After election, before Thanksgiving, a cheer for democracy

“Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
– Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947

Sixty-five years later, it’s clear that Churchill’s comment has stood the test of time. Last week’s election provided two underlying reasons why his remark is still so apt.

First, a democratic system institutionalizes competition in a political system. In elections, opposing candidates and political parties set forth their views on the important issues of the day.

They compete for attention and approval before an audience of citizens whose choices will determine which candidate and whose ideas they wish to govern, for however long their elected term lasts.

In a one-party state, there is no public competition between candidates or ideas. Such competition takes the form of sharp-elbowed private infighting between contenders, much like several bulldogs fighting under a rug. You see the rug bounce up and down and hear growls, but you never really know what’s going on or why until the victor emerges. Even then, you may not know why.

In a democracy, it’s important that the competition be both periodic and public, because that’s the way we can have political discourse in front of a constantly changing and evolving public.

When last week’s national election results were in, much was made of the fact that Republicans wound up on the wrong side of increasingly important demographic components of America: Hispanics (now the most rapidly growing group in our nation), other non-white minorities and young people.

Thanks to the election results, a debate is now starting within the Republican party about how best competitively to adapt to the changing nature of the American electorate. Competition forces self-examination, drives change, makes things better.

The second reason democratic political systems work well is that periodic and public debate is exactly the way to expose and monitor the powerful influences of special interests.

Left to their own devices, special interests always prefer to lurk in the background, content to let their money or their power exert influence without being publicly exposed.

Without this year’s election, for example, who would have known just how profitable Matty Moroun’s monopoly Ambassador Bridge has been – or how much money he was willing to spend to maintain his monopoly? Indeed, without public exposure, the $33 million Moroun spent to try to feather his own nest would never have been exposed, and his ploy may not have been rejected.

Special interests will always be with us, whether Morounesque monopolies, big banks, bored anonymous billionaires, organized labor, businesses, environmentalists, whatever. The big question is how to establish a political system that forces the special interests – whatever they might be – into the open, where we can all look them in the eye and judge their particular claims on all of us.

In both these arguments for a democratic political system, it’s very important to recognize the essential role played by what used to be called the media. Whether it’s the newspapers (now sadly reduced in size and capacity) or electronic media (such as MLive or The Center for Michigan’s news magazine, Bridge), it is terribly important that people have unbiased, accurate reporting about what’s going on. And without fact-checking services like The Center’s Michigan Truth Squad, we might all be fooled by the often blatantly false but oh-so-appealing spots that infest our TV screens.

True, an informed electorate is the iron core of a democratic system. But it’s also important to understand what dynamics lie at the core of any democracy: Competition between ideas and candidates and exposure of special interests to the light of day. These are factors that make our democracy, flawed and contentious as it is, the best political system ever tried.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mike R
Thu, 11/15/2012 - 11:18am
Excellent analysis and commentary. I would place even greater emphasis on the essential role of unbiased, aggressive reporting and professional journalism to go beyond television's current role as a mere public forum for the competitors to present their cases, but to provide the research, facts, and analysis for voters to engage in their own critical thinking, something that appears to have fallen out of favor in this era of blind acceptance of the rantings of extremist ideologues. The demise of daily newspapers has left a void that that television so far has been unable or unwilling to fill. Will the online news outlets and amateur blogs, with their current abbreviated style, reduced readership, and frequent inability to separate fact from opinion, be able and willing to grow and adapt to become adequate substitutes? If not, we will fall victim to even less critical thinking and even more alienation of the moderate middle.
Charles Richards
Thu, 11/15/2012 - 2:15pm
It takes more than an "informed electorate" to make democracy work. It requires a citizenry that realizes that, in the words of Steven Pinker, "larger, later" is often preferable to "smaller, sooner". That is to say, a low-discount rate yields better long term results for the community than a high discount rate. Long term success also requires willingness to invest in "public capital", a realization that the community is more than the sum of its parts. If enough people are not willing to contribute to the common good, and instead insist taking out as much or more than they invest, then democracy will not work. Greece is the classic example of such a society. Domestically, entitlement programs are a horrendous example of one generation reaping more benefits than it was willing to pay for. George Will recently advocated sending every household a statement of the value of benefits they will receive and how much they contributed for those benefits.