Constitutions and conventions can fail as safeguards.
For democracy to collapse, it requires a leader who is able to bypass the checks and balances on their power, and use their position to retain power past the point their would likely end.
While this page uses both the USA and Australia as examples, as both have faced recent potential cracks in their democratic systems, the origin of those cracks is common to almost all democratic governments around the world, and these serve as examples.
In most democracies, including Australia and the USA, how government functions in practice, is determined as much be precedent and convention, as by the constitution or other foundation documents. Actual laws were mostly formed prior to the today’s political landscape.
For example, many democracies, including Australia, Canada, the UK and USA, all fit the definition of ‘two party systems‘, yet in none of those countries was the political system designed to even have political parties. This is significant, as many safeguards can be bypassed by political parties.
Not even the roles of leaders are necessarily clearly defined. In Australia, the constitution does not even mention the role of ‘Prime Minister’, despite that, in practice, the Prime Minister is the head of government. The US constitution always has the role of President, but did not envisage a president with the current level of power:
Because the Constitution gave the President such limited power, Congress dominated the executive branch until the 1930s. With only a few exceptions, Presidents played second fiddle to Congress for many years. However, those exceptions — Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson — provided the basis for the turning point that came with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.The Evolution of the Presidency: UShistory.org
There are now example of leaders going beyond convention and what is considered acceptable, but not necessarily sufficiently beyond laws that dangerous actions can be stopped legally.
Scott ‘Scomo’ Morrison as the self appointed autocrat.
This has been well covered in Australia, but some background first before, covering the significance.
Scott Morrison lost his role as Prime Minister and leader of government in Australia in the May 2022, and is not likely to return, so there is no threat he will ever over turn democracy, however in August 2022, months after his time in office, just how much power he secretly held while in government.
It is now known that ‘Scomo’ had secretly taken over the roles of key government officials:
Morrison was operating as minister of health, finance, home affairs, treasury and industry, science, energy and resources.Morrison was secretly appointed to five portfolios, PM says
This is the equivalent of the President of the USA secretly also appointing himself to key posts to which publicly he has appointed others including: Secretary of Health, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of the Interior, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The biggest surprise, was that all this was done in secret, and although one minister knew the Prime Minister also held their nominated role, no one else was told. The oversight of this process, which for Australia is the Governor General failed because, by convention, no one ever breaks the rules of publicly declaring who has been appointed. It turns out it is not a law or rule, just a convention.
The most telling verdict on Scott Morrison’s deception within his own government is the outrage from colleagues who want him gone.
The former prime minister trashed the conventions of good government by naming himself to powerful ministries without telling the parliament or the people, so voters are right to feel aggrieved and deceived.The serious implications of Morrison’s shadow grab for power
All evidence suggests this increasing takeover of control of so many areas of government was not planned. The first two self appointments did occur, ‘Scomo’ claims, in late March 2020 during the frightening time of the early Covid-19 pandemic, and could have been to provide backup in case the relevant ministers became ill. Keeping things secret it could have been argued was to avoid panic offer the seriousness of the Covid-19 threat. There are still flaws in that argument, such as why not ensure a backup Prime Minister, why ‘Scomo’ was so confident he would not be infected, and threat it was ‘Scomo’ who was the biggest advocate against measures to control the pandemic. But there is some excuse, even if still flawed.
The next appointments occurred in early 2021, when Australia was largely virus free, in the calm before the storm of the virus getting through defences. At that time, with zero deaths from infections within Australia, and only very rare cases getting through quarantine, it was hardly a Covid-19 emergency. It seems more likely, that with the previous appointments having caused no fallout over an entire year, crossing that line again simply became easier.
The significance is that the safeguards on power simply did not work, and it is not as if this is some special case. The safeguards on the power of ministers in Australia is the governor general, who has become mostly a figurehead.
The role of Prime Minister is not even mentioned in the Australian constitution, which makes it clear that the Prime Minister as head of government is convention, not constitution. In theory, all ministers are equal, yet in practice the Prime Minister has additional powers that are not codified, without clearly defined limits or safeguards.
Political Parties: A potential systemic failure of oversight?
There is a need to balance the power of a leader to act, against the threat that they could potentially act to prevent them ever being removed. This is the reason most countries have two house of parliament.
The risk of the party system, is as demonstrated by Trump, that an effective party leader can be head of government, and in control of the political party with a majority in all houses of parliament. If that eventuates, and the leader wishes to remain in power, there is no effective means to prevent dictatorship.
China and Russia etc, examples of how democracy can fail.
Yes, technically even North Korea is a democracy.
In the west, the fact that even countries such as China, North Korea and Russia are democracies, can come as a surprise. Certainly we tend not to think of them as functional democracies. So how come every adult in China is eligible to vote, yet it does not appear, at least to outsiders, to be a democracy?
In China, clearly the same party clearly wins every time, and it does not feel like voters get a real say in who leads the party.
In North Korea, or more formally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite the existence of elections, the people seem to have no more choice in who they elect to the Supreme People’s Assembly than they do in who will be their “Supreme Leader”. Why is it that countries with “democratic” in the name rarely seem democratic in reality?
Russia has an even greater pretence of democracy than the countries above, and the system that is in place on papers looks like it should deliver democracy. Yet even searching “democracy in Russia” generated more hits on how democracy in Russia is failing than on the system itself. However, it is sufficiently blurry that some still claim Russia is effectively still democratic:
So if the answer to is Russia a democracy is no, what is it then? Russia’s form of government is technically a semi-presidential republic, with a president, prime minister, three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), and a legislature. Experts consider Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2018 to be fake because he disqualified his legitimate opposition and hand-picked his rivals. Yet Putin enjoys legitimate support among Russian citizens. “The Russian presidential election that took place on Sunday was a fake one, but its outcome is real enough,” wrote Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg last March. “It clearly demonstrated that a majority of Russians accept the rules imposed on them by President Vladimir Putin. That in itself is a kind of democratic choice, with clear implications for Putin’s enemies inside and outside Russia.”Is Russia a Democracy?
What are these goals of democracy that are not always delivered?
To analyse how China and Russia etc. have systems that are failing to deliver on the goals of democracy, it is useful to first identify the goals.
democracy, literally, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratia, which was coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.Britannica
The fundamental goal of “rule by the people” is to allow all to get an equal voice in determining the rules of society, thus ensuring they can have rule “for the people”. ‘Rule’ becomes both determining laws that can be applied going forward, but also ‘ruling’ on individual matters which require a decision. The desired outcome is the rules of society reflect the will of the people.
There are logistic questions on what are the boundaries of the state, and who are included as the people, and these become important when considering but asswh – leave for later.
What is required to achieve ‘Rule by the people’?
The problem is that while most of the people I know feel confident that China and Russia are not currently delivering on ‘rule by the people’, the necessity to have a voice in what the rules and decisions are does not really capture how the failures of Russia or China are failing. People do get a free vote, so why doesn’t it work?
Looking at China and Russia allows adding some ingredients to what is needed beyond just being able to vote, giving the following list:
- the ability to vote free of coercion and intimidation
- a genuine and diverse choice of options on how to vote
- arguments against policy, and alternative policies, are openly debated
- a free and open information system or free press
- an independent system with the ability to examine and investigate corruption
Ok, that is my full list. At least for now, but I will do further research.
China and Russia deliver on #1, but it I think it would be hard to disagree that they fail on at least most of the next 4.
There are obvious weaknesses in current western democracies.
Freedom of voting in western democracies.
Western democracies also deliver on the #1 requirement for democracy. There have been reports of situations where parties may trying make things difficult from specific racial groups to in the USA, and many countries only became fully inclusive from around the 1960s in terms of who can vote, and some would argue imperfections still remain. However, today in the west, while vote inclusiveness may still not be worthy of a perfect mark, it cannot really be seen overall as a failure.
However, beyond the freedom to vote, it is not just in Russia and China as risk of failure.
a genuine and diverse choice of options on how to vote: Or just two parties.
The dominance of two parties, with sometimes identical unpopular positions.
Most Western democracies are dominated by a two party system, often to the point where a vote for anyone other than the one of the two major parties can be seen as a wasted vote.
If a lobby group can persuade both parties to adopt their preferred position, then even if the people are mostly against that position, neither main party will lose votes to the other because of their position. Both parties can then benefit from the support of the lobby group, without losing votes to the other major party. A ‘protest’ vote can require selecting a minor candidate on the bases on issue alone, and very often it likely to become a wasted vote.
loyalties to party vs the electorate
I always voted at my party’s call,Gilbert And Sullivan – When I Was A Lad lyrics
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
Often, the opinion of the member of parliament/congress voted for by the people is of no consequence, as members of their party are required to vote on party lines, either because of the rules of the party, or in order to remain in favour within the party.
Consider a candidate for a “safe” or “non swing” district. If they are endorsed by their party as the official candidate, not only is their campaign funded, but as a ‘safe’ seat where people dependably vote for their party, being endorsed almost certainly ensures victory. For these candidates, the critical election is the one within their party that resulting in them being the party endorsed candidate, not the public vote.
Western Score on Delivery of ‘Diverse Choice’: Imperfect, but more choice than China or Russia.
China in theory compensates for the dominance of just one party though allowing people a choice on who represents them within that party.
Climate change in Australia, and the gun lobby in America seem to me to clear cases where the two party system seems to have already failed to deliver the outcome that would win the vote of the majority of the population.
I recall a quote from somewhere on how democracy does not ensure a good government, but gives the people the power to remove a bad government. Both Trump, and Morrison did lose government.
‘Scomo’ did enjoy power despite being unpopular, and implementing unpopular policies, demonstrating a fracture in democracy, but he lost office, demonstrating democracy at work.
However while he power he did manage to technically extend his power well beyond what the system ever indented for one individual. This demonstrate the fragile nature of the system, should it ever get into the hands of someone with a plan to leverage power beyond what the system inteded.
Many suggest that democracy is not the best possible form of government. Although there may be better possibilities, an autocrat who manages to prevent their removal from office is not an improvement.
- *2022 Sept 16: link to sub story.,
- 2022 Aug 17: First post