Democracy, the hidden autocrat

FMF Media_Daily Friend

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 30 September 2023

The twenty-first century has seen democracy all but become autocratic, like the dictatorships that the forces of democracy vanquished a century prior.

Militarisation of police forces, fortified protection for politicians, sky-high taxation, suffocating red-tape in every profession, attenuating property rights, indifferent state health care, poor state schooling, a weakened local currency, huge price inflation, and declining voter participation.

These are just some of the symptoms of democracy that we initially thought democracy would mitigate but have become a global democratic phenomenon. In the place of the liberty it promised, autocracy has risen.

Democracy has failed, or is this exactly what it was always meant to be? Our perceptions of democracy over the last century have often been at odds with its global manifestations.

As we navigate through the twenty-first century, we are ensnared by the conviction that communism crumbled in the previous century, leaving democracy as the triumphant victor. The allure of democracy’s freedoms, protections, and economic prosperity were simply too potent for the autocratic regimes and their consequent failures in major communist states to ignore.

Yet, in an ironic twist, has democracy itself not gradually morphed into the autocratic beast it sought to replace? Stripped of Western academic biases, contemporary democracy seemingly mirrors the autocracy inherent in socialist thinking. This begs the question: is democracy’s current autocratic bent an evolutionary offshoot of its own, original philosophy, or was it an unanticipated yet inevitable result thereof?

Democracy’s roots can be traced as far back as to Athens in the 5th century BC, but it was not until the Enlightenment period that thinkers like John Locke and Voltaire proposed a system of governance based on the will of the people, rather than the “divine” or inherited rights of rulers. As democracy evolved, it emphasised the protection and promotion of human rights, liberties, and political pluralism, providing the electorate with diverse choices and establishing checks and balances against one-party dominance.

However, there has been a trend of power consolidation in contemporary democracies. The United States is a stark example, where politics are overwhelmingly dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties. The idea of political pluralism is increasingly undermined, leading to a stifling of diverse political voices and viewpoints.

Newer democracies, such as South Africa, show similar trends.

Since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) has dominated the political landscape, leaving little room for significant opposition. This, coupled with widespread corruption, has led to a failure to deliver on promises like quality education and poverty reduction, resulting in criticism that South Africa is a failed democracy.

Democracy’s original vision has been further distorted with the rise of “career” or “professional politicians”, often lacking the relevant skills or experience for their roles, and yet assuming significant positions due to the absence of punitive measures and personal accountability.

Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon with no prior experience in housing policy, makes an excellent example of this. He was appointed as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the United States during the Trump administration. Despite his medical experience, Carson’s tenure was marred by accusations of ethical violations and misuse of public funds. There remains no evidence that he improved housing or urban development during his tenure.

Similarly, in South Africa, Faith Muthambi was appointed as Minister of Communications in 2014 despite having no background in communications or media. Under her tenure, the South African Broadcasting Corporation was plunged into severe financial and administrative turmoil. Nearly a decade later, it has not recovered. Muthambi is by no means the only example of this phenomenon in South Africa.

Accountability is almost non-existent in the political sphere, standing in clear contrast with the corporate world. While Enron’s executives were held accountable for their company’s downfall and the subsequent sufferings of their employees, politicians implicated in the 2008 financial crisis faced no such charges. This lack of accountability inherent in acquiring political positions attracts individuals with criminal intentions and leads to states riddled with corruption.

All these observations lead us to question whether democracy is still fulfilling its original purpose. Is it, instead, merely providing a platform for self-serving interests and attracting the criminally-minded? Is democracy, in its current form, as ‘bad as the worst’?

The systemic flaws of democracy demand a re-evaluation of its original philosophy. Has it strayed from its original intent, or was this always an unintended, but natural, evolution of the philosophy itself?

The exponential growth in the size of governments and the corresponding rise in the tax burden on citizens has resulted in reduced efficiency, a lack of transparency, and collapsing service delivery across the spectrum of democratic countries around the world. Governmental growth, driven by “professional politicians”, is more about control and self-interest, rather than public service. This evolution has led to a reversal of roles where the government no longer fears its people, contradicting the very principles of democracy as intended by the American founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Today we see the most diabolical ratios of government officials to citizens and taxation rates that would make monarchs from past epochs blush. The murder of political opposition members is now a daily occurrence in many countries, not least of which South Africa. This is a phenomenon that stokes fear, which keeps the very best among citizens away, and hampers democratic discourse.

Declining voter participation, apathy, and disillusionment with the democratic process among citizens, has decayed democracies around the world to the point where electoral outcomes hardly reflect the will of the people. Electoral data from the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and India illustrate significant decreases in voter turnout over the last two decades, raising the question of whether a system that fails to motivate a large portion of the citizenry to participate, can still be considered democratic.

Is democracy fundamentally flawed itself? Is it doomed to evolve into autocracy every time it is attempted? Or is it all just human nature?

The Swiss model of direct democracy seems to be the closest we have ever got to at least protecting the founding principles of democracy. But it, too, is fraught with its own challenges, requiring a highly educated, generally wealthy, and engaged citizenry to function properly. These are not characteristics generally found around the world’s populations today.

Perhaps like at the turn of the twentieth century, it is once again time for a concerted effort to be made towards finding a better system of governance, underscoring the need to return to the core principles of representation, accountability, and equality.

Who will perform this task? Certainly not those currently in power. The burden and cost of repairing the damage done will lie, as it has always, in the hands of the “man on the street”: he who has nothing left to lose, because all he had has been taken by the autocrat.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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