Having just finished reading a very interesting piece by the BBC on the dichotomy of the US elections and Chinese leadership change I began to think on the role of democracy within the state and whether, in fact it is necessary for good governance. By democracy I refer in rough terms to the election-based participatory system common in many states and originating in Europe.
Democracy has become a rarefied object, a fetish, of many states and, as a political narrative, has been used to invade, occupy, assassinate and impoverish. It has become a propaganda by-word for 'progress' and 'good' just in the same way that terms like terrorism are used to instill fear and a sense of national insecurity. By using these narratives in such broad and often politicized terms they have lost all true meaning.
It therefore becomes necessary to stand back and separate democracy from its own propaganda and assess whether it necessarily leads to better government. In other words if a state's success is measured by a variety of indicators (public legitimacy, economic growth, welfare provision, security etc), does democracy add anything that other systems do not already provide?
In terms of economic growth democracy is most often tied to liberal capitalist economics of one shade or another; while they could be separated academically in real terms such a distinction becomes so blurred as to be pointless. But in a world of financial insecurity, debt crises, huge austerity drives and national disillusionment with free-market economics it is hard to miss the comparative success of nations like China and Russia. While other democratic states maintain (somewhat shaky) growth these two nations especially demonstrate the lie in the ideal of democratic liberalism. China has risen on a steady and yet extremely large growth rate while maintaining a Communist government and decidedly undemocratic decision-making. Similarly, Russia has started to overcome the legacy of the fall of the USSR and continues to grow while having a government which while called democratic, limits the outcome of that participation to make it almost an autocracy.
Public legitimacy can be defined as the belief of the people in their government and the ability of that government to properly govern the state and its people. This is perhaps the most surprising area as the common belief is that with political representation comes the support of the population; if people elect the government then surely it has legitimacy. As the BBC article points out however, China enjoys huge popular legitimacy with between 80-95% of the population being relatively or extremely satisfied with the government with 91% supporting its handling of the economy. This is not to say that China is some form of political Eden. There is still a huge amount of inequality, popular unrest and government limits on press freedom. However, considering that Britain's score on the latter survey was a paltry 45% it demonstrates an extreme level of popular support for a state that democratic theory would argue should be extremely conflicted.
When looking at the provision of state resources to the population and the general maintenance of the state it is again not necessarily tied to the provision of democracy. Many democratic governments are extremely corrupt or rule over states with massive inequalities. The United States, the original leader of the 'free world' has one of the highest levels of income and public inequality in the developed world. Similarly, in terms of infrastructure the US provides woefully poor support in areas such as welfare and health infrastructure. China on the other hand is exhibiting some good signs of infrastructure growth; its high-speed rail network is currently the largest in the world and will soon overtake the combined figures of the rest of the planet. As another smaller example. Belgium spent over a year without an elected government and continued growing economically and making political decisions with surprisingly good ability (though some of that support and security can be said to come from the democratic system already in place). Again this is not to say that non-democratic states are better but that democracy must not be rarefied as the only way to bring greater state competency.
By no means is it correct to say that we should abandon democracy. This can lead to horrible moral and political tragedies like the rule of Fascism or the rise of Stalin. Similarly, it can lead to autocratic theologies like Iran or corrupt dictatorships like those currently being fought in the Middle East. This article simply cautions against imbuing democracy with extra-political meanings and seeing it as the cure for the worlds ills. It is a clearly imperfect systems which often does not provide the best results but can often provide the best protection of the population (and perhaps that is the ultimate goal of politics.) It is also clear that other systems should not necessarily be viewed with distrust or pity but rather it is necessary to encourage openness and dialogue in an attempt to share the good parts of these systems and grow as a combined human race.
BBC article - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20178655