For years, there have been successful attempts to erode a democracy. In Argentina, Juan Peron helped lead a successful coup for two and a half years before making his bid for presidency. Augusto Pinochet, Commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, led a coup d’état in 1973 to oust President Salvador Allende. Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law to advance his political agendas. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used referendums to expand the powers of his presidency. These stories offer us an explanation on why and how democracies died but they also lead us to question how fragile democracies are. What’s the true price of democracy? Is it a privilege we take for granted?
By classical definition, democracy refers to an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will (Schumpeter, 1947, p. 250). Schumpeter used this classical definition and focused on adding a process on how democracy can be met while Dahl added public participation and public opposition to the discourse. While these three scholars have their own definitions and interpretations of what democracy is, it seems that there’s one process that held them together – that is the election. Democracy, at its core, is characterized by how the process of election represents our preferences and identities.
Around the world, there have been trends of low voter turnout. Surprisingly, developed countries are recording low voter turnouts. The United States ranked 26th out of 32 countries for its percentage of people eligible to vote who actually cast their ballots according to data analysed by Pew from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Several European countries report even lower voter turnout than the United States. Poland experienced a 53.8 percent turnout of eligible voters. Switzerland recorded the lowest eligible voter turnout among developed countries with only 40 percent. But what strikes us the most is that voter turnout in developing and underdeveloped countries are actually higher than the developed countries. What accounts for this trend?
Multiple factors have been associated with a decrease in voter turnouts including economic factors, cultural factors, demographic factors and institutional factors. While we expect to see these factors in developing and underdeveloped countries, it seems that these factors actually contribute to an increase in voter turnout. When people experience issues that concern their very survival, they’re inclined to find immediate solutions. They’re no longer interested in the promise that elections, nor democracy, can deliver. So when help or opportunity to remedy these issues come across, they’re willing to submit they’re right to vote based on their preferences. In this sense, politicians are using the living conditions of the poor to favor them because they can be easily manipulated and persuaded by the promises that these politicians can deliver to alleviate their living conditions. So what can we do to provide the people the opportunity to vote based not only their preference of an individual to alleviate their living conditions on a whim but also on their ability to think rationally based on their preferences? At an individual level, it’s actually education that influences and develop the people’s habit of voting and rational thinking. When they’re educated, they’re more likely to provide some thoughts in their votes. For people to be willing to access education, we have to provide them their basic needs. When they have access to basic needs, they’re more inclined to be educated so they can advance their living conditions to provide more than just the basic needs. This is where democracy becomes a privilege. When people do not have access to basic needs, they’re less likely to be educated to vote and make better voting decisions.
People in underdeveloped and developing countries do not receive as much education compared to the developed countries but why are voting turnouts decreasing in countries like the United States? While this seems more complicated than our previous observation, the reason for this recent voting pattern also comes down to education but this time, the amount of education plays an important factor. Data shows that a college degree in the United States determine whether an individual in a developed country will participate in elections since they have the ability to look for information about politics, thus they’re more interested in engaging in elections. Those who do not have access to a college education are less likely to participate. Both college educated and not college educated have access to basic needs thus they have the privilege of choice to participate. They’re usually not influenced by lack of basic need to realize the demand to submit themselves to politicians. In this sense, democracy also becomes a privilege in developed countries since not everyone has access to higher degree of education to be able to understand politics and its institutional design.
The right to vote and have the ability to make rational choices when voting characterizes democracy. Without it, democracy cannot exist at all. The responsibility to provide the people’s basic needs and access to education are government responsibilities but they can also be used as tools to prevent people from voting and making rational choices. In this sense, perhaps this concern deserves some form of R2P guided response by the international community to mitigate concerns of democractic erosion and authoritarianism.
So is democracy a privilege we take for granted? Yes and no. It depends whether that privilege is even present in the first place. If it does, it is now our responsibility to continue educating ourselves to make better decisions because whoever we choose to carry out our will, affects not only our living conditions but also of everyone in a system that is becoming highly globalized.
Akee, Randall. 2019. “Voting and Income.” https://econofact.org/voting-and-income (December 7, 2019)
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1. (December 7, 2019)
Desilver, Drew. 2018. “U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/ (December 7, 2019)
Patrick, Ruth. 2017. “How poverty makes people less likely to vote.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/16/poverty-election-vote-apathy (December 7, 2019)
Schumpeter, Joseph. 1947. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. Chapters 21 and 22. (December 7, 2019)