Problems with Democracy


After 200 years of expansion, democracy’s growth in the world has stalled. A handful of democracies like Venezuela and Hungary are backsliding into authoritarianism. And even in established Western democracies, voters are losing faith in democratic institutions and norms.

That has left us and scholars who study democracy obsessed with a set of questions. Is this all just a blip, or is democracy in real trouble? Are the oldest and sturdiest democracies, like those of Europe and the United States, really as safe as they seem? And why would people voluntarily dismantle their own democracy from within?




Democracy’s doubters tend to accuse democracy of suffering from at least six significant design flaws:

  • Short-termism: Due to their electoral cycles, democracies struggle to focus on long-term problems and usually remain mired in short-term policy approaches.

  • Pain aversion: To the limited extent they do manage to look to the long term, democratic politicians are averse to imposing near-term pain for long-term gain because of their need to keep voters happy for the next election.

  • Elite capture: By opening up decision-making power to competition among politicians who are constantly in need of money for elections, democratic systems are prone to becoming captured by the wealthy.

  • Division and conflict: Competitive elections foment or exacerbate destructive societal divisions, generating conflict and undercutting a strong sense of national unity and purpose.

  • Voter ignorance: Relying on ordinary citizens to choose leaders and make judgments among them based on policy performance condemns democracies to leadership and policy choices that reflect chronic voter ignorance and irrationality.

  • Tyranny of the Majority. Democracies tend to give power to the largest number- the majority, but majorities may be wrong, misled, ignorant of hostile to a minority