Fear of Teratocracy
What is a democracy?
I've been thinking about the nature of democracy over the past few weeks, for both obvious (Egypt) and less-obvious (potential for social change under conditions of disruption) reasons. The definition of democracy that most people are familiar is something along the lines of "rule by the people through voting, where the recipient of a majority of the vote wins." That's a decent description of the mechanism of democracy, I suppose, but I don't think it captures the important part.
Democracy is defined by how you lose, not (just) how you win.
The real test of whether a society that uses a plebiscite to determine leadership is really a democracy is whether the losing party accepts the loss and the legitimacy of their opponent's victory. This is especially true for when the losing party previously held power. Do they give up power willingly, confident that they'll have a chance to regain power again in the next election? Or do they take up arms against the winners, refuse to relinquish power, and/or do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition's rule?
The last bit is possibly the most important. It's easy to see that a political faction unleashing civil conflict or refusing to give up power after an election loss is anti-democratic. The line between "appropriately tough attacks on an opponents' policies" and "attacks on the legitimacy of the opponent," however, can be somewhat more difficult to recognize. One key element is where the attacks come from: are they vitriol from the fire-breathers in the streets, trying to shift the Overton Window? Or are they coming from duly-elected, theoretically responsible figures? The former is part-and-parcel of a spectacle-driven media culture; the latter is a much more serious problem, as it's not a disagreement based on policies (and subject to negotiation), but one based on identity. The current leadership is bad not because the policies are bad, but because they have no right to lead.
(This is all made more complex by the possibility that a seemingly legitimately-elected leader may in fact be illegitimate due to corruption of the process.)
All of this matters from a futures perspective because in times of disruption there is likely to be substantial disagreement over the correct strategies needed to deal with big/dangerous changes. If the political discourse in a democracy is such that policy disputes get overwhelmed by (or become triggers for) arguments over legitimacy, then the potential to come up with approaches to the world that embrace long-term thinking is dramatically reduced. Difficult decisions get pushed off in order to avoid (or to focus on dealing with) fights over whether the in-office leadership has the right to lead.
Unfortunately, it appears that attacking the in-power opposition's legitimacy may be an increasingly effective way to derail policy initiatives. When a substantial portion (at least 30%, perhaps up to 50%) of the Republican party, for example, believes that not only does Obama have bad policies, he has no legitimate right to be President, compromise and negotiation become difficult at best. Republican leaders willing to negotiate aren't just compromising principles, they're aiding and abetting a violation of the Constitution. And while this is currently a Republican problem, there's nothing to say that Democrats -- the political leaders, not just the activists -- won't learn the lesson that this is an effective way to fight once Republicans retake the Presidency. This is also a situation just begging for a Participatory Decepticon moment.
The question, then, is (as always) what is to be done? My answer is (also as always) more transparency, but that isn't enough. We also need to see a shift in the larger culture away from spectacle and attention-grabbing stimulation, and towards illumination and empathy-building consideration (watch this video for what I'm referring to). But that shift doesn't seem like it will happen any time soon.
In the meantime, then, we watch the initial signs of emerging democracies around the world, ignoring the signs of fading democracy at home.
[Teratocracy: Rule by Monsters]