The Democracy Problem


Thor May

8 July 2013





Abstract: The material here comprises discussion points and some reference links for a diverse group of people in Brisbane, Australia, who fancy themselves as “gentle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “The Democracy Problem”, is probably of interest to thoughtful individuals in many latitudes, so I am putting it online as a general stimulus for some creative discussion. Any opinions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dissected without mercy.






 a) The Australian Context



1. Some people in Australia express surprise that “the future of democracy” might be raised as a discussion topic. One remarked to me recently that there was little to discuss. He was really saying that he hadn’t thought about it carefully. In that he represents the Australian majority at this point in time. Yet emerging from a brutal prison settlement in the 19th Century, where people were routinely abused, whipped, and hung to death, Australia was one of the first modern states to achieve universal voting for all men and women. Something like civilized life followed. Adult Australians now are all required to vote. This is very recent, as history goes, yet for those who know little history, Australia’s prison camp origin is the stuff of TV specials and could never happen to “us” nowadays. Really?


2. When people vote in an Australian election, they typically do not see themselves as voting to accept the rule of law. They take that for granted. In those nations where force rules and choice is not an option, people usually understand very well that the impartial rule of law has been lost, if it ever existed. Australians have the luxury, for now, of voting for secondary matters, such as the personality of leaders, and some random policies (according to their interests) which are usually poorly understood.


3. In Australia, most people have not suffered disastrously from misgovernment for several generations, so many have never thought deeply about what democracy might mean, or whether is preferable to some alternative form of rule. Enjoying a comfortable life, they don’t know and they don’t care. They remain unaware of any large political risks to their way of life. At this moment the Deep State (think, for example, universal surveillance in the name of “security”) is beginning to take from them what they never realized they had. It is less of a conspiracy than a process (we hope). The loss is gradual and sweetened with entertainment distractions. Like huge numbers of people worldwide, Australians in general know little real history, and will therefore repeat its mistakes. If tyranny again becomes the norm, as it has been in most places over the last 5,000 years, with the memory of goldfish they will think it was always that way.


b) Concepts of Democracy


4. What is the core value of having democratic choice? Democratic choice is a psychological catalyst, and very, very powerful.


5. Democracy in its many forms is firstly the process of re-negotiating a contract between rulers and the ruled for the law we all live under. If we broadly consent to the rule of law by democratic choice, then we will probably live by it, even when we wish to challenge individual laws. When the system of law in a community is sourced in the arbitrary force of an unchosen ruling group, then we have tyranny.


6. When people are required to do that which they haven’t chosen to do, or suffer for what they haven’t chosen to suffer, they feel injustice. If they suffer badly without having any say in it, they feel outrage. If enough of them feel this outrage, they resist, eventually with violence. By the sheer problem of numbers, democracy in large states is usually representative democracy (by the election of local representatives) rather than direct participatory democracy in daily government. Nevertheless, genuine democracy (whether representative or direct) is a kind of open contract between the ruled and the rulers. It requires mechanisms for frequent adjustment, not merely a blanket vote once every few years.


7. If the democratic contract is denied or ignored or corrupted, then people will feel no obligation to accept its terms. They will no longer respect a supposedly impartial rule of law, and only submit grudgingly to forcibly imposed regulation. At every opportunity and without moral restraint, they will seek to evade or subvert imposed regulations for private gain. Systemic corruption is almost guaranteed in such an environment. To varying degrees, this remains the situation in most of the world’s 200 or so nation states.


8. State approved religions have often been used to “legalize” rule by force, and to disparage or outlaw democratic choice. Ideologies like Communism and various forms of Capitalism have had a similar role in some environments. Fortunately such validation by a “higher authority” has become an increasingly hard sell to well educated people worldwide. Nevertheless rulers in nations as diverse as Russia, Iran, China and the United States still find the “higher spiritual/ideological authority” tool useful to control parts of their constituencies.


c) Processes of Democracy


9. What is the effect on rulers of being elected by a democratic majority?  The effect is to give them confidence if they were elected by a large majority, or make them cautious if they were elected by a slim majority. Where the election was genuine, it strengthens their belief in the rule of law by consent. Where the election was fraudulent, it strengthens their belief that the electorate are fools to be abused.


10. What is the effect of making voting compulsory?


a) The effect of compulsory voting on much individual voter choice might not be great. Many people who lacked the interest or knowledge to vote where voting was voluntary could not be expected to exercise great care when forced to vote.


b) The effect of compulsory voting on rulers is extremely important. Where voting is voluntary, rulers have a strong interest in discouraging those who might not favour them. The largest number of those discouraged voters will be the poorest, the least educated, ethnic or other minority groups who are socially on the margin, the weakest in political competition, and those who see the state not as an umpire and service provider, but as a parasitic oppressor.  Therefore, under a compulsory voting system (say Australia), rulers have some incentive to look after everybody’s interests, even voters who might not easily favour them. Under a voluntary voting system such as, for example, the United States of America, rulers have a strong incentive to ignore, marginalize or disempower the weakest and most alienated parts of the electorate. Ultimately this weakens the cohesion of the state, and undermines its legitimacy. (Note that in U.S.A. even the right to vote by all citizens was not achieved until 1965).


11. In national democratic elections, do the majority of people usually choose knowledgably, or are they usually deceived to some extent? The answer to the first is no, and the second yes. Nevertheless, unless the betrayal has been extreme and very obvious, few are willing to admit in public that they were ignorant, or fools, so they tolerate the electoral outcome, and continue to abide by the rule of law.


12. There is a good argument that informed democratic choice is only possible where the electorate knows and cares about the issues intimately, and has a personal familiarity with those who are asking to represent them. This situation is likely in a village, possible in a town, improbable in a city of any size, and inconceivable in a nation state.


13. It follows from #10 that large, modern states have an acute problem in framing proper democratic choices, even when both the electorate and the governing class wish for optimum results. Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. Each of us has a useful understanding of only a small number of issues. The interests of tens of millions of electors are diverse and often clash. The governing policy choices required by those who are elected are frequently beyond their own understanding or prediction. A functioning modern state itself is a huge, dynamic mix of systems so complex that outcomes are frequently unpredictable. Those who govern, whether as a dictator or an oligarchy, or an assembly of elected representatives, are always riding many tigers.


14. Given the impossibility of having a fully informed electorate in a modern nation state, we have to think very carefully, and very adaptably about what can be expected of both rulers and the ruled.


15. Those who aspire to rule any complex an diverse modern state must be modest and consultative in their endeavours. The lives of millions of people cannot be credibly micro-managed. Their needs, hopes and ideas cannot be directed beyond the broadest principles. Governments can provide services. They can arbitrate, inform, educate, facilitate, protect individuals and groups where necessary (and that does not mean so-called security to protect administrators from embarrassment). Governments can optimize the opportunities for individuals to develop their own best potentials. Governments in consultation with stakeholders can decide the best allocation of resources to benefit the widest number of people. What governments have no business in becoming are fortresses to elevate and enrich a small ruling elite. Their role is not to concentrate power by collecting secrets and private information, but to disperse power by empowering the largest possible number of citizens.


16. The population which elects their rulers needs to be educated, constantly, honestly, and without propaganda, about the nature of the social contract they are entering into.


a) Voters must understand clearly that, first of all, each time they vote they are accepting in a broad way a shared and impartial rule of law. They are entitled to object strongly when that agreement has been violated.


b) Voters must understand clearly that a modern state is so complex that the decisions of rulers will always be a compromise, and that the outcome of choices will often be unpredictable. They are entitled to object strongly when the decisions of rulers are obviously arbitrary or designed to unfairly disadvantage one group at the destructive expense of other groups.


c) Voters must understand that their knowledge of issues is probably limited in range and depth. They must understand that this limitation is almost certainly true of their elected representative also. They must therefore be prepared to engage in a process of mutual education where issues arise. In electing a representative, they are therefore making an estimate of that person’s good judgement, goodwill and willingness to learn. Voters are entitled to object strongly if their elected representative turns out to exhibit these qualities poorly, or not at all.


d) Democracy on a Global Scale


17. If the democratic process has a problem when scaled to the size of a nation state, it has an immense (some would say insoluble) problem when considered on the scale of relationships between countries, or between countries and multinational corporations (which may exceed the size and power of countries).  


18. We are all aware of the claimed democratic nature of the United Nations, and the League of Nations before it. Those with a knowledge of those organizations are also aware that when it comes to significant decisions the United Nations has never been democratic, and where the forms of democracy are followed on more trivial issues, the implementation is frequently ineffective. The United Nations is a forum for negotiation, by fair means or foul, and not infrequently by corruption or coercion. Yet it appears to be better than having no forum at all. The same can be said of many regional-interest international organizations, alliances, and perhaps even for the European Parliament.


19. As the human world becomes ever more tightly integrated, the idea of “one ring to rule them all”, world government by a supreme tyranny, might seem ever more likely. That certainly seems to be the tendency of various forces promoting a “deep state” (e.g. think universal surveillance). Yet what is loosely called “the middle class”, meaning educated, aware and ambitious populations, is growing in almost every country. Historically, these have been the kinds of people who have demanded, and eventually achieved some form of democratic choice on the issues which affect their lives. I hope that they prevail in the struggle ahead.






Note that there are a vast number of organizations and documents purporting to define, defend or explain the term “democracy”. Some make genuine attempts to clarify the idea. However in an age of spin, words implying social power, such as “democracy” and “freedom” are also often appropriated as a cover for forces which most of us would interpret as their exact opposite. Black is white. Furthermore, in various ideological contexts, some uses of “democracy” are incomprehensible by the sense which others understand. For example, the Chinese national Constitution (whose provisions are widely ignored in daily practice as well as by many other Chinese laws and regulations) states that “China is a democratic dictatorship”. Hmm. In the essay above, I have taken my own track. The references below may convey a few extra perceptions.



Brisbane Times (July 3, 2013) “Women know less about politics than men”. @


Belgiorno-Nettis, Luca (April 22, 2014) "Forget democracy, we need a new way to govern". Brisbane Times online @


Burghardt, Tom (2012) “’Final Curtain Call’ In America? Deep Police State Surveillance And The Death Of Democracy”. Global Research Center for Research on Globalization. @ 


Davidson, Helen (24 June 2013) “Minority of young Australians prefer democracy”. The Guardian (U.K.). @ 


Democracy International – a European based organization. “Reports & Papers”. @


Grinstein, Gidi (04/15/2014) "The Essential Architecture of Small-Scale Networks". Huffington Post online @


May, Thor (2013)  “Discussion Topics” – a blog set up to service a bi-weekly live meetup for people in Brisbane, Australia who like to talk over some of the Big Questions in life, including democracy. @


Museum of Australian Democracy (n.d.) “Defining Democracy”. @


National Endowment for Democracy – “.. a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world” (their own description)  - funded by the United States Congress. @


O'Malley, Nick (April 11, 2014) "Congress members in call centres, raising funds". Brisbane Times online @


Open Democracy – a webzine (United Kingdom). @


Smith, Warwick (27 August 2014) "Part 1: Why politicians must lie – and how selling ice-creams is like an election campaign". The Guardian online @

Smith, Warwick (11 Septembe 2014) "Part 2: Part 2: Political donations corrupt democracy in ways you might not realise". The Guardian online @

Smith, Warwick (18 September 2014) "Part 3: If democracy is broken, why should we vote?". The Guardian online @



The Economist (United Kingdom), “Democracy in America” – a section in this magazine with a rolling collection of articles on American issues of democracy. @  


Tirman, John (2013) “The Quiet Coup: No, Not Egypt. Here.” The Huffington Post. @


United Nations (n.d.) “Democracy”. @ 


University of Sydney (2013) Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. @


Wikipedia (n.d.) “Democracy”. @





Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


academic repository: at
discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at


All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.



"The Democracy Problem" © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013