When it comes to ensuring the happiness, advancement, and general prosperity of humanity, it’s not unreasonable to say that basic human rights are a core ingredient. Most know the basics of these rights as life, liberty, and property. Some even throw in the pursuit of happiness, which denotes all kinds of freedom, including the sexy kinds.
Beyond just sounding great on paper, human rights are a major guiding force. History has shown, time and again, that societies that value these rights tend to prosper more that only exist to glorify a despot. The contrast between the two Koreas is proof enough of that.
However, the preservation and promotion of basic human rights is no easy task. The world is full of corrupt, cruel, and power-hungry people who would scoff at the very concept the same way they would anyone who claims trees have souls. The fact that some of them manage to get elected in countries with democratic institutions says a lot about just how hard it can be to protect human rights.
It’s that vulnerability in one the most cherished modern institutions, which some claim took a major hit in 2016, that leads me to ask a question that I’m sure is going to draw me some level of ire. However, in wake of recent news and a particular Hollywood movie that indirectly touches on this concept, I think it’s worth asking.
Is democracy the best way of preserving basic human rights in a society?
I ask that question as someone who loves and celebrates the freedoms that being an American has given me. I feel lucky and honored to live in a country where I get to participate in the democratic process. I make it a point to vote in every election, be it mid-term or a presidential election.
That said, I’m not among those hyper-patriot, Ron Swanson wannabes who willfully ignores the flaws of the democratic systems around me. Between the limited choices offered by a two-party system, the non-democratic nature of the electoral college, and misguided ballot initiatives, I see these flaws as much as anyone else with an internet connection.
To some extent, I recognize that not all of these flaws are fixable within a democracy. The essence of democracy is people electing their government. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and anyone who has read headlines from Florida knows that. People can also be whipped up into a hateful, mob-like frenzy. It’s one of the side-effects of being such a social species. We’ll often go with the crowd before we go with reason.
In a perfect democracy, every voter would be completely independent, completely informed, and only vote to elect the person they believe will best preserve basic human rights. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect autocracy, there are bound to be flaws in the system.
Some of those flaws can be mitigated with things like voter education. Others involve mixing democratic systems with that of a republic. That’s primarily what the founding fathers attempted to establish with the United States, a republic being the fixed body of laws to preserve our rights and using democratic systems to protect those rights.
Other western democracies utilize various methods to address these issues, but so long as people are involved, there will be human flaws in any system. The key is making sure that those flaws don’t end up undermining human rights. The results haven’t been perfect. Ask any number of minority communities for proof of that.
With these flaws in mind, I believe it’s worth thinking beyond democracy to imagine other ways of preserving and promoting human rights. Some of those concepts manifest in movies, comics, and TV shows. The “Black Panther” movie presented an enticing, albeit fanciful, idea of an all-around good king who believes in basic human rights and does what he can to promote it, at least for his own people.
I’ve also cited Dr. Doom in a previous article who, despite being the ultimate villain in the Marvel universe, is pretty much the perfect ruler for any system of government. Sure, people in his government fear his wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear. You could argue that such fear is inconsistent with basic human rights, but in terms of actually securing people, property, and what not, Doom has no equals.
Outside the world of superheroes, though, there are also instances where a great leader who deeply values human rights gets thrust into power. That’s the entire premise of “Designated Survivor,” a show where Kiefer Sutherland does more than just shoot and torture terrorists. The best possible leader for a government isn’t elected. They essentially find themselves in that position.
In a sense, that embodies the disconnect between the fictional world and the real world. The idea that a king with ultimate power in a secretive country or some low-level government appointee would turn out to be a perfect president assumes a lot of things that don’t play out in the real world. It essentially vindicates what Winston Churchill once said about 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.”
Those bolded parts are my doing because those are the parts that most people recall. Considering the context in which Churchill said those words, having just fought a massive war against two leaders who had been democratically elected, it’s hard to blame him.
Even today, extremists who do not hold certain human rights in high regard do get elected to positions of power. It’s not a matter of people just throwing the concept away. People are still very tribal, last I checked. They’re going to vote or protest in accord with their own interests, even if it means undermining the interests of others.
That situation leaves basic human rights vulnerable. There are, as I write this, people living in functioning democracies whose basic rights are being undermined. While we have made a great deal of progress over the past century as democracies have spread, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Going back to the original question I asked about democracy’s ability to preserve human rights, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For now, I’m inclined to side with the wisdom of Winston Churchill. Democracy has it’s flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got thus far. We can definitely stand to do better and should work towards doing so.
Some of that may involve getting money out of politics to mitigate corruption. Some involve doing the opposite of what China just did and setting term limits for politicians. Some are taking an even more radical approach by integrating emerging technology into the democratic process.
These are all bold ideas, which are certainly worth pursuing in the future. Until we have a real life T’Challa to be king or a super-intelligent AI capable of running a government with perfect efficiency, democracy is our best bet for preserving human rights. We shouldn’t stop trying to improve, but we should still celebrate it’s merit.