How do democracies work exactly? Churchill said that "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." He also said "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
Watching the recent election in America, I imagine voters from both parties will agree with the second quote. Except for countries with an utterly homogeneous population (Scandinavia comes to mind), are there any democracies where political success doesn't require an opponent against whom you must incite passion?
One of our basest instincts is fight or flight; we act when we perceive a threat. Politicians have figured this out (Karl Rove is probably the best) and know that the only way to "rock the vote" is to get people afraid enough of the "other guy" so that they donate $$ and vote for you.
Surowiecki, in Wisdom of Crowds argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." Now try to imagine the wisdom of 46% of the American electorate that wanted Sarah Palin (now a reality TV horror show) to be Vice President in 2008. The ONLY way this happens in a "wise crowd" is if the alternative (Barak Hussein Obama) is portrayed as so vile and horrific that it raises your righteous indignation to the point where you're able to stomach the lesser evil.
Politicians want voters to do three things - donate money, vote, and convince others to vote. They accomplish this by appealing to the basest instincts and fears, and by counting on the fact that the electorate has a very short memory when it comes to promises vs. actions.
There is a fourth social/constitutional expectation, which is to care, be discerning, and make intelligent choices; but let's face it, that's asking a lot, and you know that politicians would prefer you let them do the thinking...
The election process is no longer an assessment of a candidate's past performance, intentions, and ability to create value for their electorate; it is instead an exercise in emotive herding. Look at either side's campaign in any election around the world and you will see that most if not all of their "voice" is aimed at your gut and your heart, and NOT at your head. Most if not all of their voice is also not about their candidate, it is about how bad their opponent and his party are. A good campaign manager (Rove et al) knows the issues that will incite their base, and more specifically how to spin them to achieve maximum enragement. The better the manager, the more sustained the effect of the spin.
The best way to move a community is to find or fabricate an enemy. People only coalesce when they have something to oppose. I do not believe it is possible to sustain a mainstream movement based solely on a peaceful or positive intention. If you have no opposition to rail against and vilify, you will not be able to keep your audience.
For example, Palin = plain spoken, apple pie, maverick, god fearing, gun-toting, hockey mom. Anyone who is NOT this (Obama) is evil - "she's one of us," and he's not. You can't trust him, is he even American, his name sounds Islamic, he's... Politics today is more about creating caricatures than it is about addressing issues. With the prevalence and reach of media, the voters' connection to the caricature (or the idea) is more profound and more long-lived than their connection to the person.
These days democratically-elected candidates can't be mainstream, they have to be fringe, and they have to establish and nurture a polarized constituency. Once in power, the majority pushes their agenda; and the opposition/minority needs to do everything possible to not just impede that agenda, but to inflame their constituency into a rage against the incumbent. That's the only way they can raise enough money and rock enough voters to win next time.
The effect? Unless one party has a massive majority across the entire government, nothing of substance will happen - the citizens' lives aren't materially improved. The legislation that does get passed is rife with compromise and a pale shadow of what was promised. The spinners happily point the finger at the "enemy," and the citizenry's belief that the real cause of all their ills is at the other end of the spectrum (government and voters alike) is deepened. And the government oscillates between extremes - nothing gets done.
Think of how most advocacy groups function; they don't talk about the rightness of their cause, they create momentum by promoting the wrongness of their opponent. Do you think the Pro-Choice community would survive over time without extolling the threat that the Pro-Life movement represents and vice versa?
Now think about YOUR feelings - is your reaction stronger to an anti- message or a pro- message? Are you more like to vote or contribute or participate because of a fear of what might be if those other idiots get their way, or because you feel passionate and positive about your candidate and their platform?
I think the Tea Party movement in the US began because they wanted to change this dynamic, to see a government and citizenry closer to what the Founding Fathers intended. But in the end, they sacrificed integrity to pander to the media, grow their membership, and raise money, and ended up becoming a fringe instead of a mainstream voice.
If the byproduct of a democracy is that half the citizens hate the other half and wish evil upon them, how is this civilized? How do we claim to be civilized?
The opening Churchill quote has given us permission to be complacent, to concede that there is no better government than a democracy. That's not acceptable. Our imperative should be to prove him wrong, and not acquiesce to democracy simply because it sucks less than the alternatives.