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Isn’t Democracy a little Undemocratic?

By Dalí ten Hove on 27 November 2012

Democracy; funny concept is it not? Popular control, political equality. We make such a fuss about it! At home, different candidates whether individuals or parties insult each other for being undemocratic, and internationally we at times intervene to ‘liberate’ people and give them the ‘gift’ of liberal democracy. If democracy had a face I think it would be that of a clown – something comical, petty and awkward, with a weird nose and uneasy shoes – as if straight from caricatures. And guess what; I’m just merrily going to add to the fuss.

      See, the current form of democracy – that is, the national form i.e. democracy taking place within a country, a nation-state – puzzles me somehow. Last summer, I started thinking: isn’t national democracy by definition undemocratic? (This may sound like a strange question, just bear with me.) Because one of the fundamental values – assumptions if you will – of democracy is that all men and women are born equal, which is what differentiates it from the old feudalist hierarchies of society. As such, article one of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (DRMC) includes “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” – where “men” is meant to include all human beings. The United States Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal”, and the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) partly reads: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Thus, the universal equality of human beings is a – if not the – pillar of liberal, democratic society.

      Now of course the way things are written on paper are never the way things are in reality. As such, France – from which the DRMC originates – has held a great colonial empire, stamping on the supposed rights of the colonized; the US had endorsed slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans; and, I think it is safe to say, no one country in the world fully adheres to the UDHR. So perhaps we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the way things are written on paper, but at least we can think about it. Surely nowadays we find it pretty ridiculous how, back in the days, the US Declaration was interpreted as “all men are created equal [except those we call slaves and the Native Americans]”.

      This brings me to the actual point I want to make: another seeming contradiction between what is written on paper and what happens in real life. On paper, democracy is about letting those who are governed have a say in the way they are governed and giving them each equal say. In reality, however, this does not happen – and I am not speaking of conventionally held discussions on democracy. What I’m thinking is, in the modern globalized world – or, at least, globalizing world – the decision-making of any country somehow affects people from all other countries. To give blatant examples: what if a referendum was held in the US before the invasion of Iraq, asking whether the people desired war to be declared and waged, or not? Surely the Iraqi people would be affected by the outcome thereof so, even if this sounds utterly counter-intuitive, should they not have had a say in the matter? Or let us assume that there are only two parties in Norway, one wishing to stop giving out development aid to poor countries and the other wishing to give 0.7% of the GDP. This would certainly affect citizens of developing countries so, according to the principles of democracy, should they not have equal vote in the matter? More subtle examples could include domestic economic policies – should they really be considered domestic, given that they will have effect upon many non-domestic peoples? Or actually, can any major decision be considered domestic?

      These are pretty interesting questions for they challenge the very fabric of statehood and thus have far-reaching implications. For if national democracy is abandoned, it is world democracy that replaces it. I have never, or just not yet, come across the kind of ideas expressed above in any writing, thus I really wonder what would be the rationale for keeping national democracy intact. I doubt such rationale would be rational – but what do I know? A pragmatic argument is probably the most compelling seeing as attempting to build a kind of United States of the World – a world federation with one world government managing countries as mere provinces – too hard to achieve at the moment. So pragmatism makes sense, but what matters more is the theoretical underpinning. How can democracy be consistent with itself if it is only administered at the national level? Any thoughts?

Dalí ten Hove is Dia’s youngest contributor. He is a student of International Politics & Economics at King’s College London. His primordial aim is to become a capable political thinker to help bridge the gap between the conservative forces of the developed world and the social needs of the developing – in a sustainable manner.

About the author


Dalí ten Hove

Editor, Writer

Born in Amsterdam, raised in France, Dalí is Diaforlife’s youngest contributor. He completed the later part of his primary education at an international school, a period during which he developed…  Read full bio

dtenhove@diaforlife.com