Seaford Sixth form debate: Has democracy failed us?

Chris Burroughs chairing the debateA couple of weeks ago, the Sixth form held a debate at Assembly, centred around a single question: Has democracy failed us? An apt topic, considering the political upheaval currently embracing the country, and many others, around the world.

The debate was chaired by Chris Burroughs, and two other members of Seaford’s Debating Club, Peter Tutykhin and Tom Hennessy, took on the topic, trading thoughts on both sides of the argument in front of their peers. At the end of the debate the student audience cast their votes, in favour of Peter Tutykhin’s argument that democracy has not failed us.

It was a fascinating morning, and we thought you might be interested to read the speeches prepared by the students in question.

Democracy has failed us: Tom Hennessy

Before I begin with my line of argument, I would like to make it clear that taking this side of the debate does not mean that I am proposing another system of government than democracy. I am a democrat and believe that democracy is the ultimate form of government as it combines and balances the three crucial elements of a successful state: rule of law, effective institutions and accountability to the people it governs. This debate is by no means a call for a dictatorship, which at best treats its citizens like immature children, incapable of governing themselves and at worst as disposable trash or as resources to be exploited. The issues facing democracy do not require an overhaul of the democratic system, only reforms.

Democracies failings are due to political decay. This means a decline in the quality of government, not to be confused with the decline of the system itself. Political decay in in Western democracies has taken the form of political institutions becoming dysfunctional due to excessive rules and regulations and entrenched political actors, who are often powerful and wealthy figures who hinder reforms.

Tom Hennessy: Democracy has failed us

The first example of decay that I am going to introduce is the over importance of law, which dictates what a government can and can’t do. This may seem like an attractive proposal, that the government’s power is checked by a powerful legal system; so that once elected, they cannot simply rule as dictator. We did learn from 1930s Germany, right? But the reality of this theory is very different, while a degree of checks are important, the legal system has proven so effective at limiting the government’s power that decision making and strong, decisive leadership has become virtually impossible. In California for example, every citizen has a right to sue the government either because they did not enforce a certain law, or because a law is not legitimate. This makes governance extremely inefficient because everybody is threatened with lawsuits.

This inability to govern effectively also extends to the entire United States. The country’s famous constitution is deliberately designed to stop any one party from possessing too much power. By multiplying checks and balances to all levels of government, it has become a vetocracy, which is a country where the decision making process can be halted if a single person opposes whatever act the government is attempting to do. In such a state, the US cannot, in all likelihood, decay into a dictatorship like Weimar Germany, but on the other hand it is extremely difficult to pass reforms and to govern more effectively. The United States faces a very serious debt problem, which is solvable through political compromise, but Congress cannot effectively cooperate to resolve this crisis. Between 2009-16, it did not pass a budget according to its own rules, and in 2013, shut down the entire government because it could not agree on paying for past debts. This ineffectual system of government is hardly a source of inspiration around the world.

While this is a major issue, I think the bigger problem is to do with people using the state for their own personal gain. Corruption is present in Western democracy and it is getting worse. While bribery is outlawed, what is not covered by the law is what biologists call reciprocal altruism, or gift exchange. In a gift exchange, giving a present to someone does not mean that they have to give you another gift back, as in trading, Giving a gift only means that they have a moral obligation to you, and will be likely to return the favour at a later time and place. The law bans trades between politicians and supporters, but not the exchange of favours. This natural behaviour, which can be observed in chimpanzees, is the single biggest reason for why democracy is failing.

In America, interest groups are able to influence members of Congress, the American parliament, in perfectly legal ways simply by making donations and waiting for future favours. For example, very few big businesses, which heavily fund political parties, actually pay tax at the rate of the American tax code because of their links to politicians. They are almost always made up of the small elite in a society, who are well organised. The reason for this level of organisation is clear to anyone who has ever tried to make plans in a group chat; in a small group, plans can be made easier, while trying to arrange anything in a large group will result in hours of pointless arguing. The same goes for interest groups. A small group of wealthy people with almost identical interests, such as investment bankers, will be better organised and better able to campaign than the general public. Therefore, the politicians in office, who are retuning favours to their wealthy supporters are only representative to the richest and best organised elements of society. Therefore, politics is becoming to be defined by wealthy and well-organised interest groups. Such an occurrence was noted in 380BC by the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who observes that after a while a democracy will decline into an oligarchy, which is a country run by its elites, who today are coming to rule through interest groups. Despite the clear injustices of such a system it is very difficult to make change. No political party has any reason to cut off their funding from interest groups, and interest groups don’t want a system where money does not buy influence.

To conclude, no one living in a liberal democracy should be complacent about its survival. There is no automatic measure that makes progress inevitable, or that prevents political decay. Democracies exist and survive only because people are willing to fight for them; strong leadership, organisational ability and sheer good luck are needed for them to prevail over enemies that range from Nazism to the human tendency to return favours. Right now, we are at a crossroads at the future of democracy, we are undoubtedly experiencing political decay, and it is here and now that reform needs to happen. The current system muddles through, it leads to huge waste, delay and dissatisfaction with the quality of government. This dissatisfaction has been shown by events such as the election of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the alternate right, who all used anti-establishment rhetoric as a centrepiece to their campaigns.

Democracy has not failed us: Peter Tutykhin

The proposition have brought to light a number of issues concerning our democratic system, and I will grant them this one point. Democracy is riddled with imperfection. It is, in the words of Winston Churchill, “The worst form of government… except for all the others.” My argument today will be a fairly simple one. Democracy has not failed us, because it remains unquestionably the most superior form of government which our somewhat evolved monkey brains have thus far managed to invent.

I’m going to list a few statistics. According to the World Happiness report, which ranks countries according to GDP per capita, life expectancy, generosity, trust, and personal freedom, every country in the top 20, from Norway to Chile, is a democracy. Same is the story if you look at education. Every one of the top 20 universities in the world is located in a democracy, and only two in the top 100, are not. Why is it, that dictators from all over the world send their kids to Oxford and not to Beijing? Could those just be mere coincidences? Or is it, that by its very design, that democracy creates healthier nations and happier people.

The proposition might attempt to convince you over to their side by claiming that all politicians running for elected office are only in it for themselves, which therefore renders the entire system a failure. On the contrary, however, cynicism is the single most decisive argument in favour of democracy, not against it, and we here on the opposition believe that the vast majority of politicians anywhere are largely in that business to advance themselves to a position of wealth and power. That is true everywhere, in both democracies and dictatorships. Politicians in both of these types of governments are equally as cynical and self-serving as each other. Wealth and power is the goal everywhere, people are selfish and self-serving everywhere, whether you’re in London or in Pyongyang. The goal is the same, the only crucial thing that differs is the method by which power is obtained and maintained.

Peter Viccari: Democracy hasn't failed us

Democracy succeeds because it gives and takes power away from individuals based on public opinion. Democracy succeeds because there is no such thing as Voltaire’s “Benevolent tyranny.” In any non-democratic nation, for the aforementioned cynical self-serving politician to cling on to power, all he or she requires is the backing of a small elite. All the wealth and all the treasure that this non-democratic state produces will be distributed among that tiny coalition, who will exploit the rest and stash away their ill gotten gains. Democracy is therefore unique because it makes providing for the majority of citizens the requirement for holding on to power, and as long as that remains the case, democracy has not failed.

Tremendously controversial decisions such as the election of Donald Trump or the vote to leave the European Union are evidence that democracy is working as intended, not that it has failed us. A few hundred years ago, such decisions would likely be resolved on the battlefield, and the side with the largest and most violent army would end up victorious. Now, we simply put a piece of paper in a black box. Sure, we disagree, often strongly. We debate, often passionately, but even when tensions rise our democracy moves on peacefully, and so far, that is a broad consensus which we have managed to maintain. In that sense too, democracy has not failed.

Neither is democracy, like some would have you believe, in decline. Only yesterday, the people of France decisively rejected a Presidential candidate who represented a shift back from Liberalism into Authoritarian Nationalism. By 2022, for the first time in history, the most populous nation on Earth will be a vast South Asian Democracy called the Republic of India.

To conclude, democracy has not failed because it remains the only system of government which forces those in power to work in the benefit of their constituents. Democracy has not failed because the public consensus and the peaceful transition of power that it requires has held steady despite immensely controversial decisions. Democracy has not failed because it remains the only system of government which, through a meritocratic process of policy and persuasion ensures that the most appropriate and capable people are elevated to power. You will soon be asked to vote for who you think was the best and most convincing team, and even if the proposition comes out on top, that in itself with be an argument in favour of democracy. Because democracy promotes to power not Kings or Queens or Bishops, but the people who best represent your own interests.

An excellent year for our public speakers

So, what do you think? Has democracy failed us? I’m sure you can agree on one thing, that the arguments put forward by the two Year 12 students were well thought out and well researched. They were also delivered very confidently in front of their peers.

We asked Tom Hennessy, and some of the other students involved in Debating Club, why they thought it was such a good thing to be involved with. Tom felt that it “gives me a greater idea about the world because we do a wide variety of topics. It makes my arguments more coherent and has helped with structuring in my writing.” Similarly, Tom Scofield enjoyed the ability to “discuss political issues freely.”

Whereas, for Jude Mayes and Alina Ivanets, it was more about building confidence. “I hope it will aid me in the future as I may need to present to people,” said Alina. “It widens my knowledge of the world.” Jude also believes that “debating made me more confident and even got me a job! I had a big group interview and was told I stood out because of my confidence speaking in front of everyone.”

John Doy, Head of Academic Enrichment at Seaford College, has been very pleased with how the year has gone for all the students involved in debating at Seaford.

“Our public speakers have had an excellent year with our senior team finishing second in the rotary club competition as well as putting in good performances in the ESU debating and public speaking competitions. More important than success in competitions, however, are the demands and opportunities inherent in debating: to provide evidence for arguments; to consider other points of view; to engage with ideas and issues that you may never have considered.

This has been a politically volatile year and for students to have the opportunity to articulate their views rationally and clearly has never been more essential. Debating gives them that opportunity and I hope that by sharing the work of the debating club with the whole school we can encourage these essential skills in all our students.”

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