An essay I wrote for the NationStates forums on democratic and undemocratic government in NationStates. I thought it might be of interest to some of you. You can find the original and the comments and replies and such here: https://forum.nationstates.net/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=356910
There is this powerful and ever present presumption in NationStates that democratic government, most often specifically the kind organised through votes on an off site forum, is the most legitimate and the 'best' way to organise regional government. This is not universal by any means, but it does reflect the attitude of a large number of nations, and this is in turn reflected in the presence of democracy, or at least democratic values, in some form or another in the majority of regions. It is perhaps unsurprising that many players lean towards this notion of democracy as the only legitimate form of government, I imagine if we were to look at demographics we would find a majority of the players on this site are from democratic nations. It is only natural that they see the world from a particular perspective, whether they are subject to the strong worldview and philosophical traditions of 'western' society or whatever other influence. This translates into an imposition of these values onto NationStates, in what often takes the form of an attempt to recreate or mimic the legal structures of our real life societies, and this brings with it certain ideals like those surrounding democracy. Like I said at the beginning, I'm trying to avoid speaking in universalist terms, as there remain plenty of examples of highly undemocratic government, as well as players who explicitly reject democratic systems and the sentiments that support them. There is though I feel an attitude that is all too common that democracy is the ideal way to organise a region, and that other systems are by contrast, and through application of real life morality, therefore immoral. I intend to contest this position.
The reality is a democratic system conducted on an offsite forum is not a democracy. It is functionally, or at least in its effects, an oligarchy in which a small number of players vote for the candidate they prefer and impose that candidate on the rest of the region. This same group of players utilises a construct of 'law', which they themselves or their predecessors created, to legitimize this candidate. These 'laws' also provide some kind of seemingly morally accepted justification to act against those who would not accept this candidate. I would suggest these laws do not have such wide acceptance because they are voted on or composed through legal process (which is itself another false construct), they instead have acceptance because of their familiarity, because they mimic the rule of law we have in real life. This mirroring makes law seem natural and so it provides an easy justification for this otherwise offsite oligarchy. Legal systems provide a familiar mechanism of enforcement which the majority of other nations in the region will readily accept. But the point is these laws and the candidates it regulates are elected by a very small group of players, but a fraction of the amount of players who have nations residing in the region. This would be fine perhaps if this group functioned as a sort of representation of the wider region, like a parliament, but this is not the case. The obvious question that follows is whether a small group like this can truly claim to be democratic when it represents so few players who have a stake in the region, and my answer would be no. The candidates elected through these democracies are elected by and are accountable to a very small section of the population.
The common excuse is that it is easy for new players to join this forum and partake in the system, but this is often not entirely true, with the various requirements for citizenship and oaths and other present obstacles. Even if these were swept aside, there is still the reality that only a small number of players ever do actively participate in these forums, for reasons of inconvenience or otherwise. For many it is simply that they do not particularly wish to have to use a private forum to fully experience the game of NationStates, and I do not think that is an unfair stance. The requirement that players utilise an offsite forum was created by, most often, the owners of that forum, the very oligarchs who propagate this system. Players are forced to partake in a system they neither created nor consented to in order to have any real say in their own region. Players are forced to partake in an entirely offsite mechanism, to be able to play the game of NationStates in full. Does that seem fair? It's not a question of how easy it is for them to join a forum, it is, for me, as simple as a belief that they should not have to. Regardless, I also think this argument that these players who do not involve themselves do not deserve a say is a poor one. It's an excuse meant to alleviate concerns over a system of government that is fundamentally flawed from the start and at worst disingenuous. While many governments undertake every effort to engage players and get them involved, the fact remains that these efforts have a limited degree of success, and any democratic vote conducted on this offsite system is only ever going to reflect a very small number of the players in the region.
One could certainly argue that achieving democratic government without the use of an offsite forum is difficult, if not impossible. I'm not going to entirely disagree with that. Despite the promising progress made with polls and other features, it remains very difficult to conduct a poll using the tools provided by NationStates that is free from potential manipulation. The poll could certainly be restricted to World Assembly nations, which prevents players puppet flooding so to speak, but this has its own consequences in that it shuts out players unwilling to have the nation in the WA, or whose WA nations are elsewhere. I would suggest that perhaps this is not a bad thing, the game is already set up in such a way that players who refuse to join the WA have significantly less influence over world affairs. This would also for better or worse severely affect players of a cosmopolitan tendency, who are perhaps unwilling to keep their WA nation in a particular region for whatever reason. Given the tendency of certain players or groups to dominate multiple regions, this would obviously adversely affect their grasp on power and I imagine they would oppose it. There are other legitimate problems, such as the regional message board ultimately being a very poor tool for structuring multiple conversations, and really doing anything other than general chat. I think this could be solved through changes to the rules regarding the already present and widely used NationStates forums, though this would require a change in moderation policy, which has so far been to direct players to create their own forums for regional organisation, for whatever reason. The traditional belief that an offsite forum is the only way to organise a region is not unfounded, but I think it is becoming increasingly outdated, and as tools on NationStates are enhanced the argument that a region could exist and self govern entirely on site becomes stronger.
I'm going to suggest that the underlying reason many regions, or rather the 'governments' that control them, do not like this possibility comes down to a question of power. I think the real reason regions are so reluctant to abandon their offsite machinery is that this would involve a substantial reduction in power for those who control that forum. Take for an example the construct of citizenship that many regions implement, which would be a difficult thing to truly control without the security tools (some of them a tad questionable) provided by offsite architecture. This is a mechanism that limits access to government and power, its rules decided on by the small group of players who form an offsite government, and its rules enforced by that same group. It is difficult to oppose an oligarchy of players when one is forced to work within the very system that they created, a system designed to protect their way of thinking, their view of how a region should be run. The overriding concern for many regions is, and arguably rightly so in light of some unsavory types of players, security. I think this is often grossly exaggerated, if not used as an excuse to disallow new players from seeking power. The essential security of a region can be adequately achieved onsite. Offsite mechanisms provide a means of preventing unsavory types from infiltrating into legitimate positions perhaps, but these are far from perfect. History demonstrates rather clearly they do not prevent a Delegate from acting completely contrary to the wishes of a forum government.
Democracy in a simplistic sense is actually possible in NationStates and is practised every day, through the fundamentally democratic inbuilt system of electing WA Delegates. A small group of players then imposing their own system over the top of this, using notions of law as a facade, defeats the purpose of this and is not democratic at all in my mind. A democracy which relies on an offsite forum for its base has, I think, a highly dubious claim to even being a democracy at all. These forum 'democracies' we so readily accept impose unnatural constructs of law to uphold decisions made by a very small number of those who are actually affected by said decisions. I'm not making a moral judgment as to whether this is 'right', it is no more or less righteous than any other form of control in my mind, but it is all too often hypocritical. What is democracy in NationStates? It is a system of control and to call it anything else is pretense. It is a particularly effective system of control, because it carries with it lingering notions of legitimacy from real life, because it creates the illusion of equality and of everyone having a say in how the region is run.
Every leader in NationStates is a dictator, because a true separation of powers, often considered a founding basis of democratic rule, is not possible. Executive Delegates have complete control over their regions and all who reside there. User Created Regions have Founders, nations which in the overwhelming majority of cases have complete executive power over the region. Offsite forums, even those often used to facilitate 'democracies' of various falsehood, have a ROOT administrator with unremovable powers. Often 'laws' will theoretically restrict the legal powers of these positions, but that in no practical way diminishes their very real and very exercisable power. Yet democratic principles and the rule of law persist, despite these invariably autocratic positions. The absence of effective separation of powers is not necessarily a marker for tyranny, the particularly complete powers of an individual do not necessarily make them a tyrant. These individuals could be something else entirely, they could oppress their region mates as they please, but many do not. This comes down to a matter of choice, and I think the choice of legal government and other fallacies is far less important than the independent choices we all make as individuals. We choose to be good or bad, speaking along objectively moral terms, we choose to be benevolent or tyrants. This choice has little, I think, to do with whether a region is a democracy or otherwise. Whether democracy and the rule of law, concepts which I challenge above as false anyway, endure is a result of players themselves, not the system they work within. They are both ultimately meaningless and only hold sway as long as players believe they do. A democratically elected Delegate, regardless of their subjection to laws, can just as easily misbehave, and with just as unpleasant consequences, as a leader who inherited or seized the position.
I am drawing a distinction between an undemocratic leader and a tyrant. They are often presumed to be the same thing, as though the process of appointment of a leader is reflected in their character. I think this, like the common view of democracy as inherently noble, is carried over from views that permeate our real life societies. It is effectively legal positivism, in the sense that process defines legitimacy, not actual substance, and this is the basis of most modern legal systems, so it is quite familiar to us. I would argue that the true virtue of a leader, a Delegate, leans instead on their actual actions and their character. The manner in which they were elected does not dictate how they will lead. As noted above a democratic Delegate is perfectly capable of enacting a coup against their region. Often the 'legal' restraints imposed on the Delegate precisely to prevent this from occuring, become the impetus that encourages them to act in an extreme manner in the first place. A leader who is unelected will not necessarily be a tyrant, because there is a difference between democracy as a system, in all its flawed glory, and the democratic principles that underline a free society. Freedom of speech and transparent governance are perfectly achievable by a leader who does not support oligarchies in the pretense of democracies, or silly popularity contests. A benevolent autocrat can foster a cooperative environment just as easily as a strict democracy can crush the life from one. It is true that an autocrat can easily reverse these virtues on their own decision to do so, but so can a democratically elected Delegate, who is in practical terms just as autocratic in all but name. It is the decisions of individuals, not the product of any particular system, which generates stability and prosperity. A democratic system is not automatically more free nor any better than any other, and this assumption is harmful.
Undemocratic governments are often based on noble principles. A Delegate or position of authority might be appointed based on trust and respect, on demonstrated ability to lead, as opposed to the ability to appear moderate enough to be elected in what all too often amounts to a popularity contest. There is some measure of good in popularity of course, an unpopular Delegate will quickly find their position much more difficult to hold. A charismatic leader is capable of holding their position without any need for zealous employment of the ban tools, they lead because their region mates trust them to lead, because they have respect. Not all autocratic leaders are like this, certainly some rule from the basis of fear and control, but this is a choice they make as individuals and not an automatic product of them not being directly elected by the larger populace.
A democratic government maintained on an offsite forum is not more legitimate than any other regime, because it relies upon ideals of consent and social contract that are unattainable within that framework. As a product of mere game mechanics, a democratic leader is just as capable of misbehaviour as any other kind, and I don't believe the system itself inherently discourages or provides any true balance to this. An undemocratic regime can be benevolent, it can be dynamic and prosperous, it does not automatically mean the tyranny and oppression that are all too often associated with a lack of elections. The success of any particular system in NationStates is fundamentally based on the actions and merit of individuals, and legal constructs that surround them are largely irrelevant. Within this context and in light of the problems I've discussed, the idea that one leader is more legitimate, more 'good', than another simply because they were elected through a process vaguely reminiscent of democracy, is absurd.