Hi! I'm Claudia Meng, a first-year at Yale University from Shanghai, China, although I have American-French dual citizenship. In my free time, I like dancing, re-reading favorite books, and exploring new cities with old friends.
ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?
As an American citizen who grew up in Shanghai, China, I have mixed feelings about democracy. Americans, obsessed with their own democratic excellence, often come across as disdainful of non-democratic cultures. China, on the other hand, being the wonderful single-party socialist (cough, state-owned capitalist) republic that it is, has long boasted its efficiency and unparalleled capacity for streamlined growth. What, therefore, is the true executory gap between democracy and alternative frameworks? And how important does that render democracy itself?
Discussions on democracy are often caught between normative and positive frameworks. While it's easy to defend democracy's inherent moral superiority, difficulty arises in proving its importance in action. For the former, one need simply to invoke some combination of Rousseau's Social Contract and Locke's delineation of inalienable rights. But this normative isolation forgets that all governments are transactional. In any form of formalized political organization, one forsakes some partition of freedom in exchange for some sliver of stability. The relative importance of living in a democracy thus rests upon its ability to promote maximum good while demanding minimum sacrifice.
Julio Guzman, Peruvian political leader and former presidential candidate, frames politics as an intermediary for delivering citizens' wants and needs. Whatever best minimizes the gap between desire and delivery, therefore, becomes valuable as a political system. As we move into the 21st century, one fundamental question should guide our preferences in political organization: What system can best respond to emerging global challenges in a sustainable, adaptable, and non-existentially fraught way?
To determine democracy's unique ability to fulfill these criteria, we must first define what it is. Democracy, at its core, turns on the idea of the vote. While its execution can involve many layers of abstraction and intermediary representation, democratic nations rely on some aggregation of citizens' direct expressed interests to determine their policy direction. What we must evaluate, therefore, is whether or not the vote, acting as the fundamental democratic instrument, remains our best tool at achieving long-term stability, growth, and peace.
I believe it is the best tool for three reasons. First, democracy promotes social cohesion, which is conducive to long-term stability. Second, within Dani Rodrik's trilemma of globalization, democracy trumps national sovereignty in promoting growth. And finally, democracy minimizes the gap between peace and justice by providing an equitable means to negotiate peace.
Social cohesion, a measure of inclusion and bond strength within defined groups, is easier to foster in homogeneous nations than their diverse counterparts. Durkheim's use of "social solidarity" in 1893 highlighted the importance of various structures in strengthening or weakening inter-group bonds. Components such as diverse demographics, larger population size, and economic marginalization all strain the more organic social cohesion that arises out of direct kinship.
Enter democracy, which greatly minimizes the potential for conflict brought on by globalization. Democracies run on majority dominance, and thus strongly incentivize social assimilation. If the system is alterable, but only by "insiders," then there exists powerful incentive to decode cultural norms and become an insider. This feedback and adjustment process accelerates entry into "in-group" membership and boosts civic engagement. In strengthening the vertical bonds between citizen and state, democracies also facilitate horizontal bonds between citizens. The vote plays a crucial role here. In propagating the idea of voting as a civic duty, the vote renders each voter a responsible, participating member of democracy. Since each person shares a vested interest in voting responsibly, it becomes a rallying point, a demonstration of access and belonging. As a result, while people diverge in political ideology, the vote itself becomes our common denominator, a social glue above all else.
Additionally, prioritizing democracy over strong conceptions of nationalism aids in fostering both economic development and peace. Rodrik, a professor at Harvard, visualizes three prongs of national interest: democratic politics, national sovereignty, and hyper-globalization. Between these three, he asserts, we can only choose two. Since globalization and free trade are supported by 39 out of 41 top world economists and appear immovable, we are left to choose between democracy and national sovereignty. Democracy is compatible with deep economic integration only when appropriately trans-nationalized. Since isolationist nationalism inherently threatens the fabric of global mediation and beneficial cross-border trade, we grasp that democracy is more conducive to economic growth.
Finally, in order to arrive at and enforce justice, peace is needed to provide us with the necessary enforcement mechanisms (e.g. a functional judiciary, the expectation of fair trials, willingness of all parties to be adjudicated by the system, etc.). Democracy produces the conditions of plurality that allow all parties to come to the table, and in doing so sets the ground for peace negotiations.
The established importance of living in a democracy has certain caveats, however. Most importantly, it does not outweigh values of self-determination. America's particular brand of democracy has always behaved as a proselytizing pseudo-religion — disseminating its ideology far and wide, often resorting to violent means when met with resistance. The forceful insertion of democracy into nations disrupts institutions and creates power vacuums, proving antithetical to the very stability necessary for justice and growth.
But growing up in Shanghai and attending high school in the U.S., I never noticed a marked difference in quality of life. Public healthcare sucked in China, but then again, it's not much better in the U.S. The public-school system was grueling and effaced individuality, but in some ways the cumulative exam and points-based admission felt more meritocratic than the opaque, "holistic" U.S. college admissions process. The problems were political per se, but it never felt like they stemmed directly out of a lack of democracy. The only true realm of authoritarianism was felt through the Great Firewall and blocking of websites, but nothing a little VPN couldn't solve.
Since leaving, however, I've realized that my American passport allowed me a largely expat experience even while living in China. Within a single-party, non-election-based system, the consolidation of privilege and wealth becomes dangerously unchecked. Without safeguards, the political elite have minimal incentives to avoid social stratification. Corruption runs rampant, and accountability disappears. If we're worried about the irrational voter in democracies, the irrational autocrat poses a far larger threat to national stability.
Here we return to the original parameters of sustainability, adaptability, and existential grounding. We stand even more confidently in support of democracy when we consider alternative forms of government. Democracy's true importance lies in cost calculations of comparative worst-case scenarios. Populism's draw on Messianism in sole leaders is what allows for rapid descent into authoritarianism. Democracy thus uniquely avoids a fundamental existential threat: the bad emperor problem. While authoritarian regimes can certainly be stable over one ruler's tenure, the possibility of long-term consistency decreases exponentially. And even if you don't buy that, take the most pragmatist of arguments. It has been observed that democracies rarely go to war with each other. Most of the world's ruling powers (with the exception of China and Russia) are democracies. Ergo, living in a democracy diminishes your chances of finding yourself in a future warzone.
At the end of the day, the idealist in me won out (although arguably for pragmatic reasons). It's fun to invoke consent of the governed as an end-all-be-all, but it's more important to minimize conflict in an ever-shifting world. Thankfully, these goals align. We can sleep easy, knowing that both the means to our end and our means itself are just. And for those lamenting the decline in democratic sentiment amongst millennials, have no fear. Democracy still wins popular support, with a global median of 78 percent backing government by elected representatives. To be tongue in cheek, given the democratic choice of what political structure to occupy, we would all still be in democracies. Here, phenomenon reflects theory; democracy most closely matches Aristotle's ideal of polis as a direct reflection of citizens' desires. So in true democratic fashion, let's give the people what they want. Long live the vote, I suppose.