Democracy: The more boring, the better

Essay By
Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

Chris Walsh, Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, details why seemingly dull democratic processes are essential for peace and freedom.

Democracy is an awesome system of governance, but it should be mostly dull in practice.  

“Democracy doesn’t look like a giant crowd shouting its demands through bullhorns,” The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg writes. “You know what democracy really looks like? People waiting in an orderly fashion to vote.”  

Sure, advocating for democracy to be the equivalent of watching paint dry doesn’t exactly inspire zeal for civic engagement. Hear me out, though. A commitment to tedious (and often plodding) procedures, processes, and policy or philosophical debates should be our preferred path of governance. It is this system that allows our big, diverse, decentralized democracy to maintain social peace, protect rights, and peacefully transfer power every few years without violence. 

And, yes, Goldberg acknowledges that mass protests have value, particularly in authoritarian countries like Burma, China, Cuba, or Russia, where people have few outlets for demanding basic freedoms. In fact, as noted in the Bush Institute’s new policy briefs, the United States should absolutely support those struggling for their liberty abroad.  

It’s also worth recognizing that U.S. democracy assistance isn’t about instantaneous revolution. On the contrary, it’s designed to give people voice in how they’re governed, to build durable, accountable institutions and processes, and support groups committed to long-term, peaceful civic engagement. 

To be crystal clear, though, democratic citizens should be free to peacefully assemble in protests that express anger with or demand accountability from government. Sometimes they succeed in converting that dissatisfaction into meaningful political action and sometimes not. Mass demonstrations, however, are not always healthy for consolidated democracies – especially when fueled by populist sentiment seeking to subvert that very democratic system. 

“The Founding Fathers didn’t think democracy was about crowds,” Goldberg observes. “Popular passion wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good either. Like fire, it needed to be handled responsibly and channeled toward productive ends.” 

Nowadays, our culture seems to associate democracy more with movements for change, justice, or protecting traditions, which lead people to march through the streets expressing outrage.   

We feel urgency to apply this pressure on the system because of perceptions that it functions too slowly or that it isn’t addressing our preferred issues. In the most extreme examples, like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we may even believe the system is so broken that “the people” must resort to violence to set things right.  

Yes, democracy should be responsive to its citizens.  However, democratic institutions force us to manage our passions in a deliberative, even boring, way. Why is that a good thing? Well, our decision-making process suffers when we’re angry or stressed.  

Even so, slowing things down is frustrating to many well-intentioned people who demand immediate action, especially in moments when intense emotion overtakes reason – or is manipulated by others – and blinds us to the consequences of rashness.  

Americans aren’t alone in these circumstances. My colleague Jessica Ludwig recently wrote about demonstrations in Brazil that saw supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro storm government institutions in Brasília.  As she explains, protesters had been convinced by their political leaders that the system was rigged, and they lashed out. They even “established a camp outside the Brazilian army headquarters and other military bases, where they petitioned the armed forces to intervene to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.” 

Consider the implications of asking for military intervention in a democratic transfer of political power. Instead of relying on regular elections, a precedent is set that actors from outside of the process – be they military, or a popular mob, or even an unpopular mob – may use force to determine or impose political outcomes. 

That path should terrify anyone who professes a belief in freedom and democracy. Once that door is open, different factions are given license to use similar or even escalatory tactics when they don’t get the desired outcome from an election or a political decision. 

Perhaps some would find the resulting chaos exhilarating, but certainly not regular folks who rely on that democratic stability to start a business, raise children, worship as they please, express ideas freely, or generally pursue happiness in the manner they choose. 

So, let’s keep democracy relatively dull. Avoid catastrophizing every political issue. Remain an informed and engaged citizen. Vote in each election – local, state, and national. Get involved in a civic renewal project within your community. Exercise persuasion, not coercion. This is the way of democracy.