Published On: Fri, Nov 15th, 2013

Is Democracy the Opium of the Masses?

Winston Churchill famously quipped that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”  With this statement he was expressing a view that many share: yes, democracy has its faults, but it is better than all of the alternatives.

Churchill’s opinions carry a lot of weight.  In a BBC survey of British attitudes in 2002 Churchill was voted by the British public as the greatest Briton to have ever lived.  Presumably for his rousing speeches and defiant stand against Hitler at the beginning of the Second World War.  With this level of support, verging on veneration, it is assumed by many that everything he said was equally great.

But was Churchill right?  Was he right about democracy?

Democracy today is in a terrible state in many of the most advanced democratic countries in the world.  Many people believe that the political system is broken, politicians are corrupt at best and incompetent at worst.  The system does not appear to work and this raises questions about the political legitimacy of democratically elected governments.

Don’t you think it curious that democracy – the concept of one person getting one, equal, vote – is rarely used in other aspects of human social organisation?  Is a general in an army democratically chosen by comrades in arms?  No.  Is a surgeon in a hospital democratically chosen by fellow doctors? No.  Is a head teacher in a school democratically chosen by fellow teachers? No. Is a company CEO democratically chosen by fellow employees? No.

Even in families, that most personal of social organisations, there is no democracy. Parents run their homes as paternalistic benevolent dictatorships. We literally grow up being told what to do by authority figures, at home, at kindergarten, at primary school, at secondary school and even at university. This continues throughout our working lives.

So why is a prime minster or president chosen democratically? Why are our congressmen, senators and members of parliament? What makes them so special that they use a form of selection that is not used anywhere else?

Democracy did not form spontaneously. It was created. It has evolved since it was created, do doubt. But it was created by people who had power. People who apparently gave up that power and voluntarily handed it to other people.

But one thing we know about human nature is that once you have power it is very hard to give it up.

Which raises an interesting question. Did they ever actually give up power?  Is the growing dissatisfaction with democracy merely the realisation by so many that democracy is merely the illusion of power? Are we like Dorothy pulling back the curtain to see that the great and wonderful Wizard of Oz is nothing more than a terrified old man pulling levers? We are disappointed and frustrated.

Is democracy the opium of the masses, to dull our senses so that we do not realise we have no power?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

HFN on Twitter