Democracy, it seems, is going through a rough patch. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the world showed a “continuing democratic malaise” in 2023.

The number of democratic countries in the world reached an all-time peak earlier in this century, but is now declining. Violent conflict and the growth of right-wing populism are doing their mischief. According to the EIU, almost half of the world’s population live in a democracy of a sort but less than eight percent in a “full democracy.”

The Pew Research Organization has completed two lengthy studies on the phenomenon, one focusing on people’s attitudes toward democracy and another on their ideas about what needs fixing.

The first showed that people around the globe continue to consider representative democracy the best way to govern their societies, but there’s considerable unhappiness about how it’s working. Strong support has declined in many nations, including Canada, while increasing in very few. Some countries even showed increasing support for strong-man leadership.

A majority in all the 24 countries surveyed don’t believe elected officials care what they think, and many don’t think political parties represent them. Leaders, parties and the state of democracy generally were consistently rated poor.

This is a depressing snapshot to start 2024, the biggest election year in history. More voters than ever before will head to the polls as at least 64 countries plus the European Union hold national elections. About half the people in the world will cast a vote. This should offer an optimistic view of democracy but obviously such isn’t warranted.

The second Pew study went on to get people’s views on what needs fixing. By far the biggest need expressed was for better politicians. Respondents want politicians who are more responsive to the public’s needs and the public’s voice, that are less corrupt and more competent. Many also want representation to better reflect gender, age and race.

Many mentioned political reform including changing electoral systems, shifting the balance of power between institutions, and placing term limits on politicians and judges. More direct democracy was also mentioned.

Citizens themselves didn’t escape attention. Citizens, according to many respondents, need to be more informed, engaged, tolerant and respectful of one another.

The economy. too, was mentioned. Many emphasized that a healthy democracy is tied to a healthy economy, specifically mentioning creating jobs, curbing inflation, changing government spending priorities, and investing more in infrastructure.

Two of the areas of concern particularly caught my eye. The first was the need for better politicians. This was the number one problem in almost every country surveyed.

Looking at our own country, I appreciate the concern. Yet I wonder if people aren’t too demanding. Politicians are people, too; there aren’t any perfect ones. And keep in mind they must answer to everyone, not just you and I.

This leads into another of the main themes emerging from the study, the need for better citizenship. Are the citizens themselves as well-informed as a free society allows them to be? Are they as engaged as democracy deserves? Are they willing to listen to other views with an open mind ?

In a free country, maintaining the health of democracy is ultimately up to the people. There are many instruments at their disposal: voting is number one; participating in and funding a political party and other organizations; attending open houses and other political meetings; writing letters to representatives and media; and even running for office themselves. Any aspect of their governance they believe needs change they are free to work toward that change.

The democratic flaws that people blame on their politicians, or “the system,” may be in large part be a reflection of their own inadequacies as citizens.

This will be tested in the most important of the many national elections this year. Once again, the Americans face a stark choice: a demagogue or a capable, compassionate leader. In the 2016 presidential election, more voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump, but it was close enough that the Electoral College (a constitutional idiosyncrasy) could overrule the people and hand the presidency to Trump. So in that instance we might blame the College, i.e. the system. (Although constitutions can, albeit with difficulty, be changed.)

This year Americans face the same stark choice. To avoid repeating the 2016 folly, they must give Joe Biden enough votes to preclude any mischief by the College. If they don’t, the results could be dire for democracy, and the people will have no one to blame but themselves.

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