There is only democracy because we have no answer to the question of how we should govern ourselves. The people that govern us are following the whims of the constituent and hence steer the boat erratically across the sea of time, every now and then catching a wave from the side. The only thing that keeps order in this imaginary boat is the relative order in the steer house, not every sailor gets a swing at the big wheel, and even a drunken skipper can be sent to their quarters.
After 1945, most prosperous nations are democracies. Before the war there were also democracies, but the chosen leaders were often granted more power. Its often said that Hitler came to power by democratic means, but his takeover of the government and consequently becoming a dictator is for the most part due to the system behind their democracy. Their system let him strategically move around his opponents and even let him use a law that gave him basically dictatorial powers. In Germany the inconsistent behavior of the voters where not the biggest cause for the rise to power of Hitler, the long tentacles of their peculiar history provided a system of government that allowed the rise of authoritarian rulers. England has a better history in this regard and it’s not surprising that the voters over there kicked their war winning prime minister (Churchill) on the curbs without causing a problem when the power had to be handed over.
A definition of democracy is that the power lies with the people. Most of the times this power is given to a representative, of the people, and from there a whole system is built made out of ministers, prime ministers, senators, parliaments and more. This system works, more or less, as a mood stabilizer, dampening the worst decision of the constituency. The different representatives can decide not to work with a racist party, even if they get a sizable part of the votes. But the people that vote still contribute to the main direction the country is going despite of the stabilizing power of the legislative and executive power.
Even more important than the stabilizing effect of the legislative and executive power for our fortune is the separation of powers or simply said: the agreement amongst citizens that prevent their ruler from ignoring or making laws that are made by the citizens. This system is developed in the 18th century where a king could still make laws, and order the police and judges what to do with these laws. They slowly moved to a separate entity for law making (legislative Power), and even the king had to obey these laws. The judges became also independent (judicative Power), so they were free to interpret the laws and were no longer ordered on how to interpret them. Later these potentates became a symbolic head of state or were replaced by something less ancient and their power was more formally divided between the Legislative Power (parliament, normally in two chambers), executive Power (government and administration) and judicative Power (courts of justice)
This separation of power takes more direct influence away from the people in so far the main direction of the country is concerned. There are some fundamental laws in each country that cannot be change by a simple majority vote like for example the constitution in America. So, together with our governmental system they ensure a certain stability for the long term. But for the short term we still have these ridiculous elections where the direction of a country is often determent by a minority that cannot make up their mind, a majority of the voters stay with their side for a long time.
It is not easy to come up with a better system. I have never studied politics, the things I say about democracy and the separation of power should be common knowledge, and I don’t pretend to know all the nuances. My problem is not this system we’ve built but the question of how you resolve differences of opinion. Giving everybody a vote is one way to solve a dispute but there are some questions where this can be dangerous. In a debate there are a lot of questions that you can answer with your opinion, for example birth control. There are no hard facts for or against it, your subjective feeling should decide your answer and in a democratic society each individual can decide if they want to use birth control and no law should be made enforcing or withholding it. But debating about the health risks of smoking is another story, there are too many hard facts about the negative effects of it. Forbidding people from smoking in certain places is no problem because it affects other people and its accepted that it is harmful towards others. But a law that forbids people from smoking is not good because the negative effects of smoking only effects the smoker, and in a democracy, we should be allowed to be boss over your own body. We can agree on these two I hope but with the next example, climate change, it gets more difficult. With climate change we also have an overwhelming amount of evidence, like with smoking, but not allowing cigarettes in a bar takes away some freedom, most people understand the reasons why. It took more than 60 years before the risks of smoking were finally accepted to a point that lawmakers could make some laws prohibiting smoking in certain places and labeling cigarettes with warnings. Imagine if these laws were enacted, 60 years ago, because scientist recommended it and the voters believed them. Countless people would have been saved from unnecessary painful deaths. The same problem we have now with climate change where political motivated opinions prevent us from taking strong and necessary actions. People are easy persuaded by warnings that their gasoline will be more expensive, and their freedom taken away, things that touch people directly, so they think. You have a problem when you debate a climate change denier, they more or less deny the science that they also rely on when they go to the hospital or drive a car. It is not rational, and as long as their grandfather hasn’t died of climate change related illnesses they will probably not change their mind. Like with the birth control example, you cannot say that it is just a matter of opinion because there are facts.
With climate change you touch a sore point in our democracy. The people that know, the scientist, say: go there. But the people that are in power, the voters, don’t necessarily understand why, and are easily persuaded to choose a goal not so far away. Why would I pay for something I will not benefit from…I don’t care about the world my children have to live in. The voter and their representatives can debate a lot about birth control, and as long as no one forbids either birth control or the beliefs against it there is no problem but for the things that matter, like climate change, democracy is a bad system.
In my fantasy democratic system, in a galaxy far, far away, there are no elections. The people have to write an essay, starting when they are 15, and repeat it every 5 years. In that essay they have to tell about their dreams, likes, dislikes, point of view and whatever makes their stance in life clear. Everybody does that every 5 years of their life, this way you have a constant stream of opinions that the government can use to steer their decision making with. In an ideal world some kind of artificial intelligence would read all of these letters and come up with some kind of guideline. In this system everybody has an equal vote, there are good reasons for this, you’ll get in shady waters if you give a philosopher, who writes a 50 pages essay more say than someone who just manages to fill 1 page. The effort is important, even if your level of motivation might be determined by your genes, you have to draw the line somewhere. These essays follow some rules of course, like a minimum length, and it has to show an understanding of the arguments and not a summary of someone else’s ideas, something a A.I. can simply find out.
This society offers, of course, free lessons on every level and in every field of science necessary to make a good essay, filled with well thought out arguments, to ensure a good functioning democracy…maybe we should start with this last part.