Is democracy going down the drain?


There is much discussion about the future of democracy, freedom and other aspects of liberal institutions. Mainly in the United States, under the pressure of a polarised public life. But also to a lesser extent in Australia, in the face of the evasive and authoritarian behaviour of governments and the manifest priority of winning elections over addressing the existential threats of global warming and gross inequality. The conversation, of course, is also generated by the rise of China with its unashamedly totalitarian institutions and consequent capacity for decisive government action.

These factors raise the question whether ideas like freedom, democracy, public service and public accountability have the force that they once had when they inspired a costly struggle against autocracy. They also prompt reflection on why they might have lost that force and how they might regain it. In my view it is inevitable that inspiring ideas and words are hollowed out by the human failure to embody them in practice. As a result they become tainted with hypocrisy. The language then becomes uninspiring and loses its force to unify people. It needs to be renewed by costly and conspicuous manifestations of virtue.

The fate of Christian words certainly reflect this process. One of the most sacred words to describe the Christian life is charity. In its origins it embodies the response to the warm, self-sacrificing, universal and astonishing love of God for each human being. Yet its evisceration can be seen in the popular saying, ‘She (or it) is as cold as charity. The origin of this phrase lies in Jesus’ prediction of a time when people’s charity will grow cold. But in its later usage the coldness is seen to mark charity itself. It characterises people who act out of duty but without feeling. They may speak of charity as their motivation but their behaviour reveals hypocrisy or brutality.

This corruption affects especially words originally denoting a tender care for people. Places that offered protection to people in need were called asylums. The word came to represent harsh places to which people were despatched in order to protect the general populace. Similarly, places for people who were mentally ill were named after Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born and cared for by angels. The word was shortened to bedlam, a place of disorder where devilish behaviour abounded. Mary Magdalene, the Biblical character, then considered to have been a repentant prostitute who wept over Jesus, became associated with sentimental tears and lives on in the word maudlin.

The same loss of a high and inspiring meaning and its corruption into something unattractive is more general. We may think of penitentiary, originally conceived as a place where people could turn their lives around, and now synonymous with a harsh and punitive prison. Other Christian words that have often taken on a pejorative connotation are conversion, discipline, pious, pure, correction, submission and humble.

In each of these cases values which were initially strong, positive and humanitarian were later perceived as insipid, authoritarian or even toxic. The change reflected the perception by others of the actual behaviour and attitudes of people and institutions who claimed the values embodied in the words. Penitentiaries and correction facilities became places of punishment in which forced conformity with regulation was identified with conversion. Pious became associated with immaturity, conversion with fanaticism, purity with fear of sexuality, and submission with enslavement. These associations, of course, reflected in part the prejudiced judgment by outsiders. They also reflected, however, the ways in which Christians’ actions contradicted their words. The force for good of the tradition was lost and its key words became stripped of their power to engage a community.


'It is easy to take for granted the representative framework of society, the equality and solidarity we enjoy relative to many nations, and the privilege of a relatively united nation.'


This history has implications for our current situation. When reflecting on the continuing hold of ideas like democracy, politics, patriotism, freedom and honour, we should ask first about the associations these words have come to have. Democracy is generally seen as an ideal to be praised, but in practice is identified with politics. This has a pejorative taint. It is associated with dissimulation, manipulation, back-room and sweetheart deals, remote from the national interest, public service and citizens’ daily lives. Freedom is also an ideal, but is often limited to individual freedom of choice with no entailment to the good of the society or a social bond. Patriotism is often identified with uncritical support for my country right or wrong and for national alliances and rituals.

Although these associations have not demolished the claims that the corresponding values have on society. they have weakened them by identifying them with venal, self-interested, sometimes corrupt, selfish and bombastic attitudes and behaviour. Appeal to them does not carry the urgency and purity which it had for those who fought for their embodiment in public life. As a result it is easy to take for granted the representative framework of society, the equality and solidarity we enjoy relative to many nations, and the privilege of a relatively united nation. When the words that enshrine implicit values are tainted by bad attitudes and behaviour, the result can be a cynicism and apathy which makes institutions vulnerable.

If these values are important, as they are, and their hold on society needs to be renewed, it will not be enough to repeat the words that name them, to heighten the rhetoric and to impose the symbols associated with them. That will only focus attention on the gap between the rhetoric and the tainted behaviour associated with them. It will seed further cynicism. It is better to commend such values by seeking simple words that commend them, while exposing the behaviour and attitudes that taint them and demanding coherence between rhetoric and behaviour. This reknitting of good relationships and the words that describe them is a slow and painstaking process, as the Catholics among us are finding on many fronts with our language.  

It is also important to identify and celebrate actions that represent the coherence between claimed values and consequent behaviour. Politicians, church ministers and others in public life who take responsibility for behaviour inconsistent with their positions, apologise simply and without reservation, and resign their positions if appropriate, should be commended for their commitment to the values. They should not be regarded as mugs, ostracised for their sins or mocked for their failure to tough it out. Conscientious objectors and whistle blowers who call out behaviour by behaviour by representatives of government inconsistent with values should also be protected and praised, not prosecuted. They embody patriotism and democracy and purify the language that their critics taint.

Democracy is not going down the drain. But it is always at risk of being chucked into the gutter.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  Australians Protest As Part Of 'World Wide Rally For Freedom' Against Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccines. (Darrian Traynor / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, democracy, totalitaianism, polarisation, values



submit a comment

Existing comments

Very well said and eloquently.

Betnard Broughton | 25 November 2021  

I'm inclined to think that far from going "down the drain" democracy is more like a blocked up sink; at first the wastewater drains away a bit slowly when you pull the plug but after a while it's just a sink full of grimy gunk going nowhere and useless for washing anything clean. Stretching metaphor and analogy, the situation won't improve until you clear the s-bend. Too many political figures appear to have corrupt or questionable dealings; today we've heard our PM try to exhonorate someone from the ICAC (who he might just fancy as Federal candy) while trying to dismiss his election promise of an investigation commission. I suspect the motive to avoid investigation is to disallow questions being asked to be answered; lots of them, methinks too many for comfort. Today, the PM seems to have forgotten the "boyfriend" he alluded carries the guilt was also a Liberal until fiercely independent for a month, and that being "done over" is also being accountable in my thesaurus. It seems akin to seeing how long you can tip dripping, oil and fat down the plughole... and hoping it will all just vanish. Impeccable timing, last week of the sitting year before an election year.

ray | 25 November 2021  

Deeply, deeply touching, Andy, and it shines a light on many areas of public and interpersonal life. Ray addresses the former aspects exquisitely, as only another gifted wordsmith ever can; yet aren't there also slivers of revealing - and healing! - torchlight on offer in your piece for some like me (and him, and us)?

Michael Furtado | 26 November 2021  
Show Responses

Well said yourself, Michael. ‘Deeply touching’ exactly describes Andy’s beautifully written piece.

Joan Seymour | 01 December 2021  

Surely, Fr Andrew, democracy which the modern world has been tossing into the gutter (or into the toilet bowl to borrow Ray's apt analogy) for the 30 or so years is well and truly on its way down the drain.

john frawley | 26 November 2021  

Democracy began to fade when the economy started to be seen as the ultimate end in itself. Thus, "it's the economy, stupid" might well be understood to exemplify the banality and potentially civilisation-destroying shallowness of the spreadsheet. As my old programming lecturer would often repeat: garbage in, garbage out, and it is unexamined class prejudices (such as a universe in which there are only compliant cogs: isolated customers, and service providers), imported into the assumptions of ecomometric models, that are eroding our human relationship. It is the latter mechanism, not Facebook's simulacrum of community, that festers at the bottom of the bog of self-aggrandising opportunism that the modern political sphere appears to have become. Gregory Dix, writing in 1945, concludes "The Shape of the Liturgy" by noting that "a mystique of technical and scientific mastery of man's environment... is swiftly replacing the old materialism as the prevalent anti-christianity of the twentieth century. In this subtler form it will more secretly but even more terribly oppress the human spirit." This was seventy-six years ago. We are still not listening.

Fred Green | 26 November 2021  

Many, outside of the Church see the Church as a worldly organization manipulating the Truth for its own ends, many none believers look at it and from within their hearts ridicule its hypocrisy, and in so doing can easily justify their own self-serving actions. In the West, we talk about our democracy but the reality is that many “Leaders” in all walks of life serve themselves as they have their own hidden agendas and appease their own Circle ..V.. of influence; they survive through fear and self-interest. To step outside of the group, you run the risk of becoming a victim, and to do this takes courage and integrity.

Where can mankind look to see integrity at play, the Truth being served?
If it cannot be seen in the Vatican and by implication Pope Francis, where?
If the leaders of our Church cannot do this what HOPE is there for mankind?
Our church is stale the fundamental teaching that God’s Word is inviolate has been compromised (The Divine Mercy Image). The Church needs to regain her moral authority but to do this she would have to humble herself, is it beyond the leaders of the Church to acknowledge their own failings with honesty before mankind?
We need a more spiritual/humble Church dedicated to serving the Truth, if a new dawn is to break within the Church.

The essence of Love is Truth, and those who serve the Truth on the spiritual plain feed the hungry “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” Clothes (Protects) the naked “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me”. Visit those hearts ensnared (Imprisoned) by evil, in setting the captive free.

The serving of the Truth overlaps on to the worldly plain as it protects the weak and vulnerable from exploitation in opposing oppression, misery, and inhumanity, to serve the Truth is to love one’s neighbor as oneself, it cannot be faked as it always involves carrying one’s cross. A church for the poor is not enough (although good in itself) as it sidesteps the full spectrum of Truth which confronts evil on both the spiritual plain and worldly plain.

The thought of Jesus Christ needs to be permutated within the hearts of mankind that fulfill all His yearnings, including that of global warming (Pollution), we need fresh hope, in that His life, death, and victory has brought all of mankind to a higher and completely new stage. Then mankind will see the real cause for not dealing with global warming is because of the pollution (Evil) that resides in men’s hearts.

We need to see UNITY OF PURPOSE from our Shepherds in holding the bright lamp of Truth high, giving HOPE to all of mankind in seeing the Truth of the Gospels actually working, and then in this hope, mankind may just find the courage to face the reality of his own nature and deal honestly with global warming.

Jesus speaks to all of us in these His last Words before His crucifixion
“Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. “For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed. ‘” Then they will begin TO SAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, ‘FALL ON US,’ AND TO THE HILLS, ‘COVER US for if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry”

We are not to weep for Him, but weep for our own sins, and the sins of our children, which caused his death; and weep for fear of the miseries we shall bring upon ourselves, if we slight his love, and reject his teachings.

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 26 November 2021  
Show Responses

Fine words Kevin, but Christians in positions of power are no better than the rest. And in any case, the populations of the largest democracies are not predominately Christian in persuasion.

Ginger Meggs | 29 November 2021  

One would also suggest that different anti-democracy elements of what we witness now, had simply been in hibernation and lacking opportunity for traction, and not palatable to the mainstream i.e. eugenics, radical right libertarian, economics and adopting non mainstream Evangelical Christians for a GOP conservative voter block (apparently it's the latter cohort with the wellness movement targeted for Covid denialism).

Virginia based segregation inspired 'public choice' economic theory of Buchanan which is central to the Koch &/or Atlas Network (think tanks) radical right libertarian ideology; as is 'freedom & liberty' and avoidance of climate/Covid science; Nancy MacLean covers in 'Democracy in Chains' ('long game') and Jane Mayer too in 'Dark Money'.

Eugenics or 'great replacement' of original ZPG with Paul 'Population Bomb' Ehrlich as promoted by Tanton Networks (he was muse of Steve Bannon) and turbocharged by Fox/NewsCorp media doing the PR, agitprop and comms; ADL has been 'corresponding' with Lachlan Murdoch complaining that Fox/Tucker Carlson is promoting the 'great replacement', denied by Murdoch.

Also in the '70s Paul Weyrich of Heritage Foundation (later part of Koch Atlas network) liaised with Hungarian Nazi Laszlo Pasztor, and it's where Tony Abbott has presented in recent years (on record elsewhere using colourful language round descriptions of migrants).

Weyrich saw his role as, 'to litter the world with right wing think tanks', and used Jerry Falwell Snr. to create a Christian and anti-abortion alliance, dominated by Evangelicals and used to engage Catholics*.

Coincidentally we see all elements with the 'World Wide Freedom' protests, strong whiff of astroturfing, Tea Party, Capitol Hill and the usual suspects above; website in English based in Kassel Germany..... top referral link is Fox.

Hopefully coincidental, but too many links, hence, re-reading Martin Lee's 1997 book, 'The Beast Reawakens'* (from Good Reads):

'If you thought Nazism died with Hitler, think again. In The Beast Reawakens, journalist Martin A. Lee traces the resurgence of fascist ideals from the prominent Nazis who escaped prosecution following World War II to the present-day incidents of right-wing violence in Europe and America'.

Remember, this was written 25 years ago.....

Andrew J. Smith | 27 November 2021  

So well said, Andrew

Sheelah Egan | 27 November 2021  

Andrew's analysis touched off a reminiscence of another thinker who gave much thought to the ever present perils which threaten democracy in action.

Ralf Dahrendorf wasn't just a political analyst; his theory engaged with the major political thinkers of the 20th Century, he taught in Germany and in England and, unusually, served in the parliaments of both countries. He survived the experience of being sentenced, twice, to concentration camps for anti Nazi activism during WWII. Those dark days sharpened his appreciation of how loose affiliations of people can withdraw their assent from the prevailing authority structure and endorse the emergence of an alternate model – in spite of contemporary warnings of political whirlwinds and calamities. Readers may wish to review an accessible introduction to his thought and values – Dahrendorf's 1974 BBC Reith lectures would repay revisiting, not only for his observations, but also for the lesson he offers in civilised discourse which grapples with thorny issues and stops, here and there, for some nourishing humour.

Bill Burke | 27 November 2021  
Show Responses

‘loose affiliations of people can withdraw their assent from the prevailing authority structure and endorse the emergence of an alternate model – in spite of contemporary warnings of political whirlwinds and calamities.’

Sometimes, it’s difficult to see or feel the calamity even when it’s around you. After all, for ‘Christianity’, it’s been a few years now since the Orthodox Rebellion of 1054 or the Reformation after 1517 and nobody in the club is feeling especially uncomfortable. Even though, if we accept Christianity to be a rational philosophy, it is unlikely that Christ would have approved of the amputations within his Church.

Some day we may find out that God’s permissive will permitted Buddhism and Islam, among other religions, to fractionate not because division is natural to intellect and free will but because he did not want his People in their multiple worship spaces to look especially stupid to other believers in a spiritual universe.

The war began and remains in the heavenlies with Lucifer. ‘Secular withdrawals of assent’ are either reminders of orthodoxy or assertions of heresy, being dim mirror reflections of the fundamental principle, since Lucifer’s claim of independence, that ‘orthodoxy’ is to be with God and ‘heresy against.

roy chen yee | 29 November 2021  

How refreshing (in a way) to gain a day's respite from the usual 'jumpestanis' who treat your articles like clickbait and generally leave after registering their political but also theocentric objections. (On second thoughts, one wonders where they are today and whether 'provocative engagement', in the finest tradition of the Jesuits, would be better than leaving the possum unstirred). Great also to see Dahrendorf cited here. His favourite tutorial at St Anthony's was his introduction to Daniel Bell's 'The Radical Right' and which he regarded as the best summative introduction to the Frankfurt School, including Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, all three of whom he worked with in either Germany or Columbia, and who are regularly pilloried by John RD, a committed conservative on every conceivable canon known to woman and man, who has made them the frequent object of his attack on all things democratic and modern in this forum. I am indebted in particular to Fred Green, Andrew Smith and Bill Burke for leading this discussion to the point that Dahrendorf got a mention. It was his work that opened up for me the existence of a radical right, whose major project is to extinguish the liberal democratic impulse.

Michael Furtado | 29 November 2021  
Show Responses


Like ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, if one is a theist, one’s lense upon anything has to be ‘It’s the theology, stupid.’ After all, the logic of theism is that since all that is right and good comes from God, figuring out what is right and good without going past the borders of critical race theory or neo-liberalism or LGBTIQ*-ism or democratic socialism, etc. makes no sense.

Any practical philosophy which you fancy has to align with Scripture and Tradition.

roy chen yee | 30 November 2021  

I must object to your one-man kangaroo court decision that John RD is anti-democracy, Michael Furtardo. John RD has never, to my knowledge, posted any comment about his political beliefs. So they are unknown to us. His stance on religion is a perfectly acceptable conservative Catholic one. It is not my stance, but I respect both him and his views. You might, at some stage, like to cast your eye over the late, great Karl Popper's 'The Open Society and its Enemies'. He would stand comparison with any great modern political philosopher, bar none. BTW, I have seen no coherent theological or political stance on your part.

Edward Fido | 30 November 2021  
Show Responses

While your fidelity impresses, Edward, it may not be enough to defend the conservative side of current affairs and theology, which provides but half the answers. Carried to extremes it attracts an entertaining if little more than resolute chorus of naysayers. Had you checked before writing, JohnRD, who, like you, is conservative but also careful about his posts, has regularly used references to the Frankfurt School, whose critical theoretical work underpins almost all the social democratic impulses that drive this Jesuit journal, to castigate rather than engage with those who publish. Ordinarily, such rough and tumble is to be expected when liberty and democracy become the touchstone of publication. However, in almost none of those who write in to object, whether from the right or left, and especially in one as obviously articulate as John, is there to be found a measure of even-handedness and balance that allows an exchange to become a conversation rather than a fight. Sure, an occasional release of flatulence relieves but whether it enlightens is sometimes doubtful. As for yourself, you inform but rarely reason and, instead, often assert. And since you insist on using my surname, please spell it correctly, as I do your's.

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2021  

Edmund Burke thought the Fourth Estate indispensable for democracy.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness” adorns the masthead of The Washington Post (WaPo), owned by the world’s wealthiest man, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
WaPo promoted mail-in ballots during the 2020 presidential election, but vigorously opposed them when Amazon workers sought them for a unionization vote in Alabama. Amazon alleged only in-person voting would produce a “valid, fair and successful election.”
Over 4 years, WaPo ran 24,000 articles on Trump and Russia, the New York Times 18,000, and CNN 11,000. Yet when Russia/Trump collusion was proven false they simply moved on to the next smear campaign—Brett Kavanaugh, the Covington Catholic kids, etc.
Big Tech monopolies mouth platitudes about “responsibility” but censored the true story of what was on Hunter Biden’s laptop before the 2020 election.
White House spending sprees creating once out-of-reach trillions ex nihilo, with apparent media acquiescence, gives new meaning to the “land of the free.”
Perhaps the wealthy/woke believe democracy was embodied in the German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Small wonder only 29% of Americans trust their media.
Democracy may not be down the drain, but many of its inhabitants reside in the gutter.

Ross Howard | 30 November 2021  

The late Karl Popper, a refugee from Nazi Austria, was one of the best political philosophers of the 20th Century IMHO. He thought the problem with democracies post-WW 2 was the increasing and rigid party discipline which had not existed previously. That seems to be breaking down in Australia, which IMO is a thoroughly good thing. Popper also felt current parliamentary power was unchecked - look at what's happening in Victoria - and he felt there needed to be constitutional checks on this. I agree. Popper was not purely a theoretician, in that he was like Edmund Burke. He was also our contemporary, so he saw how things were going now. He was against both Fascism and Marxism, indeed all and every form of totalitarianism. We need to make sure young people in our schools get a real grasp of our parliamentary tradition and that entails people like Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and O'Connell. This is vital. The slaves would never have been freed nor Catholics emancipated without the British parliament. No other form of government comes within a cooee of ours. None.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2021  

Similar Articles

Where to now with Religious Discrimination?

  • Frank Brennan
  • 29 November 2021

On Thursday, three Bills were introduced to the House of Representatives: the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021.  Collectively, these bills constitute the Morrison Government’s response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review provided to government in May 2018.   


COVID and remote First Nations communities: Why are vaccination levels so varied?

  • Brian McCoy
  • 23 November 2021

We are now watching the entry of the Delta variant into the Northern Territory and with increasing concern about its possible spread across First Nations communities who vary greatly with their vaccination rates. This question was posed last Friday (19/11) on the ABC’s Coronacast: ‘Why is Indigenous vaccination so patchy?’



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up