Democracy. It is considered the ideal way of governing, a pathway to freedom – politically, spiritually and economically. It is the rallying cry for new and developing countries around the world. But even though it is fraught with corruption, greed, racism, apathy and anger - all other forms of government have been tested and have failed.
Earlier this year I traveled to Tunisia - the first Arab country to embrace democracy – to discuss ways to help bring greater transparency and democracy to the country. The discussions centered on figuring out the best path forward for the country. They are struggling with some of the most basic issues surrounding establishing a democracy – that in itself would take more than this blog to discuss. But one thing that was clear, those trying to govern had little trust in those they are governing – and those being governed had even less trust in those in power. This trust deficit is universal. No matter where I have worked and traveled – from Paris to Phnom Penh, Washington to Taipei, Mumbai to Amman – this truth exists.
The root of this deficit is simple – those chosen to govern often forget that trust must be earned from those being governed. Time and time again many of those that have been chosen to govern lose sight of where their power is derived and the need to earn and keep that trust from the people. They claim they believe in the power of the people yet work diligently at trying to limit that power – thus creating this deficit of trust. They fail to remember that the people don’t need to earn the trust of those that have been elected – they are the sovereign and must inherit that trust from no one – it is the truest of all tenets of civilization. But many of those whom we have chosen to govern - in their narcissistic manifestation of governing - feel that the people must earn their trust and that they must also protect the people by limiting their ability to exercise their sovereign rights.
It is this last point that it is the root of the bastardization of democracy. Winston Churchill, whom I admire deeply, made a statement that “[t]he best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Though in many ways I might agree with him, the reality is that it is not government’s responsibility, or right, to protect the people from themselves when it comes to how they choose to exercise their right to self-determination. I am not advocating that there be no check and balance on actions by the people nor am I advocating that there be no laws that are necessary to ensure the orderly construct of our society or that are necessary for the safety and security of our citizens or country. I believe in having a strong, fair and independent judiciary to ensure that the rights of the minority are unabridged and a representative form of government that handles the day to day management of our country. But I also feel that the people should be the final arbiter on laws that impact their right to self-govern. Any law that is passed by elected officials that in any way try to abridge the right of the citizens to make decisions should be put to a vote of the people. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “[l]et us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
But allowing the citizens to vote on important issues directly concerns some people. There are times when we might not agree with actions of the people, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong. As Jefferson once said, "[t]he force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to."
But even if the people do get it wrong – using whatever definition of right and wrong you choose - people have the right to be wrong. It is their choice and like most things in life it is self-correcting – the people will ultimately make it right – and if they don’t, nations rise and fall and that is a fact of life and is the epitome of the right to self-determination. To quote Jefferson again, “I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution.”
Since the beginning of time we have struggled with how to bridge the rights of the individual with the need to govern them. Wars have been fought to define it, millions of people have died for it, and people have sacrificed to be a part of it – it has been a long and messy struggle. But democracy, though not a panacea, has proven to be the solution that has continuously prevailed in this world of constant experimentation with the rights of the individual. But it can only truly exist through the unquestioned trust in the people. Even though that might be difficult at times, it is what we must do to in order to be true to what democracy is – the people as the sovereign. Once we lose faith in the people and begin to limit their ability to exercise their sovereign rights, then we approach the precipice of the abandonment of freedom and tipping point to opening the door to tyranny. I am afraid that we are heading down that path – as Ayn Rand said it so eloquently – “We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force.”
We aren’t there yet. But if we don’t step back from the precipice, if we allow our rights to be further degraded by those that govern us and we continue to feed their hunger to limit our power by showing our own lack of trust in the people, then we would have crossed the Rubicon into the territory of tyranny.
All the best,