In properly functioning democracies, the potent force of public opinion shapes the behavior of the ruling class. Existence of strong and effective institutions, which enable free and fair elections to be held regularly, ensures that elected officials are always on their toes. Since most incumbents want to remain in power, they strive to make sure a “throw-the-bums-out” mentality doesn’t take hold within the electorate. Officeholders try to anticipate the needs of their constituents and take steps to meet them, even before anyone asks.

There is another form of democratic state in which public opinion is extremely loud but lacks bite and is therefore easily ignored. Politicians in these types of democracies are negligent and often act with impunity, knowing full well that there is little price to pay for their laxity. A looming election is about the only thing that jogs the memories of such governors, reminding them that they actually have constituents that they need to cater to. When they awake, these officials simply go around their districts bearing goodies and bundles of cash in their pockets. They pay their constituents in exchange for their votes and call it a day. They return to repeat the trick four years later.

That is the benign type of dysfunctional democracies. There is another variation in which incumbents take complete control of state machinery and use it to prevent their opponents from challenging them at the ballot box. They employ an assortment of tactics, including disqualification, arrest and imprisonment, and assassination, to achieve that objective. In one recent instance, an incumbent African president brazenly said that his nation was broke and thus could not afford to hold elections. He simply kept himself in power.

In some ways, life is more straightforward in complete dictatorships. There, because ordinary citizens know that they have no say whatsoever in the choice of who governs them, they don’t waste time forming and expressing opinions. Doing so carries great risk anyway, so most people quietly focus on the few things they can control in their personal lives.

Currently, the world seems to operate on the assumption that citizens should be able to stand up against the people who abuse them within their national borders. About the only places that this holds true are in functional democracies. Elsewhere, this flawed supposition should be jettisoned with utmost urgency.

Mass migration is a huge global issue today, and all indications are that the problem is going to get much worse in the coming years. The exodus is driven primarily by poor economic conditions in the countries of origin. Historical injustices such as slavery and colonialism and some current exploitation by external powers have certainly played their part. But the widespread economic malaise observed throughout the underdeveloped world today largely results from bad governance. To have any hope of addressing the migration crisis effectively, the world needs to get serious about confronting the problem of bad politics within national borders.

Being a global body, the UN would ideally be the forum where a mechanism to address these intra-national political problems could be hatched. But the organization is hopelessly gridlocked, with the members unable to agree on anything these days. As a result, the U.S., Canada, western European and other countries that bear the brunt of the migration crisis come up with their own ways to deal with the problem.

Sanctions have become the primary tool, and a prime example of that is Venezuela. Because national politics in Venezuela have been highly dysfunctional in the past couple of decades, leading to waves of Venezuelan migrants crisscrossing South America and into the U.S., America has had sanctions on the country for many years. The Biden administration relaxed them last year in exchange for promises by President Nicholas Maduro to hold free elections. But Maduro seems to have had a change of heart rather quickly. He has reportedly barred his main political opponent, Maria Corina Machado, from running for office for 15 years. President Biden is threatening to reinstate the sanctions if Maduro doesn’t reverse his ban.

The problem with sanctions is that they are blunt instruments. They often harm innocent, powerless people more than the leaders they are intended to hurt. The whole idea behind sanctions is that if they cause enough economic pain within a country, the people would rise up and force their leaders to change their ways. But it is a population’s inability to stop the abuses of its leaders that elicits sanctions in the first place.

In sanctioned countries, leaders and the people in their inner circles always find avenues to get all the basic necessities of life that the rest of the populations are deprived of. That is the reason many abusive political dynasties around the world have survived sanctions for decades without bothering to respond to demands for change, regardless of whatever heavy external pressure they are put under.

Climate change is now being cited as a cause of mass migration. That may be the case for some island nations and a handful of others. For everyone else, the claim is highly dubious because climate change is a global phenomenon. The inescapable truth is that wealthy countries have better capacity to adapt reasonably well to the effects of climate change because they have built resilience on the foundations of their properly functioning governance systems.

There are currently too many countries in which institutions are so weak that citizens have no means of preventing the ruinous behaviors of their rulers. While the ensuing damage occurs within national borders, they have spillover effects on other nations. Consequently, the reigning religious adherence to the principle of national sovereignty doesn’t fit the current global reality. Creative thinking is urgently required at the international level to address this question of what to do when a population is powerless to stop the abuses of its entrenched ruling class.