For Winston Churchill, democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that had been tried before. Another quote, falsely attributed to him, sums up why this may be so: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
To put it more kindly, democracy – which originates from the Greek meaning “rule of the people” – is only human. The majority of the people are not always right. They make mistakes. They have even elected despots, sometimes with disastrous consequences for global peace and progress.
Autocrats win power by exploiting democracy’s inherent human weakness – the biases, blindness, gullibility and self-interest of a proportion of the electorate. And then they exploit the weaknesses of its structures – the inadequacy of checks and controls – to usurp that power.
There is no greater demonstration of the flaws and strengths of democracy than the United States right now. In electing Donald Trump, it has become more evident than ever, by his adamant refusal to concede to Joe Biden, that the good people of the US made a mistake.
In 2016, they chose someone who has proved himself an incompetent, deluded narcissist as their president. In 2020, they corrected their mistake and picked a man of vast experience, proven competence and strong character.
But a titanic battle is underway. Trump and his sycophants have laid siege to the democratic edifice that has served the country so well for so long. They are trying to pull down its pillars: the will of the people; the separation between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; the dispersion of power among the states; and the independence of institutions.
Trump has derived his power from both the human and structural weaknesses of democracy. Now he is trying to destroy its strengths.
It looks likely that Biden will prevail. The assault is being beaten back, as seen by the courts’ decisions to reject challenge upon challenge to the election results. But it is imperative that lessons be learned from this US nightmare, not just by America but by the rest of the democratic world. This is a wake-up call to bolster our defences against the mediocre leaders and abusers of authority of the future.
The most important question is, how do we prevent them from being elected in the first place?
Perhaps there will one day be recognised a need for special colleges for aspiring politicians, from where they would graduate in the art and science of governance, the values of democracy and virtues of service. After all, almost everyone else in responsible positions of public service – from teachers to managers – are trained for their responsibilities. Why not legislators, cabinet members and presidents?
Should aspiring leaders also pass a psychological test of mental stability? This has been mooted in all seriousness in the US and justifiably so, given Trump’s dangerously unsound mind.
How is the electorate to become better educated to reward candidates who embody the best qualities of democratic leadership rather than the worst? Should political education start in schools?
And how is separation of powers to be strengthened and the integrity and independence of the people who act as checks on power guaranteed?
What is happening in the US could happen anywhere. Luckily for us in Europe, supranational institutions in the EU and Council of Europe seem increasingly influential in ensuring democratic norms and laws are adhered to by individual governments.
The US has opened the world’s eyes to both the robustness and fragility of democracy. It is still the best form of government. It just needs to get better.