Getting the right government form

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2015


One of the foundation assumptions in the US of how to run government is that vibrant, multi-party democracy is a good idea, and we Americans should do our best to spread this form around the world.

But as good as it has been for America and Western Europe, much of the rest of the world has had a hard time making democracy work.


Why does vibrant multi-party democracy seem to be part and parcel with American... developed world actually, exceptionalism?

That is what this essay is about.

Many possible solutions versus many possible betrayals

One consistent characteristic of those regions and cultures where democracy doesn't work is the high rates of betrayal in dealing with "Them"'s -- people who aren't part of the trusted circle.

This kind of betrayal works well in the Neolithic and Agricultural Age environments so it is strong instinctive thinking. But it doesn't work well in Industrial and Information Age environments. In these more modern environments more widespread and more diverse cooperation is needed for society to function. Think of the difference between paying for something with silver and gold coins and paying for something with credit cards and Paypal. This is a big difference in the level of trust and cooperation required. Where betrayal is routine, bigger and diverse organizations can't thrive -- routine betrayal is too damaging to allow progress in building larger organizations.

When this routine betrayal happens in the modern organization context it is criticized as corruption and organized crime. And the betrayal can easily lead to lots of violence as well in the forms of feuding and vendettas. Once again, these forms are hard on Industrial Age style progress because they make building larger and diverse kinds of organizations so difficult.

The Industrial Age style cultures need a lot of cooperation, and they need a lot of non-betrayal-style dissent -- they need it to be OK to argue about the right ways of doing things. They need this because there are so many ways of doing things in Industrial Age cultures, and some work much better than others. Part of discovering the best ways of doing things is to argue over the facts.

In the well-functioning Industrial Age environments, people can have vigorous arguments, and then cooperate heartily once a choice as been made. This change-to-cooperating happens instead of deciding that other person is beyond hope, pulling knives and going for a kill.

And, to be very clear, this cooperating instead of betraying is a learned skill. This is very much something which has to be part of the community's educational system at all levels.

If you can't make democracy work...

So, if a community hasn't learned how to cooperate in Industrial Age style ways, is democracy the best governing choice?

Probably not. It is a governing style that is going to have to wait a few generations before it can be implemented. In the meantime some form of "I've got the biggest stick. We are doing it my way."-style of governing is going to work better.

If this governing style is producing rising material prosperity and helping the community learn how to cooperate in Industrial Age-style ways, then it is doing a good job. The contemporary showcase example of this kind of progress is Singapore under the ruler Lee Kuan Yew who just died this year.

But his example is not an easy one to follow. Contemporary failures at following his example include Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia. They are spending lots of their country's resources but not building diverse and thriving Industrial Age communities with it.

The hazard of Trigger Warning mentality

America is not without its threats to democracy.

Democracy has served America quite well for two hundred years. But there have always been threats to it, cultural trends that might make other forms work better. Ironically, what those threats were has always been subject to lots of arguing.

One of the threats of the 2010's is thin-skinnedness -- the Trigger Warning mentality. This is a big problem because if issues can't be talked about straightforwardly they can't be solved well. If a person can't listen to unpleasant talk about an unpleasant harsh reality, thinking of good solutions, and implementing them, becomes a technique of wishing and hoping, not diligently looking for practical solutions.

Looking harsh reality square in the face has long been a virtue of The American Way, but it looks as if this virtue is on the brink of being lost. If it is, democracy will stop working well. Democracy depends on voters being well informed. And being able to talk about issues in a straightforward manner is the kind of tolerance that supports democracy.


--The End--