, 2006


Partial Democracy

There seems to be an uncertainty principle that governs the extent to which a supposedly democratic regime is truly democratic. In one extreme, decisions are made by the entire body of citizens, voting either in mass meetings or on initiatives and referenda. Such a system is slow and cumbersome. In addition, decisions made in this way are often not wise or carefully thought out, but represent sudden impulses of the public in reaction to some rather spectacular news event or condition. California provides many examples of propositions passed by large majorities that were later found to be poorly written or to put in place bad policies.

In another extreme, decisions are made by individuals and groups chosen indirectly. The American Presidency is a good example. The people elect "wise" electors who then use their wisdom to choose a President who serves for four years. At least, that's what the founding fathers thought they were creating. Even with Presidential Primary elections and nominating conventions, the process of electing a President is indirect. Once elected and inaugurated, the President is given the power to make decisions with very little accountability except that he (or she, in some countries) must obtain the authority of the elected legislature to spend any money to carry out his decisions.

The problem with a Presidential system, such as the one we have here in the United States, or with a Parliamentary system, such as the one in place in many other countries, is the power that is granted to the leader (President or Prime Minister) to make decisions without regard to public support of those decisions. Of course, in a Parliamentary system, lack of public support often leads to lack of support in the Parliament, and an unpopular or incompetent Prime Minister can be easily removed from office. In the case of an unpopular or incompetent President, it may be necessary to put up with him until the end of his term of office. In some countries, however, for example, Ecuador, an unpopular or corrupt or incompetent President can be removed from office by public mass demonstrations against him.

In this respect, I believe that Ecuador is closer to the democratic ideal than the United States.

The object of having a President with power is the expectation that the incumbent will use the powers of the office to promote and carry out policies and programs that benefit the nation. The President's decisions should be based on good and wise counsel given by advisors and elected officials. They should not be based on his whim or his ideological belief in the way things should be, as opposed to the way they are.

The American Presidency was modeled after the British government at the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The monarch could declare and wage war. The monarch could seize private property, as Henry did with much of the property of the Roman Catholic Church. Monarchs like Henry and Elizabeth knew that it was necessary to maintain public support. Unpopular monarchs had been removed by revolutions and by assassinations.

A fabulous example in history of a bull-headed monarch is provided by one of the Saxon kings: Ethelred the Unready. The word "unready" in Old English meant "unadvised," that is, "bull-headed" or "rash." Ethelred was eventually deposed.

We have today an example of an "unready" or "unadvised" monarch (i.e., President). Perhaps the word "ill-advised" fits better. He has led this nation into a horrible situation in Iraq from which there is no good way out. We're like Bre'r Rabbit in the story of the Tar Baby. However, there's no hungry but easily duped Bre'r Fox standing by to separate us from the sticky mess and throw us into the safety of the briar patch.

To get back to my original point, a President or King or Prime Minister who makes decisions without regard to their popularity or their long-range effect on the people is not acting to promote democracy. The American People want our country to escape from the quagmire of Iraq, but George the Unready plans only to become even more involved in that country.

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