Democracy is almost always a tricky matter. The most difficult aspect of democracy is that it is not, as one often imagines it is supposed to be, a process wherein we have a meaningful debate about policy and legislation and the outcome reflects the most effective and most "rational" argument. Life is never really like this, and it couldn't be even if we wanted it to be. All sorts of things come into our decisions both individually and collectively. We have certain social and individual beliefs that are not subject to any sort of rational discourse. Furthermore, we are swayed by all sorts of emotional and ideological elements in our surroundings. Thus not only are our goals based upon various religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs, but we live in a world of complex events and interactions and we rely on information and arguments presented to us from other people who are better informed than we. The complexity of many issues makes it difficult to know when so-called experts or authorities are motivated, consciously or subconsciously, by ideological factors.
In relation to these complex ideological factors, the most glaring problem for democracy is fairly simple: money. If one is in any setting of discoure, particularly if that discourse involves a large number of people, certain people have a greater ability to control the agenda of that discourse. They may have this power through a 'natural' authority that derives from respect of the collective or they may control that agenda through power or manipulation. At a large social level, this discourse is manipulated through money. People in a position of economic power can manipulate knowledge, information, and opinion simply by projecting a presumption of knowledge. If a lot of rich and powerful people say "IT IS SO" then a lot of people are going to believe it is so just because of the presumed authority of money and wealth. Then, of course, there is the simple fact that rich and powerful people own the media and they can say almost anything they want and many people will simply believe them based upon the presumed authority found in the power of volume. All of these issues are made more problematical by the inherent complexity of modern society. Science can be easily manipulated through selective funding and grants as well as through the fact that large corporations are obviously going to pursue those areas of research that promote their interests.
Then there are global complications to take into consideration. Countries have decreasing room for manoeuvre in a context in which a relatively small set of capital interests can cripple an economy with ease. Banks and financial institutions have so thoroughly manipulated the economies and government policies on taxation and regulation that people have become convinced that it is essential for banks to make billions in order for the economy to succeed even while the majority of people are barely getting by.
So while we are pursing some abstract ideal of democracy, the principle of meaningful and equal discourse has largely lost all meaning. And people can rise to power with all sorts or outrageous beliefs as long as they represent the larger goals which lay behind the monied interests. Even here in Canada, which suffers less than some countries from the undue influence of money in the political process, we have a government that is full of individuals who possess distinctly "anti-democratic" beliefs, who harbor deeply unpopular religious beliefs, who have antiquated religious and social ideas, and who are distinctly racist, sexist, and homophobic. But these people can come to power because discourse in democracy has come to mean a lot less than the ideological power of money.
But, of course, a lot of people have written about the power of democracy in recent years, both from the academic and journalistic point of view. It seems that people are increasingly aware that our democracies are suffering from some serious problems and the so-called financial crisis as well as the increasing gap between rich and poor are some of the outward signs of a crisis of democracy. Of course, those who continue to have an interest in the status quo desperately spin these factors in a way that takes people's focus away from the real causes. They will tell people that the financial crisis is a result of public sector pensions and union power. And for a while this spin will surely work, as it has already. The banking bailout in countries like the US saw billions of dollars going from average tax-payers into the private accounts of already wealthy bankers and brokers. And in many countries governments are talking about new austerity plans. The problem is, of course, that these plans will just make things worse and when more an more people realize that they have no financial future and that their children have little chance of a decent education, decent housing, and any kind of pension, people will start to wake up. People will be particularly angered when they see that through all their hardships, the rich are just getting richer, becoming more comfortable, and are using the working masses as a cheap servant class.
There is a reason that greed has always been considered one of the so-called seven deadly sins. The problem with greed is that it is self-replicating. Greed breeds more greed just as the thirst of capital becomes unquenchable. Those individuals who seek tremendous wealth or run corporations have no stoping point. Unlike the old-time family-based capitalist enterprise, the nature of the modern corporation and market makes it technically impossible for corporations that rely on private investors to be satisfied with a certain amount of profit. Corporations must drive to ever greater profit rates and this creates a psychological syndrome among people that similarly drives them toward greater and greater wealth. The impact of this ideological shift is devastating for society - it not only creates a war of all against all but it undermines institutions of social unity at all levels.
Western capitalist democracies must find a way to deal with this fundamental problem if it is to avoid absolute crisis and total breakdown. The problem is, or course, that many among the rightwing do not even acknowledge the nature of the crisis. But history will eventually make the options clear - a more equal and socially oriented society or total barbarism.