Doubting Democracy

Many are surprised to learn that China has democratic elections--but are they truly democratic? Ben Haller explains how they compare with a Western system.

Over the past two weeks, two very different elections took place. One of those elections produced a result that convinced many that democracy is hopelessly flawed. The other election, presided over by those who share that skeptical view of democracy, occurred with little fanfare and brought about unnoticeable change, rendering it almost pointless. The former was the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the latter was the local election for representatives in the Pudong People’s Congress. Despite how different these elections might seem from a political standpoint, they both represent a lot of what is wrong with their respective political systems. Whether it’s western democracy or democracy “with Chinese characteristics,” the flaws are numerous. Western democracies are vulnerable to radical change from populist movements, while the Chinese system does not allow voters the opportunity to enact much change at all. So, the question becomes: is democracy, as a political system, still worth defending?

I would argue that it is, as long as people continually work to improve it. First, there needs to be some clarification about the definition of democracy. Nearly all democratic systems in the world today have some undemocratic elements. Sometimes this is unintentional, but it is often by design. The democracy of ancient Greece would not only be inefficient in today’s society, but also subject to mob rule. In other words, direct democracy means that the majority rules absolutely and can subjugate the minority whenever they please. Any egalitarian society cannot allow for this form of government. This is why many so-called democracies have checks and balances, divisions of power, and certain unelected positions that are immune from electoral pressure. Most democracies today are in fact presidential republics, parliamentary republics, constitutional monarchies, or some other similar variation. Running a democratic system is a constant balancing act between making sure that voters have a voice and that qualified people are in charge.

Donald Trump’s victory might seem like a huge blow to defenders of Western democracy, but the system worked exactly how it was supposed to. Trump’s victory is not in itself a failure of democracy. The only way his victory could be considered a failure of democracy is if the institutions meant to keep him in check were to fail. Ideally, someone as unqualified and inexperienced as Trump would have never made it to the White House, but to criticize democracy for its imperfection is to miss the point of democracy entirely. It is not supposed to be perfect. As Professor Clay Shirky noted during his talk about the role of social media in the U.S. election, “the argument for [western] democracy has never been that it reliably produces the best outcomes, but that it reliably avoids the worst outcomes.” Given that Trump has already walked back some of his nastier campaign promises, either because he anticipates opposition from Congress or the courts, shows that the worst outcome, the failure of political institutions to keep him in check, is being avoided for now.

The recent elections in China represent the complete opposite end of the democratic spectrum. If Western democracy sometimes leans too far towards too much democracy, then China is guilty of leaning towards too little. Chinese leaders, so terrified of anyone who might bring change to the status quo, have designed a system where people get to choose pre-approved candidates for positions with little power. Independent candidates are able to run, but there is ample evidence of harassment for those who try to advocate for change. The upside of this is that populists like Donald Trump would never gain any power in China, but the downside is that political power remains in the hands of a few. Technocratic rule by a select few works when the right people are in charge, however it’s a risky bet to assume that you will always have the right people in the long run. Let’s not forget that the same party that has effectively managed the past thirty years of immense, sustained economic growth, was also the same party that presided over the country’s economic ruin during the first thirty years of their rule. Only time will tell if this system can continue to function effectively without reform to make it more democratic.

Ultimately, and perhaps this is my American bias talking, I cannot give up on democracy, even in times like these. It is hopelessly flawed, yet I would not want to live under any other system. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” There will be many debates in the coming years about the balance of power between voters and government institutions, but the underlying principles of democracy are always worth fighting for.

This article was written by Ben Haller. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Sarabi Eventide

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