Debate It: Democracy

Debate It: Democracy

A compilation produced by the Singapore National Team that participated in the 2010 World Schools Debating Championships and International Public Policy Forum

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Series editor: Benjamin Mak Jia Ming

Team Members: Teoh Ren Jie, Adil Hakeem bin Mohammed Rafee, Ng Li Ki and Ashish Xiangyi Kumar

Guest contributor: Mr Lee Jia Wei

Coach: Mrs Geetha Creffield

1. The editor speaks

Competitive debate matters because it makes for individuals who can think and speak on issues of current concern with confidence and passion. More than that however, competitive debate is probably the single most important arena for the preparation of future men and women who will lead and influence the discourse our democratic societies need to envision and implement our aspirations for the future. Indeed, the noted German philosopher Jurgen Habermas goes so far as to argue in his masterpiece The Theory of Communicative Action that democracy is discursive at its heart and it is only if society comprises individuals committed to furthering such discussion that we have a hope of becoming what he terms as a ‘self-organising community of free and equal citizens.’

 

While democracy and debate are thus inextricably enjoined with each other, this issue is focused not on questions which can be debated within the democratic arena. Instead, we have decided to go one step further and discuss questions over the very value of the democratic arena itself, and the means by which the democratic sphere may be improved by the actions of individual citizens. The question of whether democracy can be furthered by deliberate decisions to break the law by individuals, which is technically known as civil disobedience, is one of particular concern within the ambit of this theme. For this topic, we would like to acknowledge the efforts of former national debater Lee Jia Wei who wrote the case materials and thus becomes our first guest writer for this publication.

 

Such a discussion is extremely important in the light of recent movements across the Middle East that sought to establish democracies as a replacement to the formerly autarkic regimes which existed there. As the spread of Western culture and ideas continues with the accelerating pace of globalisation, it is imperative to assess the potential detriments this may bring to traditional societies unfamiliar with the trappings of a politically empowered citizenry. Finally, it is timely that this issue examines the practice and systems of democracy just as Singaporeans are going to the polls at the start of May 2011, many of them for the first time in hitherto uncontested electoral constituencies.

 

As readers ponder the concepts associated with democracy and arguments surrounding its controversies, the editor hopes they will examine them not as static notions useful simply for the artificial setting of competitive debate. Instead, they are dynamic notions which define our fates as members of democratic communities while simultaneously offering us opportunities so yearned for by people living in oppressed areas across the world.

 

2. Democracy: A backgrounder

As the noted American Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis once argued, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.’ Insofar as democracy has succeeded in any country anywhere today, that is one of the key empowerments it has delivered to mature individuals. Nevertheless, what constitutes democracy and whether democracy is beneficial remain central controversies that have yet to be resolved. Since it would be less than productive for this paper written for aspiring debaters to merely contain a survey of academic literature surrounding these issues, the approach the authors have chosen here is to examine several key concepts and developments related to democracy to provide a basic framework on which further complexity can be added subsequently.

 

Two of the most frequently quoted references to democracy are as follows: (1) it is a word of Greek origin that denotes rule by the people, and (2) it denotes government of the people, for the people and by the people. In unpacking the logic of these statements however, it is possible to distil several basic premises that form the cornerstone of any democracy. Firstly, democracy is based upon equal respect for people based upon nothing else apart from their dignity as rational human beings. Secondly, democracy involves governing based upon the consent of the people. As a consequence, governments in democracy are legitimised to act to further the public interest, which typically denotes representing the majority’s beliefs and goals. However, our first contention arises when we consider the instrumentation through which we seek to accomplish these lofty goals.

 

Indeed, one of the central debates relating to democracy is the tension between direct and representative democracy. Simply put, direct democracy involves every citizen being involved in the process of governing directly. In Jean Jacques Rousseau’s conception of direct democracy in his noted treatise The Social Contract, he emphasises that the ‘Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled’ for it is only when this occurs that the general will of the people can be discovered. By contrast, representative democracy involves citizens voting at periodic elections for particular individuals to forward their interests in a national legislature. While no country currently practises direct democracy in its entirety, there are many notable jurisdictions in the developed world which have adopted elements of direct democracy to complement representative democratic mechanisms. According to an April 2011 special report in The Economist, the US state of California, which would by itself qualify as the world’s eighth largest economy were it to be considered as a single nation, has both a 120-seat legislature and the option for citizens to submit initiatives that can then be put up for a public vote. Such initiatives are then incorporated into California’s statutes if they are passed. Despite the seeming synthesis of direct and representative democracy in California, there is serious concern over the effects of direct democracy on the state’s ability to sustain itself well in the foreseeable future. With the passage of such bills as Proposition 13 which allowed for reductions in property taxes to the extent that the schools these taxes previously funded are now in severe jeopardy of collapse, the deleterious effects of populist citizen initiatives which cut taxes while expecting an expansion in the quality and quantity of public services are increasingly being felt by Californians. As early as 1861, the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill had warned in his work Representative Government against the tangible weaknesses of the participants and process in direct democracy. Mill claimed that even ‘at its best, [direct democracy] is inexperience sitting in judgment on experience, ignorance on knowledge: ignorance which never suspecting the existence of what it does not know…”

 

Apart from such concerns, there remains a deeper fear relating to the fairness of democracy as a political philosophy for governance which was expressed most eloquently as ‘the tyranny of the majority’ in Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal publication Democracy in America. In essence, this refers to the idea to the idea that because democracy involves ruling based on what the majority favour, this could result in oppressive policies that trample upon minority, as seen in the United States as early as the 1830s when indentured slavery of African-Americans by the Whites was permitted, as well as in Britain where women were denied the right to enfranchisement until 1928. This is arguably the largest systemic flaw that can be identified within any democratic system.

 

However, the very existence of the possibility of the tyranny of the majority does not imply therefore that democracy has fatal failings. Indeed, the presence of such documents as the Bill of Rights penned by James Madison within the American constitution suggests a solution to this problem: while the majority is allowed to rule, this rule is legitimate only to the extent that it abides by the protections and liberties accorded to minority groups in society. Extending the analysis further, we also need to take into account Winston Churchill’s noted aphorism that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. Putting aside Churchill’s obvious pessimism for a moment, the crux of his argument is that while democracy should be assessed for its merits independently, such an assessment must be made with an awareness of how other methods of political governance such as dictatorship and autocracy fare when they too are assessed independently. Thus, while the fairness of democracy continues to be a significant concern, it is perhaps of less immediate consequence when we examine democracy against other less savoury forms of governance that often involve a far higher level of concentration in terms of decision-making.

 

When assessing democracy, it is also imperative that we consider Plato’s conception of an ideal government as he saw it in The Republic. Plato argues that as much as we would not allow a medical student to carry out a heart transplant operation, we should not allow every single person to have an influence on the formulation of public policy because it is a task that demands the best out of even individuals who are highly-skilled. Hence, the government he envisioned for Greece was led at its apex by philosopher-kings who were supposed to be endowed with the germane knowledge required to rule their countries. While Plato’s argument might seem patronising to many since there have been many capable politicians including Singapore’s three prime ministers who do not have a degree in politics, it is worth reviewing the merits of Plato’s arguments in the light of Britain’s political system which maintains an unelected Upper House of Lords to provide advice on matters requiring specialist knowledge such as science and technology policy.

 

Interest in democracy, in particular citizen involvement in the implementation of democracy, has been stimulated principally by the wave of revolutions that have swept the Middle East in recent months, with Tunisia and Egypt having witnessed the successful defeat of dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak respectively. While citizen involvement has arguably been extremely successful in both these countries with a limited amount of bloodshed, the same cannot be said for the citizen-initiated democracy movements that have been ignited elsewhere in the Middle East. In Libya, the rise of ostensibly pro-democracy rebels against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship has spurred international intervention in the form of daily NATO airstrikes along with the sending of British military advisers to support the rebels’ military efforts in such areas as Libya’s third-largest city Misrata. Similarly in Syria, protests against the dictatorial regime of President Bashar al-Assad have triggered violent responses, with at least 15 people being killed by Syrian soldiers while they were involved in pro-democracy protests in Daraa in late March 2011.

 

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged to quit within thirty days in the face of mounting protests in the capital city Sanaa but it remains to be seen whether democracy will take root in the wake of President Saleh’s departure. Furthermore, there is growing anxiety that in the absence of even the autarkic regime of President Saleh, the world may witness an increased threat from the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has major operations there. In such situations, an assessment of the appropriateness of democracy for Yemenis may have to involve assessing the potential geopolitical risks that this can create beyond the Middle East region alone. The same is true for Iran where Western governments remain in a quandary over the extent to which they should support the student protest movements led by democrats like Mir Hussein Mousavi since this could result in violent clashes that might leave Iran’s suspected nuclear programmes potentially in jeopardy if the incumbent theocratic administration loses its stranglehold over the country. Hence, in assessing the suitability and benefits of democracy, it is important often to see the value of democracy not as an absolute and unchangeable constant, but as something which must be weighed relative to other factors and which can be traded off for alternative goals at least in the short run, in particular geopolitical security.

 

Separately, it is arguable that the world contains many illiberal democracies today, meaning places which have democratic institutions and mechanisms but which may not be considered to be truly democratic polities. To this end, one of the most frequently cited examples is Singapore, a place which is widely acknowledged to carry out free and fair elections and protects the rights of racial minorities but is also seen by many Western observers to lack key attributes of democratic life such as a free press and the absence of capital punishment. To the extent that nations like Singapore embody an alternative conception of democracy that many in the West would not consider democratic by definition, it stands to conclude that any discussion on democracy must necessarily be carried out with an understanding that the term encompasses a spectrum of countries which possess different features of democracy to varying degrees, rather than being a simple categorisation which strictly includes only a select group of countries.

 

In conclusion, democracy continues to be a much-contested concept and theme. Nevertheless, its enduring appeal is likely to stem from its ability to fulfil our desire for recognition from others, an innate need which Plato described as the thymos or spiritedness that each human soul possesses and which Francis Fukuyama argued in his masterpiece The End of History and The Last Man explains supposedly why the endpoint of Mankind’s progress as a political being lies with the liberal democratic stage

 

3. This House Believes That civil disobedience is never justified in a democracy

3.1. Case Basics

To start with, please note that civil disobedience is distinct from mere protests because the acts it covers must involve actually breaking the law for some moral purpose or other. Thus, unless protests or boycotts are illegal in a country, they are incidental to the definition of civil disobedience – South African blacks boycotting white merchants in the early 1990s was not an act of civil disobedience, but the black community’s decision to play in professional, integrated sports leagues despite the illegality of such a choice was.

 

The broad picture of the debate is quite straightforward. The Proposition will hold on to the principle that change should only be brought about democratically, in order for this change to be legitimately recognized. The Opposition will stand for the principle that unjust laws do not demand obedience, because it would be more moral and effective to disobey these laws.

 

The real difficulty in this debate, however, is not identifying the general principles. It is refining these principles to suit the strategic grounds of the motion. Notice that the motion specifically increases the burden on Proposition by demanding that they prove civil disobedience is never justified in a democracy. This means Proposition must argue using the broadest reasonable definition of civil disobedience. Otherwise, Opposition can simply scream back “no, we don’t support that particular kind of civil disobedience.”

 

The trouble is, most of the time we have only a very vague idea of what civil disobedience is. In a standard, meaningful preparation for this debate, we are likely to ask the following questions:

  • Does civil disobedience have to be violent? Even though civil disobedience is usually thought of as being nonviolent, some civil disobedience movements include an element of violence, like Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which systematically destroyed and sabotaged apartheid institutions ad supporters.
  • Does civil disobedience need to have an organized political goal? Civil disobedience is usually seen as an attempt by large classes of people to induce change in the political or legal order. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts of 1955, for example, are a clear example of trying to achieve some clear social change.
  • Does civil disobedience need to be public? This point relates to the previous question about organized political goals. Even if civil disobedience were at some level organized and political in nature, does it have to be public? Arguably we should declare our intention to break unjust laws, so as not to appear as if there were something deceitful or shameful about breaking this law.
  • These are definitional difficulties that Proposition in particular should anticipate. In general, they need to be prepared to deal with all the possible permutations of Opposition’s stance. A useful tip for substantive construction here is to discuss a broad spectrum of civil disobedience movements, and explaining why each of them is wrong with reference to your base argument.  However, while discussing each point of the spectrum, you should devote most of your attention to the points which Opposition are most likely to propose. For instance, it is unlikely that Opposition will lend their support to violent, isolated political movements like variants of Neo-Nazism. Therefore, you should devote more time to discussing coherent, peaceful protest movements like the Black Civil Rights movements.

 

Likewise with Opposition, it is important that you be able to choose the appropriate circumstances within which civil disobedience takes place. Do not, obviously, choose to champion silly movements that murder because they believe in anarchy. Establish clear and fair criteria for civil disobedience movements. This may include, inter alia, political organization, an established and just moral aim, or the lack of alternative avenues to effectively express dissent.

 

The following sample arguments, therefore, will be structured along the spectrum of possible civil disobedience movements. Where any point of this spectrum may prove to be an unlikely or potentially untenable argument for Opposition, I will mark it out. You should pick for yourself what you believe to be the most effective set of criteria upon which to construct a case for this debate.

 

3.2. Case arguments

Proposition

Opposition

1

Civil disobedience at its most extreme means individuals disobeying laws because they personally believe it to be immoral, sometimes becoming violent in order to achieve these aims.

 

The harms here are obvious – most of these movements only violate basic moral laws like respect for human life and dignity. They also destabilise the foundations of law and order upon which democratic society relies.

 

Examples of this include Jihadist splinter movements all across Southeast Asia, or white supremacist movements like the KKK that promote, among other cruelties, cross-burning and public lynching.

It is not advisable to construct an argument based on this most extreme variant of civil disobedience. It loses you the moral high ground, and makes you seem like you are protecting people bent on destroying society. Unless you are a very skilled and adventurous debater, this is an unwise position to defend.

2

Civil disobedience may take the form of violent acts that militate against clearly unjust laws.

 

The problem here is not that that goal is illegitimate; it is that the means are illegitimate. Most of these movements seek to remove social oppression by becoming oppressive themselves. It is an absolute moral hypocrisy to claim that one is standing for human rights when we are taking lives away in pursuit of these rights.

 

More crucially, these violent movements are principally ineffective at achieving their aims. If the reason for civil disobedience was a rent in relations between classes of people leading to oppression, violence between these 2 classes will only exacerbate this divide. Any ensuing negotiations and solutions are only going to be poisoned by violence.

 

For instance, the South African apartheid regime’s negotiations with the ANC only began in earnest after the ANC ceased its violence, and refocused its efforts on boycotts of white-sponsored goods. Violence and disobedience had far less of an effect than the invisible hand of economics in demanding political attention and resolution.

Civil disobedience that is violent but has a clear and just political goal is desirable because it prevents more long-term suffering.

 

Not all democracies promise equality of representation. Many democracies are prejudiced and systemically unfair. This means that, often, there are no real means of expressing dissent other than by directly disobeying these laws.

 

Indeed, one may regard violent disobedience of laws as a form of self-defence, the only means left of protecting one’s people from the oppressive hand of rogue democracies.

 

For instance, even though the occupied territories are, in name, democratically governed by Israel, Palestinian peoples living on those lands have scarcely any real say in the political scene. They have to suffer unfair terms set out by the Oslo Accords that allow Israel to violently reclaim land at a moment’s notice. The 2nd Intifada, and the numerous uprisings staged by Hamas, are arguably a necessary defensive manoeuvre.

3

Even nonviolent movements hold no purchase in a democracy.

 

First, let us not pretend that a nonviolent movement is necessarily peaceful. Many of them often degenerate into chaos, because the movement’s leaders cannot impose order. More importantly, these movements rely on public disruption in order to generate attention and force people into focusing on their plights. It is a thorough hypocrisy to say they are protecting the future peace when they are destroying the present one.

 

The Egyptian civil disobedience movement of 2011 is a clear example. Not only was there widespread looting and rioting, leading to over $90 million lost in national treasures and infrastructure, the protests paralyzed public services like trains, emergency services and airports.

 

Second, governments often respond to civil disobedience with violence of their own. If these governments are as oppressive as they seem, they will respond with violence.

 

For example, the Intifadas in Israel’s occupied territories were met with violent crackdowns that resulted in thousands of lost lives, and no political resolution whatsoever.

 

Third, any attempt to bypass democratic legal channels is an attempt to subvert these democratic channels. This suggests that we may as well not have a democracy – the fastest way of achieving change is to avoid the polls and hit the streets. This also means that change will not be organic and properly accepted by the vast majority of people, even if it were achieved.

 

For instance, the removal of the Jim Crow laws by the Supreme Court in 1954 was instigated by widespread social unrest. On the one hand, this example suggests that even civil disobedience movements rely on democratic channels for change, rendering them only nominally effective. On the other hand, because the social change was not effected in sync with social mores, integrated racial systems in schools only led to more beatings and violence across America. This victimizes black people, many of whom were not even involved in the civil disobedience movement.

First, an unjust law is no law at all. Laws do not in themselves deserve obedience – they deserve obedience only when they are fair and moral. Democracies vote in governments to protect the people’s interests, but when they do quite the opposite and tyrannize people, these laws must be revoked. It is why the constitution exists – as a necessary protection of these natural rights.

 

The line as to what is moral and what is not can sometimes be unclear, but in many instances it is uncompromisingly sharp. In such cases it is a right to disobey them.

 

For example, segregation laws in buses and workplaces in 1950s America were obviously unfair. Rosa Parks choosing to sit on the “white side” of the bus, therefore, was not an immoral act, but one of preeminent justice.

 

Second, nonviolent disobedience often serves as a beacon for wider social change. By staking a strong moral claim to essential rights, people can send powerful signals across society to instigate change through democratic, legitimate means.

 

For example, Martin Luther King’s sprawling civil rights movement began with simple acts of civil disobedience like those of Rosa Parks. More importantly, the movement’s political effects inspired black people to raise unfair laws to the attention of the Supreme Court – Brown v Board of Education having been one such case inspired on the strength of the Black civil rights movement.

 

More significantly, civil disobedience helps to create sympathy both domestically and internationally by raising issues of unfairness to the public eye. Again, with reference to the black civil rights movement, white support for black civil rights actually increased significantly following the Albany movements in 1961. Save for extreme racists, most white people actually began to question and stoke their moral loyalties after civil disobedience movements, suggesting organic change begins only when we stop delaying the onset of justice and take action about it.

 

 

  • These arguments are not exhaustive. The problem with them is that they are very general arguments that pay insufficient attention to the word “democracy” in the motion. This is a necessary by-product of a less technical, more basic overview of the motion.
  • In order to remedy this problem, more advanced arguments about the moral claims that democratic laws inherently make should be forwarded. A useful book on this topic is “Law and Morality” by Kent Greenwalt, which examines theories of social contract, promissory obligations, and equality of treatment, in the context of the demands for moral obedience that law inherently claims.
  • Another useful text to consult when examining the implications of violence on social change is “Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea” by Mark Kurlansky. This book introduces in a very accessible way the history of nonviolence, beginning with Mozi in Ancient China, stretching to cover Christianity and its history of nonviolence, and concluding with nonviolence in Israel, South Africa and Germany. I did not make reference to this book in this brief because it refers to civil disobedience movements mostly in non-democracies.

 

4. This House Believes That when an elected representative puts the opinion of his constituency above his personal judgment he fails to serve the public interest

4.1. Case Framework

This motion is very narrow in scope for interpretation, but the tensions it raises go right to the heart of the principles of representative democracy. Should populism be a guiding principle for representative democracy, or should elected representatives take it upon their consciences to vote by their personal judgments?

 

An elected representative is a member in a country’s legislature. His (or her) membership is contingent on being voted in at regular elections. In representing his constituency, he or she is expected to serve the public interest.

 

How does one determine the opinion of his constituency? Polls by independent polling organizations often effectively measure public opinion, which already forms the basis of a lot of political commentary, and helps inform the decision making of elected representatives.

 

Thus, the debate’s focus should really be on situations where the personal judgment of an elected representative differs from the opinion of the constituency he is supposed to represent.

 

4.2. Case arguments

Proposition

Opposition

The elected representative is not simply a vote by proxy. If the opinion of his constituency is always going to reign supreme, we might as well do away with the system of representative democracy altogether. Direct democracy allows us to always achieve the opinion of the constituency. (Especially effective if both sides already concede the basic framework of representative democracy).

 

There is a reason why opinion poll results do not dictate government – though they give us indications of the opinions on the ground and inform us.

 

Personal judgment is not the equivalent of selfishness. It is a calculated position based on his information, his experience, the opinions of his electorate (yes that plays a part), and his personal values.

The elected representative is meant to represent the precise opinions of his constituency.

 

In voting for an elected representative, the electorates do not completely surrender their rights to fair and accurate political representation to their representative. He is a channel for communicating their interests, not the arbiter for their interests.

 

For critical issues that the electorate has formed clear opinion on, the elected representative is bound by duty to legislate along those lines.  He should not vote by his whims and preferences.

 

The elected representative is also expected to legislate for the nation, not just for his individual constituency. A policy may be unpopular with his constituency but good for the nation and hence benefits the wider public interest. If his conscience is in line with the national good, it is permissible for him to vote in the public interest.

If a constituency is generally unhappy with a certain policy, then that discontent should be registered at some level of the legislature – presumably by a nay vote.

The opinions of constituencies are sometimes majoritarian and/or discriminatory in nature – but the elected representative should take it upon himself to represent his constituency in full, instead of just those in the majority. This would require his personal judgment – acquiescing to the majority means that the public interest is not served.

(In response to Opposition’s column) This should not be left to the courts; moreover, the constitution is not a perfect check on the tyranny of the majority.

Assuming a proper separation of powers, the courts will serve as a constitutional check on whatever legislation elected representatives pass. The tyrannies of majoritarian rule have a check and balance in the courts

An elected representative is entrusted with the power to act on behalf of his electorate in general. The electorate already takes into account his character, past voting record and general profile when deciding to vote for him.

 

Further to this, when a candidate stands for election in the modern day he expresses a stance on a plurality of issues already. If, on aggregate, the voter casts his vote agreeing with the elected representative’s position on a majority of issues, then the vote he casts is not a vote for an elected representative who must necessarily represent his identical view on every single issue. If that were to be the case, then Opposition is instead arguing for the abolition of representative democracy which is accompanied by serious difficulties which are not linked directly with this debate.

 

Indeed, if the electorate does not find that he satisfactorily caters to their interest and surfaces their needs within his term, he would be voted out in the next election.

An elected representative tends to be elected because of his views on a number of critical issues, and because there are only a limited number of candidates. This should not be taken to be a blank check for him to push his personal agenda in other issues.

 

Where the nature of his mandate is in doubt, he should always revert to the opinions of his constituency. It is quite unlikely that the electorate would unconditionally rubber stamp all the policies that a particular elected representative champions, even if he has their support on some crucial policy.

 

This arrangement results in a more optimal situation where elected representatives legislate better in line with their electorate.

Electorates are notoriously fickle and easily swayed by arguments. They cannot effectively decide what is in their public interest.

 

They have come to demand excessively from their elected representatives.

 

For example, electorates want lower taxes but are unwilling to make significant sacrifices in terms of government services.

 

If elected representatives were to let the opinions of his electorate dictate their decision-making at all times, there would be permanent gridlock in legislation.

 

Part of the role of the elected representative is to convey the hard truths and sell certain necessities to the electorate.

What is the public interest? It is often notoriously ambiguous because many policy decisions are double-edged swords. Improving the manufacturing industry in a town may bring with it environmental consequences that affect the health of locals. Who is to say what the public interest is?

 

It should be left to the constituency to decide what the public interest is. The concept is often vague and ambiguous. It should be left to the community to decide what they value more.

 

 

Moreover, the issues of modern governance have become excessively complex, way beyond the comprehension of the common man. The elected representative needs to help make sense of it and legislate wisely

The entire point of the politician is to communicate these points to the common man, and facilitate an informed discussion among his constituents, the result of which he conveys in parliamentary debate. If elected representatives only carry out the first function but not the second, then they have failed to meet their commitment to voters.

Elected representatives that constantly pander to the electorate by only result in a situation where voters constantly make unreasonable demands and push their representatives further to the extremes of policy.

This lack of moderation causes legislative gridlock which contravenes the public interest.

The long-run development of representative democracies will only be helped by the situation. When elected leaders take your opinion far more seriously you take a far greater active interest in the issues that affect you.

 

An educated, informed and engaged electorate is necessarily in the public interest.

 

 

5. This House Believes That democracy is the best form of government for every country

5.1. Where the debate lies

5.1.1. Proposition

Proposition teams in this debate should recognize that they have the unenviable burden of proving that democracy is better all the time. Thus, any attempt to limit the motion to specific types of nations is clearly against the spirit of this debate. However, it is not necessarily the burden of Side Proposition to prove that democracy will solve every problem. Rather, it must simply prove that there are no better alternatives. A Proposition team that points this out when rebutting opposing arguments saves itself from arguing an almost untenable ground.

 

5.1.2. Opposition

While the motion seems to indicate that all Side Opposition has to do is to prove a single instance where democracy is not the best form of governance, judges typically frown on debating upon such narrow grounds. Instead, the better option is usually to choose a specific class of nations or set of conditions where democracy is not the best form of government, and prove one’s case from there. Furthermore, note that Side Opposition does not necessarily have to prove that alternative forms of government are BETTER than democracy – merely proving parity is enough to justify its’ side of the case. Intelligent application of this principle can make for some interesting debates.

As a final note, this motion does not require Side Opposition to advocate any particular form of government, but teams may choose to do so if they feel it helps to clarify their case.

 

5.2. Set-up

5.2.1. Definitions

Side Proposition will need to clarify what exactly they consider “democracy”, and what exactly they mean by “best form of government”. Should Side Proposition attempt too generous a definition of democracy, Side Opposition will almost certainly attack them on it, potentially making for a messy debate. In the interests of a good debate, it is advisable for Side Proposition to stick to a bare bones and encompassing definition, and to choose a similarly commonsensical yardstick to measure “best form of government”. However, a definition of democracy that does not include its numerous checks and balances might be too generous to Side Opposition, resulting in a lot of needless pain for Proposition. It is up to individual teams to choose their preferred slant themselves.

5.2.2. Sample Definition

Democracy is defined as “majority rule with minority rights”. “Majority rule” means that governments must rule with the express consent of the majority of a populace, and step down when elections indicate that the majority opinion is no longer on their side. At the same time, a government cannot be considered democratic unless it guarantees a basic amount of inalienable “minority rights” through a constitution or the courts. These vary from nation to nation, but at the minimum must include the right to vote and participate in the political process – after all, a government that prevents its own people from voting cannot be called a democracy!

We recognize that different countries might implement these ideals in different ways, but as long as they meet the above two criteria we would consider them democratic.

 

5.3. Case arguments

Proposition

Opposition

Democracy Dignifies Humanity

Everyone searches for meaning in their own life in different ways, but what is common to us all is that we need rights to empower and dignify us. Without rights, we cannot achieve our ambitions and the dignity that comes from pursuing it. Democracy is the only form of government that gives us these rights, because it is the only form of government where the people serve as a check and balance on the government. In a democracy, when the people decide that a government is taking away too many of their rights, they can vote them out of power. In any other form of government, they would not be able to do so.

 

Furthermore, democracy innately guarantees the right to vote and participate in the political process. This also necessitates the guaranteeing of other rights upon which these rights depend – the right to life or the right to freedom of speech, for instance. While different democracies guarantee these rights to different extents, at the very least they recognize some basic conception of these rights. In every other form of government, governments can take these rights away at a moment’s notice. It is only in democracies that these rights are truly protected.

Democracy Causes Ethnic Strife

Democracy is not suited for nations comprised of ethnic groups that possess historical differences or grievances aimed at one another. These nations need the strong hand of an authoritarian ruler to stay intact, for giving them the democratic vote will lead to political turmoil and bloodshed. This happens because ethnic groups use the ballot box as an instrument of revenge, seeking strength in numbers to strip other ethnicities of their civil rights. Even a constitution and courts does not preclude such violence, for the even mere political debate can lead to a inflaming of forgotten passions.

 

An example of such a nation would be the Former Yugoslavia, which remained in relative peace when it was governed by strongman Marshall Tito. The democratic elections that took place after his death caused his nation to split into the rival states of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, who started a war that claimed over 200000 lives.

 

Democracy Ensures Peace

Democracy ensures peace within a nation because it is the only form of government that allows for a peaceful transition of power. Under other forms of government, people who are fed up with their rulers must resort to violent revolt to remove them. Democracies avoid this bloodshed by allowing people to vote out rulers they feel are inefficient or corrupt. Filipinos voted out President Gloria Arroyo when it became clear she had rigged the 2006 election, and Britons voted out Gordon Brown when he mismanaged the financial crisis of 2008. In contrast, the people of the Middle East have had to resort to violent and often bloody methods to remove their dictators in the Arab Spring. Even peaceful movements like the protests of 1989 still elicit violent responses from the ruling regime – while the regime may ultimately be toppled without use of armed force, many protestors will undoubtedly be brutalized before it is forced to such a stage. There is no need for such violence in a nation governed by democracy.

 

Democracy Causes Poverty

Democracies often fall prey to populist policies that may be popular with voters but make no economic sense. Nations that are in their early stages of economic development should focus on industrialization and free trade, but the pressures of the ballot box and the short-term mindset of an uneducated electorate can force their attention to other issues instead. Worse still, developing country politicians are often pressured to implement protectionist policies that save jobs in the short-term but leave their nation mired in poverty in the long run.

 

Just compare the differing rates of growth in Indonesia before and after the regime of their former dictator, Suharto. Under Suharto’s regime, Indonesia pursued policies of trade liberalization calculated to attract foreign capital and expertise, causing breakneck growth that brought millions out of poverty. After his downfall in 1998, various Indonesia politicians have implemented short-sighted policies of protectionism and unsustainable populist policies like fuel subsidies. Indonesia’s economic growth rate has never been the same again. Clearly, certain developing countries may benefit more from an authoritarian hand.

 

6. THBT the Internet has done more good than harm for democratization

6.1. Overview

Essentially, the Internet is a common platform for people to share information of any sort – be it on their personal lives or public issues. The Internet has made communication much easier in several ways:

  • The speed at which information travels
  • The number of people one can communicate with at once – from the other point of view, it is about how easy it is to a) access the Internet to receive information and b) to upload information 
    • The Internet is a massive common platform that outrivals mobile phones (you don’t need to know a person’s mobile phone number / email to post on a forum
    • Even Somalia and Kenya have good Internet infrastructure, due to optical fibre cable networks…see The Economist online
  • The specificity of communication (targeting emails, social media profiles etc.)
  • The time and effort taken to use the Internet (i.e. user-friendliness) 
    • Compare the amount of time, expertise and effort needed to produce a radio / TV programme vs. a blog post
  • The amount of information that can be stored on the Internet
  • The ability to organize said information and pick out desired ones at will, any time 
    • Search engines e.g. Google which return information based on key terms – and information can be stored easily and permanently, unlike newspapers / TV/ radio (unless you use the Internet!)
    • News / info stores and aggregators like the Economist, Huffington Post, Wikipedia
    • The ability to share information relatively anonymously
    • E.g. proxy servers / anonymous names on forums, email and social network sites
    • Counter e.g. IP addresses – but unless you are registered with an ISP, it is hard to track you down
  • The inherent uncontrollability of the information posted (it is hard to censor specific information without shutting down the Internet altogether) 
    • Some information is hosted on foreign servers beyond your control – the best you can do is to block viewing of those sites from within
    • Those sites within your country can be shut down – if they can be found. Search engines are good at finding them, but not all the time, especially if such engines are blocked by either state or individual

These advancements are not necessarily morally good or bad, but they are real changes all the same. How they affect democracy depends on what democracy relies on, namely:

  1. Freedom of information
  2. Freedom of expression
  3. Right to privacy

This is consistent with the idea of democracy – that everyone deserves the right to govern themselves by having an equal stake in decision making, through the vote and through speech. In order to make a vote that truly reflects their interests, citizens need to know how the decision / issue affects their interests – hence the need for freedom of information. One can tell that freedoms of information and expression are two sides of the same coin (the right to receive information and to spread it, respectively). The right to privacy, of course, prevents the state from tracking specific individuals down to punish them for their political beliefs – which in turn prevents state repression and promotes independent decision making by citizens i.e. democracy.

 

This debate is therefore about whether Internet protects or destroys these democratic freedoms.


Democratization, then, refers to the advancement of state government towards a democratic system (democracy in other forms is hardly relevant to all parties e.g. business decision-making). It can take place in currently non-democratic countries, or it can take place in democracies (there is always room for improvement). In particular, non-democratic countries face this issue because they cannot enjoy full economic prosperity without innovations like the Internet, which facilitate trade by giving economic actors information to make profitable decisions, but it comes at the cost of weakening the autocrats’ power (or perhaps not?)

 

In any case, as you will find out, the Internet has massive effects on politics (and even these effects may themselves swiftly change in the future) despite being only 20-odd years old, because advancements in Internet technology are quick to come, and powerful.

 

So are we better off with the Internet than without it, in terms of democratic freedoms?


6.2. Burden of proof required

Proving the motion involves defining:

  1. What democratization means
  2. What is needed for democratization to happen
  3. How the Internet inherently facilitates the meeting of such needs

6.3. Parameters  for the debate

  1. The phrase ‘has done’ suggests that its future incarnations or effects are thus irrelevant, unless they are an inevitable continuation of what is already happening.
  2. Therefore, the Opposition does have the right to discuss the effects of an adulterated Internet in its current form, because it makes no sense to debate an idealized model.
  3. The Internet’s imperfections cannot constitute ‘more harm than good’ unless they have made things worse than before.
  4. Do not blindly discuss the generic harms / benefits of the Internet, for fear of being irrelevant.
  5. Similarly, just because there have been recent, groundbreaking changes in the world, it does not mean the Internet played a significant role in creating that change.
  6. Good and harm should be generalized to the world as a whole, or significant groups of countries / communities – small points bear little relevance in this debate.
  7. This is not a debate about whether democracy is good!

 

6.4. Case arguments


Proposition

Opposition

The Internet undermines autocracies

Autocracies depend on the suppression of popular support using the ‘divide and rule’ principle – the monitoring of communications makes it impossible for people to organize themselves into a revolution without being caught; the mere fear of being caught prevents people from initiating the undercover process in the first place, harming democracies.

The Internet, however, guarantees anonymity to its citizens, and therefore allows the posting of dissident viewpoints and the solicitation of support (including the planning of real-life rallies) without being identified and arrested by the authorities. Only with this aggregation of support can effective steps be taken to overthrow autocratic regimes and install democracy. For example, the Twitter ‘revolution’ in Iran has considerably destabilized the ruling theocracy, while in Egypt they actually succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak’s regime.

Furthermore, the use of the Internet allows those in non-democratic countries to reach out to those already in democratic countries, fostering foreign support which could pressure foreign governments to do more to advance democracy in the non-democratic country.

The Internet strengthens the ideological grip autocracies have on their people

Autocrats’ power partly depends on the creation of a false reality, to convince the ordinary people that all is well, or to create a false enemy for the nation to unite against (presumably with the autocrats leading the charge). This is accomplished by controlling and manipulating all sources of information available – and the Internet is no exception.

The Internet is still susceptible to massive censorship – China and Russia have state departments dedicated to Internet censorship, and have been able to block many dissident posts based on key word searches and tracking of activists. They also release their own sanitized, monitored version of social network, news, search (e.g. Baidu, which controls 66% of the search market in China) and forum sites while censoring foreign versions of those sites – effectively silencing political activists. In their place, they place up substantial pro-government propaganda by hiring writers to do the job, and with their monopoly on Internet services, have a captive audience for their propaganda.

While activist voices are still present, such countries have managed to influence the populace to favour the state and oppose activists, which is why the online world is peppered with anti-dissident nationalist sentiments, stymieing the progress of democracy. Examples of issues they censor include the detention of human rights lawyers, while portraying dissidents as foreign spies on the Internet.

The Internet safeguards alternative views

Democracy requires the freedom of expression and right to privacy, for the reasons mentioned in the overview. In particular, it is about preserving the freedom of expression of alternative voices, which autocratic governments may not tolerate since they fear challenges to their rule.

The Internet, with its ability to maintain the anonymity of its contributors while lowering the barriers to entry to expressing views online, has become the friend of alternative views by preventing reprisals as a result of non-anonymity, and overcoming the problem of being blocked by biased traditional media – this has made the Internet a guardian of democratic expression.

The Internet helps to identify and eliminate alternative voices

Yet the Internet violates the right to privacy e.g.  because the increasing openness of social networking sites, which many activists use to spread their discourse, allows states to track down these activists (which post their real-life details on such sites to facilitate communication).  This may be done by the Internet company without activists’ consent, or by computer programs initiated by state intelligence agencies. Even more insidious is the tracking of IP addresses (and subsequently, the real-life address by matching records with the ISP) or the setting up of fake proxy servers by the Chinese government to track down people who use such sites (and are thus likely to engage in undercover activism).

This allows states to isolate and take action against activists (e.g. arrest and torture), resulting in the prevention and discouragement of expression of alternative voices by activists. This violates democratic principles, but it also prevents the rallying of support for democratic reform in the long run.

The Internet stimulates political participation

Participation is essential to democracy; without participation by ordinary citizens, their interests cannot be represented. The Internet facilitates increased participation by citizens in a few ways: the sharing of information and alternative viewpoints for a better decision-making process, and the organization of networks and volunteers to forward particular causes. This is because of the Internet’s capability of bringing many people together on a common platform for discussion and soliciting support, which benefits democracy e.g. MoveOn.org aggregates change-minded people together and gives them opportunities to become volunteers for real-life causes.  In real-life, people might have been hard-pressed to locate meaningful opportunities for political contributions.

Furthermore, the ease of simple political acts like signing online petitions in favour of causes has encouraged people to get more involved in politics, at least on a basic level, which gives hope to those wishing for more concrete participation in the future – at the very least they are more informed about the political process and interested in contributing to it, having experienced a taste of it.

The Internet weakens law and order

Central to democracy is the notion that all individuals are equally valuable and worth defending. In order to turn this notion into reality, individuals have an equal say in government, but also an equally powerful set of rights that are only protected by law and order.

The Internet, due to our increasing reliance on it, makes us increasingly vulnerable to breakdowns in law and order by facilitating cyber attacks and terrorism, in two different ways respectively. This undermines citizens’ rights, as individuals and as nations as a whole, weakening democracy.

Terrorism, in particular, is the imposition of a specific group’s will on the nation as a whole (despite the government enjoying a majority mandate) through the use of violence (violating citizens’ right to bodily integrity, life and freedom from fear).

It is facilitated by the Internet because the Internet’s ease of communication and evasion of censorship allows terror groups to easily attract many recruits by posting persuasive materials promoting terrorist ideology. Furthermore, the anonymity of communication prevents the tracking down of such dangerous individuals and knowing (and preventing) terrorist plots.

Examples include the proliferation of Al-Qaeda websites which post extremist Islamic teachings to convert potential recruits, teach them to make bombs online, and thus facilitate the growth of self-radicalized terrorists like Major Malik Nidal Hassan, who went on a shooting spree in a US military base.

Cyber attacks can undermine individuals, groups or nations e.g. by forcibly shutting down websites through such attacks, they can violate our right to free expression – the distributed denial of service attacks against social networking sites to remove all mention of the Georgian political blogger ‘cyxymu’ in 2009 is one example; the attack on wikileaks.org is another one.

The Internet moderates political views

A democracy cannot function if political opinion is polarized, because that leads to stalemates in voting (i.e. nothing gets done and everyone suffers e.g. political stalemate in the US which prevents effective measures to improve the economy). Furthermore, misinformed, ideology-driven decisions due to political polarization (itself a symptom of irrational decision making, because no one is wholly right) leads to misguided decisions that harm the nation.

The Internet helps overcome this problem by providing many people with diverse viewpoints to air their views on a common platform (e.g. social networks, forums) where they will inevitably come into contact with opposing views. While some may have their views hardened as a result of encountering opprobrium (and are likely to be those who would never change their views regardless of what they were exposed to), those who were more tolerant and open would appreciate opposing points better if they actually knew about the nature of such opposing views. This effect moderates political opinion, which makes for more balanced and credible decisions, prevents political stalemate, and leads to less divisiveness in the country.

 

The Internet worsens political polarization

The Internet aids in this political polarization, because it has never been easier to sequester information that favours your opinion on the Internet – search engines give you only sites that agree with your political leanings, political blogs link to each other on the basis of political ideology, and unlike real life, where the nature of the people you meet is a lottery, one can choose who to befriend and who to reject on social media. For example, a study of MoveOn.org’s political movements shows that each movement has an overwhelming majority of people of one political leaning.

The Internet facilitates informed choice

It is true that democracy holds the freedom of expression in high esteem, but it is also necessary for information in the media to be accurate, since misinformed decision-making has the same effect as coercion and is thus counter to democracy’s ideals of individual freedom in influencing government.

The Internet facilitates such informed choice because it provides the opportunity for information to be easily uploaded onto the Internet where it cannot be easily removed, and can be viewed by many rather conveniently.

It has the effect of giving voters a wider understanding of political issues to facilitate their choice-making, especially when states attempt to conceal such information to prevent exposure of lapses in state governance, which if left unchecked may impair the people’s ability to hold their government accountable for their errors.

The Internet inhibits informed choice

The Internet makes the problem of misinformation worse, because the impossibility of controlling the information released, and the anonymity of such sources of information, makes the enforcement of defamation and consumer protection laws almost impossible – i.e. false information cannot be removed or corrected. Furthermore, almost anyone can access the Internet, which means the spread and damage of such information is wide and swift, while the propensity for such damage is high because we can never be sure if the person posting the information is credible or not.

Examples include the posting of various anti-vaccine videos on Youtube on the grounds that vaccines cause autism (a scientifically baseless claim) in Britain, causing the reduction in vaccination numbers and a return of the MMR diseases as a result i.e. harm to citizens by negatively influencing their decisions regarding government health policy [study by University of Toronto]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Useful references

Crick, Bernard. Democracy: a very short introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dahl, Robert. On Democracy. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000.

Strauss, Leo & Cropsey, Joseph. History of political philosophy (third edition). Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Wolff, Jonathan. An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Revised Edition). London : Oxford University Press, 2006 .

Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2007 .

 

 

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