The Tensile Strength of Politics

With global politics now wedged in something of a social maelstrom, it set me off thinking about the basic tenets which barely pass muster beyond a cursory word or two. A Facebook friend who shall remain nameless, and with whom I have a fair amount of social banter, re-posted an article about the ongoing issues of voter recounts in the US and my own response provoked me into expanding upon it a little more.

For those engaged with politics even to the smallest degree, irrespective of which ever political system you may live or believe in, one thing which unites them is a desire to see that each works well. Of course there are those which are humanely unacceptable and rightly invite criticism but I personally believe that broadly speaking, as with language barriers, the problems are far from insurmountable and in the best traditions of mutual respect they can function symbiotically. Interestingly where it feels that our systems appear to be suffering the most these days is not at their peripheries but more within their hearts. For differing reasons both the United States and the United Kingdom have core problems which make a laughing stock of their very names. The problems are democratic in nature and let’s not mince words — we find this very process to be under threat, but I think it’s wrong to conclude that democracy itself is the actual problem. Rather it seems to be the resilience of democracy which has led us to the slippery slope. Between the lack of proper political engagement with the general public and the significant and deplorable quality of rhetoric from the candidates, it’s all been enough to throw both countries and the world stage into chaos.

For the UK the question of Brexit only reared its head because of a pledge by Conservative ex-Prime Minister David Cameron to give the public their referendum. Throwing this bone to the public was on the face of it a gesture of political “kindness”, to give the illusion that respect and goodwill for the electorate was in their hearts all along, in spite of the rigorous abuses up to that point (and it amazes me how many people keep buying this old routine). The question of staying or leaving the EU was thrown to a nation ill-equipped to make an informed decision and it didn’t go unnoticed in the media that shortly afterwards there was a web spike in the number of requests for information about what it all meant AFTER the fact. I suspect a lot of those requests were genuinely made by people trying to ascertain the impact, especially since little in the way of fact threaded the “debate”. I also believe, as did the media, there were a significant number who didn’t know what it was they’d just voted for. The second atrocity in this exercise was the unacceptable level of advantage taken by those canvassing for support one way or the other. The scale of misinformation and poor quality discussion which took place at almost every level was frankly unbelievable, and in the end the decision by the masses to pull out of the EU rested on little more than scaremongering, insinuation, fervent nationalism and exaggeration. That it isn’t actually legally binding and yet still being seen to be done because of ego extends it into the realm of farce, even without mention of the incredulous measures being taken and suggested to keep the country working in the face of such reckless stupidity. As with the UK it too seems to have been that way for the United States. Their election appears to have boiled down to little more than poor quality rhetoric, fabrication, nationalism and political manoeuvring. I predicted but hoped against a Trump victory even before the reality set in, simply because of the way in which it was all playing to the emotions of an electorate similarly misguided into believing that they were sticking it to the rich privileged few. Events surrounding it which I predict will bear yet more bitter fruit down the line were briefly mentioned by in the media, an example of which was UKIP MP Nigel Farage blundering into the middle of the Trump fiasco, apparently lending some moral support to his cause. This after having coerced the British public out of the EU based upon the fact that he felt it was wrong for an outside state to have any undue influence in the affairs of another! You couldn’t write it. Based upon that alone I would have to say that it all feels very orchestrated, and not at all a coincidence that this has happened to both countries in similar fashions at the same time, but that is for another debate and this is more about the system.

Lots can be said about the pro’s and con’s of democracy but one glaring weakness is that it thrives and dies on the engagement of its electorate. Dictatorships have the luxury of not having to pay lip service to, or have anywhere near any reliance upon such mechanisms, and I’m sure the slip which is now taking place towards the traditional and extreme right of the political spectrum in both the UK and the US is indicative of the 1%’ers trying to take a little more from democracy over concerns at their lack of popular leverage with the serfs and their confounded social media, which seeks to uncontrollably inform about and ridicule the establishment. The UK has now finally managed to shoehorn its very unpopular and hot political potato known as “The Investigatory Powers Act” into place, again with little engagement with the public, excepting those of us who are rightly outraged at the duplicity of the bill — it’s a telling sign when MP’s try to get their kind exempt from such a law that you know it’s not going to be a pleasant affair. These are the same people who argued over encryption, demanding that creators make “backdoors”, such is the ignorance of those making these rules. Maybe they actually just bluffed us with stupid behaviour, willing to accept an embarrassing social slap in return for an end goal? They do seem to have got their way, again because of a weak electorate.

So where is this all going? The piece which caused this expansion was a look at the “wins”, and the fact that they have both been outcomes based upon the narrowest split between the electorate got me thinking about the “why” of our systems apparent common sense failure — when I say common sense I mean to imply that whether you agree with either of the results, neither country rests with a happy electorate, and that’s the problem. We label our systems as democratic but the actual robustness of the process is what I would call into question. Proper, solid democracy so worthy of the definition invites debate and discussion. It isn’t just about a function of people having their right to a say, or how it’s done (although the finer details of “first past the post”, proportional representation, etc. certainly warrant closer inspection). What is lacking and is seen to have been lacking in both the UK and US “democracies” is real impassioned, empowered debate. I’m not talking about the kind of passion which sees people flying into fits of hysteria and rage over one result or another. As the title states I’m talking about the tensile strength of democracy. When overwhelming consequences such as the next POTUS or Brexit can be decided on what is arguably a wafer thin majority then I think it can be successfully argued that they are each hollow and meaningless results, and weak if not dangerous victories. I know what some you may be thinking but this truly isn’t sour grapes over a Brexit or Trump win — look deeper. It’s about how much we’re prepared to empower and embrace a result. If each had been an overwhelming result — 88% in favour of Brexit, 90% in favour of Trump, the results would have been a confident one (though still unlikely and unaccountable mysteries!). I think it’s VERY easily argued that it is bad for democracy to accept monumental decisions made on wafer thin majorities. It clearly shows both in the results and ensuing chaos. The importance of the questions being asked, Brexit or Remain, who is next in the White House, were not founded with anywhere near enough gravitas so demanded. If I were to suggest a solution to this then I would almost certainly advocate for a system that would force re-reckoning. A 50/50 split, indeed anything less than perhaps a 25/75 or even 20/80 split should automatically demand a re-run, not just of the vote but of the whole process undertaken, from debate through to voting. When people are not sufficiently engaged or informed, and the outcome is decided on a mathematical technicality of something as weak as 52/48, it isn’t sour grapes. It’s an insult to the very process of certainty and engagement that IS democracy. So people would complain endlessly about having to go over it all again. To them I would argue (as did Jean Luc Picard) that constant vigilance and unwavering responsibility is the price we pay in return for freedom of choice. Too many people have, and continue to die for this right irrespective of whether that is a legitimate hazard of their profession. In return the least we can ask of one another is to have respect for the process which is so fundamental to choosing our collective path, whether that choice would result in prosperity and continuity or unnecessary suffering and extinction. To commit to any overarching path with such a weakness of spirit as has been on display throughout 2016 is the height of shame and folly, and we have to do better.

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