So I allowed myself, rather naively, to get dragged into one of those pointless facebook debates over the weekend. You know the ones, where you feel that you’re just the slightest of misunderstandings away from agreement but in fact it’s like that illusive mountaintop, where you trek to one ridge only to discover another, way off in the distance.
Luckily I had an easy out with the accusation “…you are trying to get something changed because a minority doesn’t like it…”
That, of course, is exactly what I was doing.
As this did not bait my ego and I could “like” it and move on, but it does illustrate a very different understanding of what to expect from democracy.
What it ain’t
The thing with democracy is that it is a really bad way to make decisions or express specific views. I have to admit that before June I often assured myself that, if the turnout were high enough, a sensible result would be returned, but even then I questioned the use of referenda in setting policy. A general election is even less clear on what, exactly, the public have voted for.
No, what democracy is good for is holding our leaders to account and many of the aspects that we associate with a liberal democracy aren’t really democratic. If policy were made by plebiscite then we would (at least until very recently) still have the death penalty and minority rights would be a long way behind, if they existed at all (as questioned by the EU vote, if taken as a reaction to immigration).
It is precisely the tyranny of the masses that the US Electoral College is set up to defend against. It seems very antiquated today, that the president should not be directly elected, but the fear was that someone thoroughly unqualified, indeed harmful to the country, may be able to win a majority.
The problem is that the idea that democracy represents the will of the people has taken hold to the extent that it makes it extremely dangerous for a ruling class to overturn the result, maybe even more so than allowing a delinquent president into office, given all of the checks in place.
Democracy is only considered to function when the reach of the government is severely limited and certain other standards are upheld, most importantly the rights of the citizens.
When people take an electoral win as carte blanche authority to do as they please you get Putins, you get Erdoğans and al-Malikis systematically persecuting minority groups.
Theresa May’s reluctance to call an election may seem an affront to democracy, and if she did so she would doubtless have a vastly increased majority. But if that was a smaller mandate through a poor turnout due to the lack of opposition, would it better represent our wishes?
We have also recently witnessed a rare example of the courts slapping the government back in the triggering of Article 50. The quality of our governance depends as much on the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press (far from perfect, granted) as the will of the people, especially given the power journalists hold.
So what’s the point?
Where democracy has actually performed very well this year is in voicing discontent.
If there are areas of the UK and US that have been gutted by globalisation then, in retrospect, there is a marked lack of sensitivity in asking those people to vote for the EU or Clinton. If their lives have been getting worse over the past 30 years then why should they plug for more of the same?
Of course they opted for “You’re screwed and it’s their fault” rather than “Actually, it’s not that bad, you just need to look at it more holistically and aren’t you happy everyone else is doing so well?”
The difficult thing is that I haven’t heard any progressive solutions to their plight. I don’t have any better ideas; I actually support the system that they are victims of.
It is not that I am voting for what benefits me, but I am doing well enough that I can afford to vote for what I think helps others. That’s one of the hardest things for upper-middle-class liberals to reconcile, we thought we had everyone’s interests at heart, were voting for an inclusive society and the common good. In fact we were, in turns, ignoring, insulting, or expecting the acquiescence of a considerable section of society because no one has bothered courting their votes before, while we try to help everyone around them.
Democracy has actually succeeded admirably at expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo; it’s just failed abysmally at producing a solution.
Then the problem is…
There has been a lot of press and comment about the quality of the debate and amount of lies told, or more importantly, believed. This generally comes from people who, like me, have enough time and inclination to research and fact-check the stories that we read but, unlike me, believe that full awareness and understanding would lead others to similar conclusions.
Someone commented recently that they make a point of watching Fox News to see what the other side thinks. I don’t do that and when I admit this to my friends the usual response is along the lines of “neither do I, it’s rubbish”. And we are the “open minded”, politically engaged ones, filtering out dissenting views.
One of the main themes of this last month is that white working classes don’t want what the white political classes expect them to. It’s us who aren’t listening, the ignorant ones.
By comforting ourselves in the knowledge that the facts and history are on our side, progressively working towards a more equal society, we blind ourselves with our own correctness.
Our self-righteousness makes us intolerant. In fact, we only expect tolerance from bigots and it shall not be reciprocated. But to be tolerant is not to condone; the term implies disagreement.
Imagine an individual boiling with misdirected rage, would we tell them to bottle it up, bury it? Is that healthy? If not for an individual then why for great swathes of the population?
Silencing others does not change the way that they think and drawing ideological battle lines just entrenches them in their views. I’m not advocating repealing anti-discrimination laws but dropping the politics of attack and shame — it does not work. We need to reach out, win people over.
The founding principle of the rights movement is tolerance. There are good, practical, reasons why causes needed to develop onto a pro- footing beyond pure egalitarianism, but the underlying concept should not be lost. If we were actively promoting a tolerant society instead of seemingly imposing “leftist” views on “backward elements” then maybe there would be less resentment. If we are going to live together it boils down to tolerate or fight, and conflict is not getting us anywhere.
That is also what is wrong with our governments, the US even had to close up shop because they could not agree a budget. People have been suffering, dying in the UK because austerity became a political weapon, the system holds no incentives to do what is best for the country — the only thing rewarded is winning elections.
As Trump prepares for office both his immediate predecessors have made the use of executive powers against a hostile house the norm, long gone is any expectation of cross party cooperation or building of consent. Everyone is preparing for battle.
How to break this
Much is made about Proportional Representation but I think that is trying to address the wrong problem.
PR is an improvement to the extent that a government reflects the will of the electorate, but at the expense of direct accountability of the politicians, and as such, is aiming for what democracy doesn’t do. If each party fields a bucket list of MPs then there’s no way that people like Corbyn would have survived the Blair years, it would weaken the debate and make playing the party line all important. More vitally, it does not remove the key issue, that the sole incentive is to win power, but rather removes all others, such as pleasing constituents. It does make power sharing more likely but, as in the States, that could easily lead to gridlock.
Alternative Voting is a better version of what we currently have in the UK but that still does not cut to the crux of the matter: that rewards come at the expense of the opponent, it’s a zero sum game.
I would go to the opposite extreme of PR and remove parties altogether*. Every MP would be an independent, standing on a platform endorsed by their constituents, and as such would have to build support for the bills they want to raise. Coalitions of the willing but fluid by policy.
There would not be a cabinet but committees for the treasury, education, etc, to which MPs would seek election from their peers. This way there would be no power to wield or crave and argument would need to be won through merit rather than might.
The absence of power would also reduce the influence of the media and other vested interests. MPs would be cheaper to buy individually but you would have to target a lot of them, leading to greater risk and discovery.
The most obvious flaw is that it is a politico’s solution: would those, the majority, who’ve very little interest in politics, bother finding out about their candidates and turn out? It is easy to put a mark by the same colour every five years, or vote directly for the Prime Minister, that doesn’t require much effort.
My hope that it would make MPs try harder. Engaging with the electorate is mutually beneficial, especially considering the disconnects I mention above, and people have never been easier to reach.
I’d also like to think it would encourage more people to run for parliament as the daunting prospect of going up against the party machine would be removed.
Cooperative governance, incorporating differences, may well move slowly but I don’t know that is a bad thing. Considered policies should endure, there’d be no political ping-pong with our education and health services, hopefully with greater deference to experts.
Who knows? Maybe the compromise and tolerance involved would filter down to the rest of society, governments setting a good example, that would make a pleasant change.
Anyway, very embryonic, and probably missing loads, curious to know your thoughts…
*Early thoughts were on removing the whip but this article, and the rather interesting conversation that followed, distilled that into the no party solution: