Winston S. Churchill once said
Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
(Hansard, November 11, 1947)

In order to avoid really convoluted language, this writeup assumes that you live in a country with a robust form of democratic government. This writeup does not assume that you must live in such a country in order to believe in democracy!

Believing in democracy

Truly believing in democracy means:
  • also believing in freedom

  • understanding that a genuine belief in democracy is much much more than a few patriotic slogans

  • understanding that all of the mainstream democracies in the world today (partial list: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States - please see notes below) have democratic systems of essentially equivalent quality and robustness (i.e. no one country is more democratic than all the other countries of the world)

  • not losing faith in the system when the party or candidate that you voted for fails to win

  • exercising your right to vote at every opportunity

    • even if none of the candidates appeals to you
    • even if you don't think that your vote matters
    • even if you think you know who's going to win
    • even if it is a hassle (e.g. long way to the voting place)
    • even if you know who will win (this can happen to voters who live in a time zone which is west of the more populated parts of the country; there are almost always other issues on the ballot which need your vote)

  • not losing faith in the system when the party in power seems likely to remain in power for a very long time

  • understanding that a complacent electorate is very dangerous

  • understanding that a complacent electorate is only slightly more dangerous than a complacent government or complacent politicians

  • understanding the importance of "throwing the bums out" from time to time (just to remind them of who's boss)

  • having faith in the system even when the system appears to be unworthy of your faith (before all else fails, get involved in the system and help fix it)

  • taking the effort to become aware of the issues so that you can make an informed choice

  • not being a single-issue voter (i.e. explore all of the issues and where each candidate stands on each of them - you might be surprised at how much you disagree with the candidate who happens to agree with you on your most important issue)

  • actually making a choice each time you go to the polls (i.e. not just getting into the habit of voting for any particular party or candidate)

  • making yourself aware of how your system of government works

  • taking the time to understand why your system of government works the way that it does (see notes)

  • learning how other systems of government work so that you can get beyond the "we're the best because we're us" trap

  • understanding that the media's interests, the politician's interests, the political action committees' interests, lobbyists interests, and everybody else's interests are not necessarily the same as your interests and that it is foolish to believe:

    • that they will give the issues which matter to you as much time as those issues deserve
    • that they will give the highest profile to the issues which should be the most important to you

  • not paying attention to opinion pools as it doesn't matter how everyone else is going to vote - what matters is how YOU are going to vote

  • being suspicious of someone who tries to make a complex issue look simple (sorry but you just can't get there from here)

  • understanding the difference between suspicion, skepticism and cynicism

  • realizing that it is at least as important to tell your representative when they are doing something right as it is important to tell them when they are doing something wrong

  • understanding that if you aren't happy with what the government is doing then it is your responsibility to do something about it (i.e. get involved in the process and don't become complacent)

  • understanding that while it is true that some governments need to be overthrown using violent force, it is also true that in a democratic system the ballot box is far mightier than the sword

  • understanding that the reason that the system may appear to be broken beyond repair is almost certainly due to complacency on the part of the electorate

  • realizing that the answer to the question What did "we" do to deserve a government like this? is really simple - "we" voted for them

  • understanding that the most powerful weapon that a citizen has is their vote and that it is most powerful when the politicians currently in power are wondering what they can do to possibly get you to vote for them again next time (i.e. don't let them get complacent either)

  • believing that the other party's right to get their message out is at least as important as your party's right to get its message out

  • believing that every eligible voter has an equal right to vote regardless of which party or candidate you might think that they're going to vote for

  • respecting a person's right to keep their opinions, biases, intentions and beliefs private

  • respecting a person's right to keep their vote secret

  • understanding that your electoral system works, at least in part, because people believe that it works and doing everything in your power to ensure that the people's belief in your electoral system isn't misplaced

  • reporting any abuses of the electoral system regardless of whether the impact of the abuse helped or hurt your party or candidate

  • not interfering in the process or outcome of elections which you aren't eligible to participate in

  • understanding that the promotion of democracy around the world is more important than whether or not the democracies which result happen to agree with your country's views on any particular issue

  • accepting, respecting and upholding "the rule of law"

  • respecting the right of other democracies to pass laws which your country may happen to disagree with

  • understanding that if we don't reward the honest and hardworking politicians with our respect then the honest and hardworking members of our society won't run for office (i.e. they're not stupid)

  • understanding that rewarding the practice of sound bite journalism or the even more dangerous practice of sound bite politics weakens the system as it rewards those who believe that the citizenry isn't competent to understand complex issues (see notes)

  • understanding that a candidate or party with a long term view is almost always a better choice than a candidate or party with a short term view (see point about single-issue voting)

  • understanding that mechanisms like term limits are crutches that a weak democracy might need if and only if the electorate has become complacent (i.e a strong democracy has politicians who are genuinely concerned about their chances of getting re-elected)

  • understanding that the citizens of other countries have a different view of the world than the citizens of your country and that this difference of view can and will lead to legitimate differences of opinion between countries (even and especially on issues of great importance)

  • accepting the results of an election even if you don't like the result

  • remembering that the candidate or party which spends or raises the most money is (almost certainly) only the candidate or party who is the most desperate or who has the most desperate supporters (i.e. there is little if any correlation between the amount of money spent (or the amount of money raised) and the quality of the candidate or party)

  • understanding why the authors of the U.S. Constitution and the authors of the French Constitution believed in the separation of church and state

  • understanding that we get exactly the government that we deserve - no more and no less

  • understanding that you can't truly believe in something that you don't understand

  • understanding that truly believing in democracy is hard work

The proverbial to-do list

  • Read the U.S. Constitution (all of it) especially if you're not American.

  • Read the French Constitution (all of it) especially if you're not French (the French Constitution node explains where to find German, Spanish and English versions).

  • Write down:

    • (if you don't live in the U.S.) five solid reasons why the U.S. Constitution is better than your country's constitution (written or unwritten) and five solid reasons why your country's constitution (written or unwritten) is better than the U.S. Constitution
    • (if you don't live in France) five solid reasons why the French Constitution is better than your country's constitution (written or unwritten) and five solid reasons why your country's constitution (written or unwritten) is better than the French Constitution
    • (if you don't live in either the U.S. or France)
      • five solid reasons why the U.S. Constitution is genuinely better than the French Constitution
      • five solid reasons why the French Constitution is genuinely better than the U.S. Constitution

  • Take the time to understand how Britain functions without a written constitution (click here for a place to start) especially if you're not British.

  • Learn why the framers of the U.S. Constitution believed in the separation of church and state including why allowing the two to mix was considered bad for both church and state.

  • Learn how at least three of the following countries have implemented parliamentary democracies:

    • Australia
    • Britain
    • Canada
    • France
    • Israel
    • New Zealand

    (they are all different in interesting and important ways)

    Also learn how the democratic systems of at least two more of the example mainstream democracies listed at the top of this writeup work.

  • Even if you're not an American, read The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 papers written to explain why the then-proposed U.S. Constitution should be ratified.

  • The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the direct election of senators to the U.S. Senate. Expend the effort required to understand the position of more than a few "students of the U.S. Constitution" who argue that this amendment, which was intended to make the U.S. Senate more democratic, actually made it less democratic (you don't need to agree with them, you just need to understand the points which they raise).

  • Learn what the difference is between a pure democracy and a representative democracy.

  • Read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Shirer to learn how Hitler came to power via the ballot box (with the help of a fair bit of thuggery on the side, of course). Ask yourself what it is about your form of government which prevents a demagogue from coming to power via the ballot box? Saying "oh, THAT could never happen here" isn't an adequate answer because, truth be told, there are probably circumstances in which it could.

  • Read the constitution for a few of the old Soviet-block countries (if I recall correctly, the old Czechoslovakian one is a good choice). Ask yourself how countries with constitutions promising such rights and freedoms could have been so undemocratic. Hint: what's the actual, intrinsic value of a piece of paper with fancy words written on it?

Yes. It is a long list. Personally, I have a long ways to go before I finish doing everything on this to-do list. Take your time but get on with the job.


  • I have no plans to expand the list of examples of countries which have mainstream democracies (it is representative even though it is not complete). I will reduce the list if I've made a mistake (i.e. included a country which doesn't belong) so feel free to "clue me in"

  • while learning how your country's system of government works, make sure that you also learn why it works the way that it does. This will require you to spend some time reading the history of your country (they don't teach you this stuff in school or if they do it is so condensed as to be worthless). Pay particular attention to why key decisions were made.

  • penalize "sound-bite journalism" or any other media practice that you don't approve of by complaining to the advertisers of the news programs and by buying someone else's product. Don't bother to threaten a boycott as that tactic is pretty much worn out. Just vote with your money and they'll figure it out. You might even try telling the folks that you do spend money on why you're spending it on them (a little positive reinforcement never hurts).

  • penalize "sound-bite politics" or any other politician behaviour that you don't approve of by writing letters of complaint to the politicians involved and add it to the list of reasons to vote for the other candidate/party in the next election (if you don't see an improvement). Reward "assume the voter wishes to be informed" politics with letters of commendation and add it to the list of reasons to vote for them in the next election.

  • Be very suspicious of someone who suggests that the only way to fix a democratic system is to replace the system or make major changes to the system. Most democratic systems work pretty good and have sufficient mechanisms within them to deal with whatever problems may exist. The upheaval involved in replacing or revamping a system is often far worse than the problem which needed solving in the first place. Most people who advocate the replacement of a system are more interested in increasing their influence over the populace than they are in truly replacing the existing system with a system which is better for the populace (obviously, there are and have been exceptions to this).

  • I'm deeply troubled by the recent trend to voting via the Internet or via the telephone. My concerns are quite simple:

    • I am not convinced that any of these high-tech approaches to voting are sufficiently secure, robust, respectful of privacy or useful to be worth deploying
    • I am convinced that the relative ease of demonstrating that a manual system is secure, robust and respectful of privacy is a fundamental part of why the people's trust in the system is warranted (the fact that the system may not be as secure, robust or respectful of privacy as it should be isn't a reason to replace it with one which is harder to demonstrate that it is secure, robust and respectful of privacy)
    • I am convinced that it is a big mistake to replace the existing system with one which is fundamentally more difficult to demonstrate (to anyone who wants to know) its security, robustness and respect for privacy.

    Please note that this is not a perspective based on the technology which might or might not be available. Rather it focuses on why it is a bad idea to implement an electoral system using technology which a significant part of the electorate won't understand in sufficient detail to be able to judge for themselves.

    I am also TOTALLY opposed to any "but it will save money" argument. If our system of democracy isn't important enough for us to spend a few million dollars every few years to ensure that it both is and is widely believed to be secure, robust and respectful of privacy then there's something SERIOUSLY WRONG and saving a bit of money won't fix it!

    Finally, if voting over the Internet vs travelling to the local voting place (or providing either transportation or a trusted human courier service for the disabled and such) is a big enough difference to affect whether or not someone votes then I'm not sure if I want them to vote (see above points about the dangers of a complacent electorate).

    Yes, I realized that some folks, military personnel overseas being a classic example, are a long ways away from their "local voting place". Most electoral systems provide perfectly workable mechanisms (e.g. advance polls and mail-in ballots) to allow "far away" voters to vote if they wish to.

  • I'm not a believer in "pure democracy" (i.e. where everyone gets to vote on everything) as this leads, almost inevitably, to mob rule. We live in representative democracies for a very good reason: we elect our representatives to carefully consider the facts and make appropriate decisions based on the facts on our behalf. The fact that we can't "throw the bum out" until the next election allows our representatives to take a (slightly) longer term view and (hopefully) do what is right for the country.

    I'm not in favour of recall mechanisms for the same reason. If your form of democracy isn't strong enough to withstand a few years of unpleasant but constitutional government then maybe it's time for a new form of representative democracy (a very dangerous cure which can be much much worse than the disease so be very careful to not overreact).

  • The "to-do" list needs to be longer. Any suggestions?

  • None of the statements above is aimed at any particular person, group of persons or country. This specifically includes those statements which appear to be aimed at a particular person, group of persons or country. .

  • I've tied a belief in democracy to a belief in freedom. The logic here is simple - if you don't believe in freedom then you don't believe in the kind of democracy that I'm contemplating. Some have pointed out that I'm not constraining democracy in appropriate ways (e.g. prohibiting mob rule). I would argue that I've done that by tying a belief in democracy to a belief in the sort of freedom described in my believing in freedom writeup.

  • This writeup is a companion to my believing in freedom writeup. They both exist as separate writeups as it may be useful to be able to link to either of them.

  • I taught a course in London a while back. A British general election was being held on one of the course days. On the morning after the election, British newspapers were reporting that the turnout was about 60% which was down from about 72% in the previous election (the party in power was widely expected to win and did win the election by a comfortable margin). One of the students was a citizen and resident of an absolute monarchy. He asked me the following question:
    Why is it that people who have the right to vote don't vote?
    I sure wish that I'd had a good answer for him.

  • I believe that the greatest danger facing any of the mainstream democracies today is the complacency of their electorates.

    Just to be totally clear, I do not believe that terrorism poses any real danger to any of the world's mainstream democracies. It does pose a danger to the citizens of these democracies (and other states) but it does not pose any meaningful danger to the democracies themselves. In fact, the over-reaction to terrorism by some mainstream democratic leaders and states, and the acceptance if not outright support for this over-reaction by many citizens of the relevant states poses far more of a danger to these democracies than terrorism ever could.

  • I'm a Canadian citizen living in Canada.

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