Drunk on Democracy?
March 4, 2021
On the 7th of March of 2021, the Swiss population will vote to decide whether women will have the right to wear a burqa, a traditional Muslim headdress worn by women, in public places. Given that Switzerland is a liberal democracy with freedom of religion and expression, this might seem unconstitutional. But, should more than 50% of the people of Switzerland vote in the affirmative, the law will pass, banning an article of clothing of significant religious importance to thousands of women in the country.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. Here in Switzerland, in 2009, a similar referendum, which proposed a ban on the construction of minarets, passed with 58% of the vote. In 2010, France famously passed a law banning the wearing of niqabs and burqas in public places, under penalty of a 150 euro fine. The common thread in these examples is obvious: a majority group (in this case non-Muslims) is using democratic institutions to discriminate against a minority group.
When viewed from this lens, we begin to see a flaw not with the Swiss parliament or population, but with Swiss democracy itself: Switzerland prides itself on having the most democratic system on the planet, but is that a good thing after all?
Although democracy is seen as the standard form of government in today’s world, criticisms of democracy are about as old as democracy itself. The case of Switzerland’s burqa ban highlights one of them: the tyranny of the majority. In a pure, direct democracy, where a simple majority decides every law, it would be extremely easy for an ethnic or religious majority to oppress a minority using democratic institutions. Every country which has ever had racist or xenophobic laws can attest to this.
The common solution to this problem is a constitution, which usually includes (among other things) a list of rights guaranteed to every citizen. But a constitution can be undemocratic. The US constitution, for example, requires that a president be picked through a process called the Electoral College, rather than by a simple referendum. This process is extremely unpopular, with over 60% of Americans saying they’d rather have it abolished. And yet, it persists.
This is because the very nature of a constitution is that it is more inflexible to the whims of the majority than a normal law. The more inflexible you make it, the harder it is for the population of the country to decide on what the most important law of the land should be. The more flexible you make it, the easier it is for majorities to tyrannise minorities by stripping away their legal protections.
This trade-off is indicative of a general theme when it comes to democracy: it has certain internal flaws which can only be mitigated by making the systems less democratic. Another example of this can be found in the natural complexity of governance. Government is complicated. The amount of information needed to understand it fully is unimaginably greater than what any one individual is capable of.
In practice, this means that a direct democracy would be very difficult to implement: a system where laws are crafted by ordinary citizens and passed by referendum would require the average person to know far more about governance than they realistically can.
The most common solution to this is representative democracy: rather than writing and passing laws themselves, citizens delegate that responsibility to representatives -members of parliament, congresspeople, presidents- who they vote for every few years. However, once again, when citizens are a layer removed from directly wielding power themselves, the system can become an undemocratic bureaucracy. If we turn once again to the US, 60% of the population have stated that they want a $15 minimum wage, but a law to this effect has yet to pass.
One final drawback of democracy is that frequent changes in the political climate of a country can lead to a mess internationally. The past few weeks have seen Joe Biden systematically reverse almost every foreign policy decision Trump made, while the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency saw him reverse almost every foreign policy decision Obama made. The three men have vastly different positions on America’s role in the world, and this flip-flopping in the White House’s central philosophy of international relations was felt.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we might find a country like China. Their single party rule means that the country has had a consistent vision of their place in the world for the past few decades, which has allowed them to work on long-term projects like the Belt and Road initiative. The indecisiveness of democracies has effects on their domestic policies as well: it might be hard to plan for the future if tax rates and minimum wages fluctuate.
All this being said, however, democracies have two massive advantages that simply cannot be found in any other system. The first of these is the peaceful transfer of power. In a dictatorship, the only way to get rid of an unpopular leader is to revolt. This obviously creates an extremely high level of instability within a society, and many a military dictatorship has come to power only to be replaced by a new, slightly more popular military dictatorship.
The second advantage unique to democracies is the alignment between the wills of the rulers and the ruled. In other words, democracy is the only system in which people actually get a say over what the laws that govern them are. For a politician to be elected, they have to pass popular laws. If a politician fails to do so, in theory, they get removed from power. Although, as discussed above, rule by popular will comes with a lot of problems, ultimately, it’s probably better than an autocracy.
When measures are imposed to mitigate democracy’s most harmful effects, the advantages it brings are also reduced. It might seem absurd for the Swiss population to be able to decide on whether a Muslim woman is allowed to wear what she pleases in public, but limiting their right to do so results in, by its very nature, a less democratic system. Whether that’s a good thing or not is left to the discretion of the reader.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Despite their flaws, our democratic institutions have proved to be effective in maximizing democracy’s advantages, and mitigating its disadvantages. Until someone comes up with a better system, this one is the best we’ve got. What remains up to debate is to what extent we want to limit the direct input of the masses so as to mitigate the flaws inherent in every democratic system.