TDG Banner

Chapter 2: Limitations of Democracy

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Winston Churchill

This rather famous quote holds a paradox of the western democratic model of governance. On one hand, the quote readily admits the system has inherent flaws. Yet on the other hand, it suggests that western democracy cannot be changed. And this leads to another paradox: why is it, then, we remain content with a system with so many flaws?

In this chapter, I will be discussing the flaws. In doing so, many readers will assume that I am very critical about western democracy. I should make it clear that I consider myself being very blessed to have been born and raised in Canada in the last half of the 20th century. When I compare the opportunities I have had to the opportunities I could have had if I had been born in other times or places, it’s not hard for me to imagine that I would not have acquired the education, experience, opportunity, and freedom to write a book such as this. In essence, my abilities are due, in a large part, to western democracy being able to unlock my human potential.

The reader could also conclude that I am also against “politicians” in general. On the contrary, I feel that many of these people have a difficult and thankless job to do and are not paid enough for the sacrifices they make to serve in public office. Politicians—and the volunteers that work for the political parties—are an important part of the democratic process. Without elected politicians as our decision makers, I believe the alternative of living in a dictatorship or anarchy would have not been conducive to writing a book like this. I also believe that many of our current politicians, with their high commitment of public service, will still find their way into the replacement system of governance I will be suggesting in the next chapter.

The Limitations

To begin discussion, this chapter lists many of the limitations of democracy. Many readers will find nothing new here for the limitations are easily understood. But perhaps reading this list will be the first time many readers will see all these limitations in one place.

Limitation #1: Political Parties Create a Very Exclusive Club

By law, anyone in the western world can belong to a political party of his or her choosing. In theory, any party member can eventually become an elected politician. In practical terms, the opportunity is limited. Aside from the formal processes of joining and rising in a political party, numerous informal features prevent many people from participating in politics.

Political parties are not bastions of like-minded individuals striving for a common goal. Within these organizations, there is often jealousy, pettiness, gossiping, backbiting, power struggles, subversion, opportunism, jostling for position, and ambition. To succeed in the political party arena, an individual has to immerse him- or herself in this atmosphere. For many people wanting to offer their time to make the world a better place, the atmosphere in a political party is a significant barrier to participation.

Another barrier is the moral compromises required for most political careers. Morality and principles are often sacrificed to gain the primary objectives of portraying party unity and winning elections. More is discussed about this later, but for many people, these compromises are simply too much to take, and they stay away from the political process.

The balance between risk and reward in political life is unacceptable for many people. Being seriously involved in politics is a time-consuming activity, usually at the expense of family, career, and recreation. Despite the vast amount of effort an aspiring politician must give to become elected, the failure rate is high. Surviving the party politics, winning the internal party election, and finally winning the general election usually mean that only about one of the ten or so people who runs for public office actually gains the privilege of governance—and many of these winners only survive one term in office without affecting the world too much. The other nine who made the attempt get absolutely nothing—after making a serious life investment! For many citizens, the likelihood of not being successful in the political arena is high enough to keep them out of the process.

So what does western democracy actually do to attract qualified and capable people into the profession of governance? If anything, it discourages them! And society is bereft of having many competent people participate in its decision-making processes. This job is left to those who are willing to pay the initiation price: the hassles of politics.

And this price creates a very exclusive club.

Limitation #2: Political Parties Are Not Think-Tanks!

Political parties would like the citizenry to believe their prime function is to listen to the people and develop policies for the benefit of the population at large. To do this, the “grassroots” of the party are supposedly spending great amounts of volunteer time hashing out, debating, and formulating policy and then bringing this policy to the leadership of the party. The leadership then, supposedly, adopts this policy as its platform or perhaps provides further insight for more policy development from the grassroots.

Nothing is further from the truth! Nearly all of the party volunteers are spending most of their time towards electioneering purposes, not policy development. Although the leadership of any party must create a platform that will attract workers and donors for the election campaign, these party supporters really have not had much say about these policies. The only real policy development the average party worker can do is to support the party more or less as the leadership presents it. Therefore much of the knowledge, experience, and wisdom that these volunteers can bring to the party are never used.

Limitation #3: The Political Process Is Not a Screening Process

Political parties would like the citizenry to believe elections within the party structure (the nomination process) have a very significant role in our democracy. In these internal elections, two or more party members offer themselves as candidates for the privilege of representing the party in the general election and engage in a democratic battle to gain this right. With this process, the party supposedly sorts the better qualified people from the less qualified.

As discussed earlier, political parties actually discourage many qualified people from attaining positions of governance. Much talent is actually being wasted by society in favor of those citizens who seem to have the time, money, and ambition for politics. Even if the party has a pool of good people to select from, they are still missing most of the available talent from society’s rank and file. 

The internal party elections are rarely tests of ethics, morality, competence, and problem-solving skills necessary for good governance. To win the internal election, candidates concentrate their efforts on creating a feel-good atmosphere that will encourage other party members to vote for them. Nice-looking pamphlets and banners, handshakes, inspiring speeches, and button-wearing, noise-making supporters are the normal methods to sway votes. Candidates not playing this game simply do not win any party favor.

The internal party election mostly demonstrates the candidates with the better electioneering skills. The successful candidate is likely to have good electioneering skills for the general election. While good electioneering is a very specialized skill set, it has little to with good governance.

Individual party members appear to have a great responsibility in our western democratic system. They are the citizens who have the opportunity to really know the candidates and to select the best one. If they are doing their job properly, then, ideally, all parties should be sending extremely qualified people to represent the party in the general election—and weeding out the individuals who are either incompetent or likely to engage in corrupt activities.

But do the party members really know their candidates? Do they know if a candidate has an addiction problem? Or a family problem? Or is he a tax evader? Is the candidate a bridge-builder capable of bringing people together to solve problems? Can the candidate see above and beyond the clouds of confusion? Can the candidate process information and data? Is the candidate a listener who uses consultation skills to see innovative solutions to problems? Or is the candidate extremely opinionated? Does the candidate have a long list of favors to pay off? What history does the candidate have that suggests he or she will not abuse the position of elected office? Can the candidate bring trust and respect to the position of an elected office?

To answer these questions, party members would have to live or work with each of the candidates on a regular basis. There is no other honest way to select candidates based on good character and competence for governance. Within the party structure, most voting party members do not have the opportunity to really get to know all—or even one—of the candidates. Instead, they rely on speeches, handshakes, and other electioneering techniques to make their decisions. In essence, they’re almost as blind as the general citizenry about the true capacity of the aspiring candidates. 

Internal party elections are no screening process for character and competence.

Limitation #4: Political Parties Are Mostly Marketing Machines

When we listen to interviews of today’s political pundits, we will hear many of the same words often used by professional marketers: “positioning, segmenting, differentiating, branding, focus group testing, etc.” It’s not hard to see that a significant amount of what political parties do is marketing: i.e., the selling of their wares, whether those wares be a political ideology, some interesting ideas, or a personality. Without marketing, a political party has no chance of achieving its objective: winning an election.

To many readers, such marketing is a normal part of democracy. In fact, it helps us become better informed voters so that we can make better choices.

However, I do not see much correlation between good marketing and good governance. Both of these are indeed specialized skill sets, but just because one is good at one skill does not mean one is good at the other. I liken these two skills to driving a car and driving an 18-wheel truck. We can say that a licensed car driver already knows the rules of the road and can readily apply this knowledge to driving a big truck. But obviously this knowledge is not enough: this car driver should get some training and his truck license before being allowed to operate a big truck. Likewise, a politician who looks good in the media and can create excellent headlines and 15-second clips is not necessarily going to be good at governance.

The political party is, in essence, a vehicle for an aspiring politician to become marketable to the public. The marketing package that comes with a political party is so strong that an inferior candidate with full party support almost always beats a more competent person campaigning as an independent. In the political world,the marketing is more important than the content.

Limitation #5: Simplistic Explanation of the Problem and Solution

When goods or services are marketed to the masses, a good marketer will not put too much detail in its marketing message. For example, a shampoo manufacturer will not entice buyers by emphasizing its chemical composition, but instead focus on how attractive you will be if you use this shampoo. A car manufacturer will try to sell you on year-to-year reliability of its cars, not the engineering decisions made to create that reliability. Beer companies are famous for creating an illusion that a certain lifestyle will happen if you drink their beer; the taste of the beer—or even the food safety processes taken to make this beer—are unimportant in these commercials.

To market themselves, political parties have to take complicated issues and present them in such a way that they are attractive to the mass media and comprehensible to much of the citizenry. The result is to simplify almost every issue almost to the point where it no longer represents the truth. And it is from these simplifications where we average citizens formulate our opinions, which, directly or indirectly, affect who gets elected and later makes decisions in government.

Many political scientists seem to believe that simplifying complicated issues is a normal part of democracy. In this context, politicians who are good at this task have more right to be in government than those who are not.

But below I have summarized how the various complicated issues facing us are often simplified in the political process. I think most readers can categorize many statements made by elected public officials into these simplifications:

  • Political Correctness: “Anyone who is for / against this particular solution is either incompetent or uncompassionate.”
  • Ultimate Consequence: “This decision will prevent / facilitate our civilization’s descent into anarchy.”
  • Hasty Action is Good Action: “If we are seen to be doing something, then whatever we are doing must be right.”
  • Delayed Action: “We need more study to make the right decision (but we hope the issue goes away).”
  • Ultimate altruism: “Damn the cost! If we can save one life, then it is worth doing!”
  • Avoiding Responsibility & Casting Blame: “We have done nothing to create this injustice. It’s the other party’s fault.”
  • World with No Risk: “The public is going to be 100% safe after we make these changes.”
  • Limited Alternatives: “There are only two choices: the right way and the wrong way.”
  • The Red Herring: “Let’s focus on a smaller problem, so we don’t have to discuss the big problem.” 

A common byproduct of simplifying the issue is when politicians make promises they do not keep after they are elected to office. It’s easy to make such promises when in opposition, but once in power, they start seeing all the angles to the complicated issue for the first time. They realize their simple solution cannot work, so it is not implemented. Perhaps worse is when they still implement their simple solution to keep their campaign promise.

I’m not saying that simplistic explanations have no place in public decision making for they do provide the vision to move society in positive directions. The danger lies when the simplistic explanation casts aside other crucial angles to finding better solutions. For example, consider constructing an improvement for a particular highway. We can claim there will be fewer accidents with this improvement, and it could happen to be politically correct to move this project forward. But when we invest resources in this improvement, we could be diverting resources away from other opportunities to lower risk elsewhere. We may even increase overall societal risk—even if our highway is a bit safer.

What we need is a more thoughtful process when trying to predict the outcome of our collective decisions. How will our decision affect other aspects of society? What could be the possible ramifications of our decision? How do we monitor the progress of our decision? When the decision is reduced to satisfying the simplistic explanation, then it’s not hard to see why some public decisions are poorly crafted.

So when we judge our political parties and politicians on their abilities to create simplistic explanations, they are being influenced by the need to make simple explanations to stay elected. But we fall short of our potential to resolve the various complicated issues that face us.

Limitation #6: Elected Officials Spend Too Much Time on Politics, Not on Governance

I am going to give these two words different definitions even though many readers would argue that “politics” and “governance” are actually the same things.

Politics, in this book, involves preparing for and working on elections, getting the media’s attention, meeting with members of the same political party to gain their confidence (and their volunteer time and money), attending or speaking at fund-raising activities for the party, making alliances, engaging in social activities that are meant to increase influence, working out spins on issues, resolving power plays within the party, wrestling with the rules of procedures to gain advantage, interpreting poll results, attending to the needs of the volunteers and donors for the next election, anticipating the actions of political enemies, etc.

Governance, on the other hand, involves consulting citizens from the different sides of the issues, consulting with the experts, working on committees that deal with these issues, and making, communicating, and implementing the decisions that must be made for a society to manage itself well.

Using these definitions, politics and governance can sometimes cross paths. Take, for example, a public meeting over a controversial issue. The politician may be holding this meeting to get the citizens’ opinions and feelings so that he or she can convey this information back to the government before the decision is made. This is in the realm of governance. On the other hand, the politician may be holding this meeting knowing full well the decision has already been made: the meeting is only held to give the appearance of consultation or to gauge how much a contrary decision is going to hurt the party in the next election. This meeting would be under the umbrella of politics. Most public meetings probably have an element of both governance and politics.

It would be interesting to follow some politicians for a few months to determine how they divide their time between politics and governance. But to give them credit, let’s assume that they spend 30% of their time on politics and 70% on governance. This 30% assumption still means a politician dedicates a lot of his or her time to retain or enhance his or her position of influence in the decision-making realm. As far as actually solving the world’s problems, this time is wasted time.

A more discrediting implication is that when average citizens see their politicians doing so much politicking, they tend to believe that too many decisions by government are based on politics, not good governance. Hence, even when good governance overrides political influences, this governance is seen with the same suspicion, doubt, and cynicism as fostered by politics. Therefore, the likelihood of full implementation and success of the decision is lower than a decision surrounded by contention and controversy.

Ironically, when it comes to election time, we voters base most of our decision on how well the politicians and parties do their politics. As for good governance, it is next to impossible to determine how well they perform because most of us will never see how our politicians behave in decision-making processes. We should not be too surprised when we elect “political” leaders more concerned about their position, power, and place in history rather than “governance” leaders who have great capacity to solve problems afflicting our societies.

Limitation #7: Voters are Poor Judges

I have already alluded to several reasons why—when we voters are called to vote—we cannot make a wise choice. We gain our perception from a sensationalist media or the marketing message of the various political parties, which depends a lot on their campaign budget. We know so little about the characters of the actual people we are asked to vote for.  One aspiring politician once told me that running for public office was the longest job interview he ever had. But the truth was that even after this lengthy interview process, all his “potential bosses” knew about him was that he spoke the party line really well—and he looked good in a suit.

A second aspect of our poor judgment is based on the short duration politicians spend in public office, usually less than a decade. A common political axiom is that if our country seems to be well run, the governing political party should be voted back in. However, the credit may be more due to that party’s predecessors making some wise decisions a decade or two earlier. So the governing party is actually getting a free ride on the good work of previous governments. Conversely, a governing party that seems to be in a crisis actually may be unraveling some poor decisions of its predecessors. It could be voted out of office next term despite setting up a good foundation for the next government. Because credit is freely taken and blame is freely given, it is hard for the average voter to really know who is responsible for the wise and unwise decisions made by past and current governments.

So it seems folly that we can wisely judge a political party by its past performance. If we cannot judge wisely, then how can we put the more capable people into positions of public decision-making?

Lastly,committee work is the most important activity average politicians do (in my opinion). This is where the fine details of legislation are put together. Yet we average voters rarely see how our politicians perform in this arena. Who has the wisdom? Who has interesting ideas? Who can see different alternatives? Who is a consensus builder? Who can envision ramifications? Who can see the connections between other aspects of governance? Or who dominates the meetings and gives little consideration to other points of view? Or who sees his or her committee work mostly as a stepping stone towards a higher political office?  When called to answer these kinds of questions, the election campaign fails to tell us which politicians are better at committee work than others.

We voters in western democracies really are not that wise when determining who should or should not be in public office.   

Limitation #8: Political Parties Do Not Plan Well for the Future

Political parties are mostly motivated by the timing of the next election, not the effects of their decision even one generation from now. Their passport to power, or perhaps survival, depends on how they view their legislative, executive, and media actions in the light of the next election. If a particular action seems likely to enhance the electoral success of a political party, the party will take that action. If the action is a hindrance, the party will avoid it. Whether that action is for the betterment of society in the future is irrelevant to the needs of the political party today.

The short-term effects often set the pace; long-term effects are for the next generation of politicians to deal with. Unfortunately, many of society’s ills require solutions that will take a generation or two to see positive results. If the solutions to these problems cannot provide any benefits to the parties by the next election, it is very unlikely that parties will make them part of their platform.

To be fair to the western democratic model, it has made decisions for its citizens that had short-term pain for long-term gain. Public education for children of all economic backgrounds, abolishment of racial segregation, and environmental laws forcing industries to emit less pollution are all good examples of a society making the right long-term choices. But these changes were not initiated by elected politicians themselves, but by ordinary people educating other people and then organizing themselves to exert pressure on these politicians to make such changes. In essence, the people “led” the nation, not the politicians.

To some political pundits, this kind of democracy may be good and normal. Unlike other forms of governance “that have been tried from time to time,” citizens in western democracies can organize themselves to make changes for the betterment of their society.

But making changes in this way often takes decades to effect and requires an immense amount of resources from the citizenry itself. Would it not be better for governments to do the right thing at the right time—instead of waiting for a certain amount of public pressure to coerce it?

Limitation #9: Political Parties are Beholden to Those Who Feed the Marketing Machine

Political parties, as mentioned earlier, are in the business of marketing themselves to have the right to govern. And to do their marketing, they have to spend resources, mostly in donations and volunteer time.

Most volunteers in political parties start contributing their time for altruistic reasons. They sincerely believe that the party or politician they are supporting is the best for the society, and they realize that if they want to get their preference elected, they must participate more than just by voting once every few years. They choose to play a bigger part in the democratic process by becoming active in a political party.

Many volunteer workers for political parties have only a small investment in the political process. They may just show up for election day to be guided by party organizers to perform the rather mundane tasks to "get out the vote.” Or they may spend a few days on the election campaign itself, putting up signs, canvassing homes, attending rallies, or preparing voter lists. After election day, they consider their beyond-the-call-of-democratic-duty to be over and go back to being ordinary citizens. They have no intention of getting something special from the system.

Other volunteer workers put a lot more into the political process. They may put in extensive hours in the campaign to see their preference elected, and they may sit on party boards and committees between elections to keep the election machine at a state of readiness for the next election. There is very little compensation for this type of work even though the worker sacrifices time that could have been spent on family, work, community, and recreation. 

Many of these long-term volunteers start to lose their feeling of altruism. They gain a sense that they have been “saving the country” from the other politicians and parties who are corrupt, incompetent, or of the wrong ideology while nonpartisan citizens pursue more enjoyable activities than the often-times rough-and-tumble life of a party insider. So when an opportunity that is not there for ordinary citizens appears, the political volunteer feels justified in taking it.

Some of these opportunities are quite acceptable. Being on a first-name basis with an elected politician and being invited to social gatherings with elected politicians are enough reward for some volunteers. Sitting as “average citizens” on certain government committees in hopes that they can be influential in public policy is attractive to other volunteers. Getting a paying job within the party apparatus that can lead to more contacts and career opportunities are also quite harmless.

But sometimes these opportunities are not so harmless. Getting a government job that could be filled by more qualified people outside the party or getting a business contract based on political connections rather than providing the best bid undermines the credibility of government in the eyes of the nonpartisan citizen.

While these latter actions can be easily defined as corrupt activities that bring discredit to what democracy stands for, the politicians themselves are powerless to prevent these actions from happening. If they do not give out special favors—and are not seen to be giving out favors—they will lose very capable and experienced loyal party workers for the next election. Without these crucial workers, their chances for electoral success are lower. In the world of politics, the “profits” of occasionally giving special favors to loyal workers outweigh the “losses” created by any possible bad publicity caused by this corrupt activity. All political parties have to play this game to some extent or they do not become elected.

Similarly, donating money also has altruistic and not-so-altruistic intentions. Donors of small amounts are usually satisfied with seeing their money going towards a politician or party that shows competence and vision; these donors ask for nothing else. As the donations become larger, the altruism starts to disappear. Being part of a politician’s social circle or having some prestige within the party establishment provide motivation for some donors. Some individual donors will contribute a lot to the cause in hopes of gaining a favor in the future. The larger the donation, the more likely the politician will recognize that donor.

I know of one corporation that paid $30,000 to a political party and received $150,000 in job creation grants two years later. The corporation really did not create any new jobs; these “new jobs” were part of the natural attrition of a 200-employee firm. But this government program was an excellent vehicle for a political party to reward large donors for financing their election campaign. Similar to treating loyal volunteers, politicians need to be seen—discretely—giving taxpayers’ money to large donors. Otherwise, major sources of funding dry up; meaning the party has fewer resources to outmarket its opponents, which reduces its chances of winning the next election.

Unlike volunteers, however, corporations and wealthy people can play more than one party at the same time. Often they give similar donations to two or more parties to cover their bases regardless which party gets elected. The firm I mentioned in the previous paragraph could have also donated a second $30,000 to another party and still made an excellent return on its investment regardless of which party won the election. For the politicians and their parties, they really have to cater to the corporations for funds. Otherwise, their competition gets the edge financially—and if so, quite often electorally. Voters, for whatever reason, do not appreciate a politician or party that is unable to put together a well-financed marketing machine.

To minimize the influence big money* has with political parties, many democratic nations have experimented with various election finance reforms. And in each experiment, big money still finds a way to maintain its influence.

The well-meaning advocates of such reforms fail to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between political parties and their big donors. The parties cannot envision themselves existing in the political process without lots of campaign money. Hence a party will only pass election finance laws when itsees an advantage over its competition. This is not good motivation for campaign finance reform.

In other words, it is not possible to significantly reduce the influence big money has on government if we insist on keeping the western democratic model.    

* It is quite common thinking that big money always gets its way with preferential legislation in western democracy—I should make it clear that I am not one of these thinkers. In fact, I believe that big money loses many more battles than it wins in the legislative process in most western democracies. However, it does win some battles. It can also delay unfriendly legislation for a few years or water it down. It can gain access to decision makers more quickly and cut through the red tape. Despite only getting a fraction of what it desires, big money still earns a reasonable profit on its investments into political parties.

Limitation #10: Political Parties Are Incapable of Dealing with Internal Corruption

Honest, competent people do make it into positions of governance. They have worked their way up the ranks of party politics keeping most of their original ethical principles intact. They stay away from corrupt activities and within election laws. They treat all politicians with respect. They do the best job of which they are capable within the confines of the arena they are working in. But sooner or later they encounter a party colleague involved in very obvious corruption—long before the media or opposition politicians ever hear of it. And they are forced to make a decision to either bring this person to some form of justice or let him or her continue with unethical activity.

So what are the implications of honest politicians who bring their errant colleagues to justice?

First, the very process of bringing a party colleague to some kind of internal party trial will probably attract attention the party does not want. The opposition will tout this one act of corruption as the tip of the iceberg. The media will milk this controversial situation as long as the public remains interested. The public will probably unfairly judge the party as being rife with corruption and will not see the step of the party disciplining its corrupt member as being good governance.

Second, an open case of corruption often slows down the process of governance. Attention is directed away from much-needed legislation and other areas of governance. The focus will be on the corrupt party individual, and the government cannot easily move until this issue is resolved or goes away.

Third, many cases of corruption never make it to the attention of the public despite unethical activities being carried on for years. Therefore, the possibility of negative publicity is actually quite low if the party chooses not to invoke self-discipline measures. Even if the corruption does gain the public’s attention, most political parties know they can ride out one or two scandals and not suffer for it at the next election.

Fourth, political parties are quite forgiving of those who have proven they can win elections. Amassing funds and volunteers, motivating those volunteers, and winning the election are the three most important attributes a political party values in its politicians. Everything else—including honesty and competence—is of secondary importance.

Though honest politicians can account for their own actions and decisions while serving in politics, they have almost no ability to provide justice to the society they govern when their political colleagues do not operate under similar moral and ethical principles. As long as our society wants to be governed by political parties, this relationship between honest politicians and their dishonest colleagues will not improve.

Limitation #11: The Adversarial Nature of Politics

Many well-meaning, qualified individuals, who have become very successful in their own fields of endeavor, have offered themselves into the political arena, believing that they have garnered experiences and wisdom that can benefit society. They view a political career as a service to their society, and putting themselves into a position of governance for these reasons is indeed a noble act. Many of these individuals would be an asset for the process of good governance.

So they choose a party that best matches their political inclinations. They work their way up the political party, win the party election, win the general election, and they are now in a position to do some good for the world.

Let’s use a typical suburban family as an analogy to the politician first gaining office. On Friday night, Dad announces to the family that he will mow the lawn Saturday morning. The rest of the family, for whatever reasons, is aghast with this idea and conspire to do whatever it takes to stop Dad from tomorrow’s planned task. In the middle of the night, Son #1 sneaks off to the garage and puts a little water in the lawnmower’s gas tank. Son #2 unloosens the wheels of the lawnmower so they are almost coming off. In the morning, Son #3 dumps all his toys on the lawn and refuses to pick them up. Then Teenage Daughter picks her father’s pet peeve and purposely engages him into an argument. The wife then turns the sprinklers on the lawn: “I thought you wanted to water—not mow—the lawn.” With all this going on, what are the chances that Dad will get his task done?

This analogy may seem a bit facetious, but this same atmosphere is part of the job of being a politician. Regardless of how hard-working, honest, and competent the individual is, that individual has immersed him- or herself into a shark tank, with many people who want to see him or her fail. Opposition politicians look for any weakness that can be exploited; the media look for anything that makes a good story. Bureaucrats, activists, and lobbyists who are not in favor of a politician’s stands on select issues will do whatever it takes to minimize that politician’s impact while in government. The politician also has to contend with politicians of the same party who are jockeying for a position of higher influence within the party itself. In the world of partisan politics, a politician has many more enemies than friends. 

Unfortunately, the political processes within governing political parties have room for only a handful of influential politicians. This sets up a contest within the governing party itself to determine which of its many members actually belong to the influential group. If an elected politician or a backroom organizer from the governing party really wants to be influential, he or she must be prepared to do a lot of politicking—to the disadvantage of other politicians in the same party—to gain this position. Building and breaking alliances within the party, assuming greater responsibility for party functions not directly related to governance, poking fun at and chastising opposition politicians, and keeping corrupt party activities silent all become part of the game to become influential. If we insist on being governed by political parties, these unofficial rules for how to be influential in a party will always hold.

The media also have a hand in making life difficult for politicians. The politician has little room for error in how to present a position to the media. If a mistake is made, the media are quite willing to portray the politician in a negative light.

The adversarial nature and partisanship do not contribute to the process of good governance. With constant sniping at each other over who has the best ideas, each political party has assumed that the other parties have absolutely nothing positive to contribute towards solving society’s problems.

With this kind of self-righteous thinking, it’s not surprising that our legislators cannot see many of the angles surrounding various societal issues. Instead, they mimic children in a playground bickering about the rules of a simple game. If the western democratic model is to be the example for its citizens of how to reach collective decisions in other aspects of society, it is a very faulty example.

Many politicians become disillusioned with the process. Many of them give up; others resign themselves to the limitations of western democracy and try their best to work within it. Whatever the cause, most of these well-intentioned individuals are not contributing their full potential to society. Society has underutilized a valuable resource.

Limitation #12: Inability to Positively Shape Society

I think many readers will agree that any society that moves away from the various vices (alcohol, drugs, gambling, promiscuity, etc.) will be a more prosperous and socially cohesive society—if its citizens willingly accept these kinds of change in values without being forced by law. Other positive changes in value systems could be to move values away from resource-consuming recreational activities towards more environmentally friendly pastimes, lawfully paying one’s taxes, and putting some spare time into volunteering. It would be great if politicians could lead the way in these kinds of changes. But in western democracy, they can’t—for several reasons!

First off, they fear voter retribution if they push a moral agenda a little too far. Citizens who hold certain dysfunctional or unproductive values don’t like being told what they are doing is wrong. They would have more incentive to cast their vote towards another political party. A small minority of such citizens (perhaps 10% of the total population) can affect the electoral outcome against a party who seems to be pushing a more moral agenda.So any political party who wants to steer the citizenry into more positive values is probably not going to win elections. In other words, the political party cannot be that influential in getting citizens to become more moral or ethical.

Second, more than a few elected politicians engage in the immoral behavior themselves. With their position and attitude, they will stall the process to move the general citizens towards more positive values. And when these politicians are caught in the act, the value systems of many citizens are indirectly affected by a high profile person behaving in such a way. Some citizens can now better justify their dysfunctional or unproductive actions; others start to see these kinds of values as being normal. The final result is that some citizens have shifted their values in a negative way, which then affects the citizens around them now and a generation from now.

Third, politicians in general are not held in high regard by the citizenry. So when a certain politician speaks or works for a certain moral standard, citizens whose attitudes could be influenced by such a public person do not pay attention because of the lack of credibility.

If we are looking for our political leaders to lead western democracies towards greater morals and virtues, we should realize that only forces outside the political process can make this change happen.  Then, perhaps, we will be rather consistent in electing politicians of upstanding character. In other words, society in general must first develop its morality, then it will be able to find political leaders guided by moral principles.

But politicians within western democracy cannot lead the way. If they push a moral agenda too far, they would not be reelected.

Transcending the Limitations

I started putting my ideas to pen in 1997. In 2000, I self-published the first version of the TDG. Despite doing many of the right things aspiring authors need to do to get noticed, the first version went nowhere. I realized that I could go bankrupt trying to promote this idea, and I wasn’t ready to take the TDG this far. I had almost given up on bringing my invention of Tiered Democratic Governance into public discourse.

But in 2008, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio had several interviews with recognized experts about “improving democracy.” Each time I listened to these experts, I could only conclude that these people had no imagination and my ideas were much more advanced than theirs. If we continue to rely on this elite group to guide us into better democracy, we will not make any kind of serious changes for several decades. I became more resolved that the world at least needed to hear my ideas. The sooner we start talking about them, the sooner we can implement them.

Rather than self-publishing or getting attention from the publishing world, I would just put the entire book on a website, run a few Google ads towards the website, and see if these Google-clicking visitors would like my ideas enough to convince their friends and colleagues to visit my website. Instead of getting royalties on book sales, I would get a little advertising revenue. Instead of my ideas being considered only by those who are in a position to find my book and buy it, my ideas became free for anyone on the internet at any time. And my website has been in this position since 2009.

I have just listed 12 limitations of the western democratic model. I think most readers will agree that all these limitations do exist and that they impose an impediment towards better governance.

But when the 12 limitations are put together in such a short document, it implies western democracy is lamentably defective—and only fools would agree to be governed in such a system. I think I need to remind readers that western democracy has very complex internal relationships to give its citizens more opportunity and prosperity than other systems of governance. Periodic elections, campaign speeches and political advertising, governing parties desiring to maintain their position, opposition parties aspiring to be the government, a free media scrutinizing our politicians’ decisions, citizens’ rights to free speech and free association, activists and lobbyists, peaceful protests, very informed citizens, non-voting citizens, fickle voters, separation between the legislative, executive, judicial, and civil service, the lengthy process of passing a bill into law, and other intricate links of western democracy all play an important part in establishing the social order to unlock human potential the way western democracy has done in the past two centuries.

Despite western democracy’s advantages, there is no shortage of recognized thinkers with all sorts of ideas on how to improve this system. The strange thing is that most of these ideas have little to do with reforming any of the 12 limitations. In these next few sections, I will address some of the more popular improvements in light of how they could transcend the limitations.

Popular Improvement #1: Changing the Electoral System

Many democratic nations often contemplate changes to electoral and legislative procedures—even though such changes are difficult to implement because of the long process to reform constitutional laws coupled with the country’s need to deal with more immediate concerns. It is with such changes, many experts say, that the country will supposedly become more democratic.

One popular debate in Canada revolves around implementing proportional representation (PR) as the means for selecting politicians to the Canadian Parliament and provincial legislatures. Canada uses—more or less—the Westminster democratic system, in which the country is divided into constituencies and each constituency can send one representative. The political parties then compete within each constituency to convince the voters to send their candidate to parliament or legislature.

Since the 1930s, Canada has had at least three viable political parties—and sometimes five. This has meant that in many constituency elections, the successful candidate often wins with less than 50% of the vote. For example, the candidate for Party A may achieve 40% of the vote in a particular constituency; Party B 38%, and Party C 22%. Party A gets all the privileges despite being only 2% better than the candidate for Party B—who effectively gets nothing! And depending on how the votes are distributed within all the constituency elections, a governing party in Canada can have 75% of the national or provincial seats with only 40% of the popular vote.

To the advocates of PR, getting 40% of the vote is not a mandate for Party A to represent the constituency or form the government. Thus, in their minds, the votes for Party B and Party C have essentially been wasted in many constituency elections. The imbalance between the legislative power the governing party has and its actual electoral support contradicts the principle that each vote has equal value. Such citizens deem Canada’s “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system undemocratic. Their solution is the PR system of governance, common in most European countries. If a party gets 40% of votes, it gets roughly 40% of the seats in the parliament.

I have to admit that these citizens have a valid point. But when we compare the PR systems and FPTP systems in light of how they transcend the 12 limitations, neither system has proven to have an advantage over the other. The 12 limitations are alive and well in both systems. To my thinking, PR may be more democratic, but it does not resolve any of the limitations. And same goes for other changes to electoral structures and legislative processes I have heard about over the years. 

Popular Improvement #2: Voters Should Become More Knowledgeable

I have encountered many citizens who pride themselves in having invested the time to become better informed voters. They read the newspapers and internet, watch the news on TV, and analyze the various debates and musings of the recognized thinkers. Their main contention is not with the political process itself but with other citizens who apparently have not made the same investment. “The political world,” the more informed may say, “plays to the less informed citizens who often do not vote; and if they do vote, they cast their ballot with rather faulty information. If only more citizens would become more informed (like us), we would get wiser politicians and better political parties.”

However, there is a very practical limit to how much awareness is possible. Our work, family, community, and a little recreation really limit how much time we can study each of the issues and come up with well-thought conclusions. In addition, when we see the experts who have immense training and are working full-time to understand one particular issue, often reaching different conclusions, how then can we average citizens, with our limited time and capacity, collectively determine the best solutions for our society by simply becoming better informed ourselves?

To summarize this particular improvement to democracy, it may be possible to somewhat transcend the limitations if more voters become more knowledgeable, but there is a limit how successful this can be. We may already be close to that limit.

I have a good personal example of relative futility in being more informed. I used to consider myself as a reasonably informed citizen. And this knowledge, plus my self-published first version of this book, positioned me to be a political / social columnist for a rural newspaper. One popular discussion of that time was the implementation of private health care providers into Canada’s public health system. I definitely had some strong opinions on this topic and was eager to inflict my version of how to run the world on my readers. But as I was writing this column, I came to the conclusion that I knew absolutely nothing about running a public health care system.

With such a faulty foundation, any conjecture I could concoct could only be more faulty than the foundation. I started to imagine how much more research I would need to write a good column on how to balance private and public health care. As I did this research, I just might change my mind—which would have made my original and less informed column into a rather uninformed opinion.

Even if I and another knowledgeable researcher invested the same amount of time into this topic, we just might come to different conclusions. So who would be right, who would be wrong? How do I defend my research and how do I prove his research is faulty—in the context of a 600-word column?

Then I imagined the research needed to do a good job on the other topics I had been writing about. I would need to become an expert on just about everything to be a good political columnist. But the resources were not there for me to become an expert on all these issues. The same went for my readers. We simply had too much going on with our lives to become as knowledgeable as the experts on improving democracy want us to be.

So my column took an unusual twist: I said it would be a lot easier to find the best experts to come up with the decision—and we citizens would need to trust them. But in order to trust these decision makers, we would need to trust the political system that would appoint these experts. But this system has the 12 limitations, so it cannot deserve this trust. So we citizens need to be more vigilant about who is appointed to make decisions and how these decisions are made. I, for one, just don’t have the time to analyze all the elected and appointed people who find their way into government positions. I doubt that even if I did have the time, I would get to know these people well enough to know whether they were deserving of their jobs.

I think many readers get my point. “Becoming more knowledgeable” is, at best, a very marginal solution towards resolving any of the 12 limitations.

Popular Improvement #3: More Activism

Two important foundation stones of western democracy are citizens’ rights to organize for certain causes and to conduct peaceful protest. One should not underestimate the important contributions that activism has brought to the world, such as the civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements. My sense of history is that more positive reforms emanating from western democracy were effected by activists, not by politicians and political parties. So it’s easy to understand why some experts on democracy advocate more activism and lobbying as the means to effect positive change.

Let’s assume we will rely on using activism to help the western democratic model transcend its 12 limitations. When I started my analysis, I had to concede that activism could bring about some changes in some of the 12 limitations. But then I started seeing some limitations within the activist movement itself.

  • Activists are often one-sided and won’t consider other points of view. They generally fail to see how all the parts of society are connected. For example, left-wing activists tend to assume governments have an unlimited budget and someone else will pay for the changes they want. Right-wing activists, on the other hand, fail to recognize that a strong civil society is what allows them to have the opportunities and prosperity they currently enjoy.
  • Activism is more about coercing political parties to a certain direction. If successful, the activists leave the politicians to figure out the details of implementing the activist agenda.
  • When some activists take an extreme viewpoint, it tends to diminish the good cause that other more moderate activists are fighting for.
  • Activists, in their quest for recognition, are often in competition with activists of opposing views. Like political parties in an election campaign, the better funded side tends to have more success getting what it wants.
  • Activists within the same realm of activism are often in competition with each other as to who has more influence within that movement. This is not exactly altruistic intent. 
  • Activism takes an immense mobilization of human and material resources to effect change. The time and resources could be spent more productively. 
  • When activists are successful in letting the political parties know an election can be won or lost over a certain issue, the governing party usually responds with a quick solution to placate the activist movement. This band-aid solution often falls short of the activists’ original intent.  
  • Band-aid solutions are difficult to fix after the new legislation has proven not be effective. With the activists placated and politicians on to other issues, further changes will require—guess what?—more activism.
  • Often it takes at least a decade for the good goals of activists to be put on the public agenda and another decade to be realized. This time frame is much too long to solve serious problems. 

Because activism has serious limitations within western democracy, I don’t see activism as a meaningful process to reform the 12 limitations. So I am going to turn this discussion in a new direction: Why should we need activists in the first place? Doesn’t the fact that we need activist movements to bring out positive changes suggest that something is wrong with western democracy?

Imagine a system of governance where our political leaders can recognize that something needs to be fixed—and take steps to fix it without having to be coerced by activist movements. This sounds too ideal, doesn’t it?

Popular Improvement #4: Joining a Political Party

Since activism does not work in transcending the 12 limitations in a significant way, maybe we should join a political party with the intention of moving it towards tackling one or more of the limitations. But the first limitation that stands in our way is Limitation #2. The party wants us to focus on winning elections, not presenting our new ideas. It will use us only to the extent of how well we do the rather tedious tasks associated with electioneering. If we do not do these tasks, we will be put on the sidelines rather quickly.

So we do these electioneering tasks with the intention of someday gaining respect and confidence within the party to be able to present our new ideas later. We work our way a little closer to the top and then suggest turning our party away from a limitation or two; for example, providing more internal resources for policy development and cutting out some sources of less-than-altruistic funding. But such changes will lessen the party’s electoral success, so its natural instinct is to ignore whatever we have to say. If we persist in presenting our ideas, it is unlikely we will rise much higher in the party to be of any influence. We will likely become frustrated and quit long before the party attains a critical mass of like-minded thinkers to actually influence the party’s thinking towards addressing any of the 12 limitations.

Popular Improvement #5: Starting a New Party

Since joining a political party will not likely have any effect on transcending the 12 limitations, we find more like-minded citizens to form a new political party specifically with this purpose. But this new party of ours still requires donations to win elections. However, we have principle: we will not accept monetary donations above a certain size, ensuring our funding comes from many small donations. None of these donors are expecting any favors; they just want good governance—and they believe our new party is the vehicle for this change.

Many citizens, tired of the old politics, want to see us succeed. Our party starts growing. However, some of our altruistic volunteer workers want to be more influential within the party, and they start positioning themselves as possible candidates for election or as paid back-room party officials. The party has more aspirants than positions, so competition breeds infighting (Limitation #11). Ambitious party workers who lose the internal battles drop out, never to give their time or small donations again. They also degrade the party to their friends, acquaintances, and the media. With these workers not giving to the party and instead portraying it in a bad light, we start losing resources to win elections.

We discover that one of our elected legislators, in his quest to win a rather close election, had broken our main principle: he accepted several donations above our stated limit. Rather than discipline him, which will attract media attention, we try to keep the issue quiet (Limitation #10). But the media find out anyway: they lash out at the legislator and at our party; our opponents do their best to inflict as much damage as possible (Limitation #11). A significant number of our “soft” donors lose faith in us and do not contribute any more money. With fewer monetary resources, we no longer can compete effectively against the well-funded parties. Between the loss of resources and the inability to live by our own principles, we lose the next election—and thus our ability to change the system.

We can be very knowledgeable, committed, and altruistic, but we can never break the forces that bind and build successful political parties.    

Popular Improvement #6: Letting the Western Democratic Model Evolve Naturally.

Many readers will still insist that positive improvements can happen with western democracy because they see it as an evolutionary process. They will argue that the western democratic model will eventually evolve to a new form as the various systemic forces within a democracy collide and conflict, and then redefine themselves by small measures. In time, such theorists might surmise, the 12 limitations can be transcended, a little piece at a time as we voters collectively punish the parties that exhibit more of these limitations and reward those who demonstrate fewer limitations. “Someday,” these experts may say, “we will train the political parties to give us better governance.” 

In some sense, they are correct. Democracy did improve the conditions in western nations as voting privileges were successfully extended from wealthy men to men of all economic classes, from white men to men of all races, and from only men to men and women. With each change, life in western nations did improve for all citizenry. It seems not necessary to directly tackle any of the 12 limitations for future improvements to happen, for the 12 limitations were there before and after the change. We should just let the western democratic model evolve naturally.  

I’m quite sure the western democratic model is going to evolve into something else, but will it ever evolve to transcend the 12 limitations—if left to go on its own path? My sense of the past 50 years of history suggest western democracy is already on two evolutionary paths.

Fifty years ago, big government (often in conjunction with big business) more or less had its way with the citizenry if those affected belonged to a small minority. Overriding the concerns of this minority could be justified if the change was deemed for the betterment of the society-at-large. Today, most western democracies have various legal processes in place for such citizens to publicly express their opinions, gather political forces, and engage in legal action that could delay or thwart the big government initiative. Sometimes the affected citizens win their case; sometimes not. But there are definitely mechanisms in place for citizens to fight big government; this has been an improvement in democracy.

In another sense, this change has resulted in the NIMBY effect*.  Well organized citizens can thwart initiatives that need to be addressed and resolved in a timely manner. This often leaves the government to seek a less desirable solution (often in an area where the citizens are not so well organized) or to let the issue fester for another decade for a future generation of politicians to deal with a worsening situation. Often, when the public process decides against the affected citizens, they often do not acknowledge the decision was made with fair and careful consideration of several alternatives. In their mind, the decision was rigged before the public process even started(which may or may not be true).

*NIMBY is an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard.” It is an inherent paradox in that we acknowledge that societies require some unpleasant tasks to be done, but everyone wants them to be done somewhere else.

Although I see more public involvement in western democracy as a slight improvement, analyzing this evolutionary change in light of the 12 limitations does not produce significant results. The only improvement I can see is that it requires elected officials to hear and consider views and concerns of average citizens more than they used to, which resolves Limitation #6 to some degree. But for the other 11 limitations, I don’t see much effect.  

A second big change in the last 50 years has been the political parties’ ability to market themselves better. When we inspect the machinations inside any moderately successful political party, we see great investment into creating a better image. In the future, we should expect better TV commercials, better staged media events, better 15-second sound clips, and better manipulation of social media. The parties will become better at recognizing those individuals who are more electable from an image perspective.

We should expect parties to create better election strategies. They will be better at swaying the 10 to 30% of swing voters on election day, for it is often these fickle swing voters who decide, on one particular day, the government for the next few years.* The parties will become better at identifying various voter segments, polling them, interpreting these polls, and designing their marketing messages for them. They will become better at persuading certain voter segments without offending other voter segments. They will better their techniques to identify and keep their “soft support” intact while trying to convince the “soft support” of their opponents to change their minds or stay away from the polls, while simultaneously learning advertising tricks to defend their soft supporters to get them to the polls.

* Before I became an active worker in a political party, I was one of these fickle voters. In at least two elections, I went to the polls to vote as part of my civic duty, but I had no idea which individual or political party I was going to vote for—despite being a reasonably informed citizen. What made me cast my vote one way and not the other at that time is still a mystery to me.

The parties will be better at finding talented campaign managers who have a great flair for creating images, interpreting polls, designing marketing messages, and making the right decisions at the right time in the midst of an election battle. These individuals could go to the highest bidder.

Some experts may argue that improving the marketing skills of political parties allows them to better serve the citizens. But the motivation is all wrong. Better marketing skills mostly serve to win elections, not provide better governance. When I align better marketing skills with the 12 limitations, the 12 limitations remain intact. If anything, better political marketing will make some of them worse.

In the previous section, I theorized that popular thinking about improving democracy cannot transcend any of the 12 limitations of the western democratic model. In my description of the 12 limitations, I theorized that they are instinctual for these instincts are how political parties find electoral success over their rivals. If my theories are correct, then we have, in essence, a system where the flaws are absolutely necessary for the system to work as well as it does.

So we are left with a choice: do we just accept the 12 limitations as unfavorable traits of our most favorable system of governance—or do we look for ways to transcend these obvious flaws?

If we are to start looking at transcending the 12 limitations, then we have to realize that they are an integral part of political parties. Trying to separate the parties from these limitations is like trying to separate claws and fangs from lions to make them become vegetarians.

Because the recognized experts cannot let go of the political party, they cannot lead us beyond the 12 limitations of western democracy.

The next chapter offers a replacement system of governance—one without political parties or the 12 limitations the parties bring to the public decision-making process. It is called “Tiered Democratic Governance”.

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash
For a more comfortable read, an ebook version of TDG is available on Kindle and on Kobo for about $7.