Great minds think, occasionally…
When I think about democracy, I am reminded of that old joke about the surgeon who , when asked about an operation he had just finished, said that it had been a complete success, but unfortunately, the patient had died.
Our democracy feels a bit like that to me at present, so I thought I’d have an idiosyncratic look at it, and I’d invite a few friends, living and dead, around to talk about it over a few drinks.
Democracy is a straightforward idea isn’t it?
Now, democracy sounds like such a simple concept that you’d think it couldn’t provide the basis for any kind of argument, but I reckon you’d be completely wrong!
I thought that I’d prepare the ground by producing a short briefing note for my guests to get the ball rolling…
For a start I argued that there must be some basis of fairness underpinning any kind of democratic process. I quoted Jimmy Bovard, US political commentator, who famously said that “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”. That sounded fair, and a bit provocative to me, so I kicked off with that. I reckoned that no amount of canvassing, or door knocking was likely to change the outcome of that particular ballot.
As a further example I cited the case of the infernal BREXIT referendum. There were many young people who, arguably will be the most affected by the outcome and would have loved to have voted, but, were excluded. They would certainly have reason to expect to have reached majority by the time the outcome came into effect. This young cohort have been included in many other “democratic” exercises, so their exclusion was quite arbitrary. Is this fair?
In addition, I suggested that we had to consider what kind of system we think would give a fair result, rather than support a particular vested interest. Would different kinds of democratic process give similar results? Are Proportional Representation , Binary Referenda, First Past the Post, Representative Democracies, etc, all of equal value, or are some more appropriate in some circumstances than others?
A binary choice may be inappropriate when the facts are disputed or unclear
As an example, these days we are repeatedly told about how many people voted for BREXIT. I argued that we should also take the time to consider how many did not vote for BREXIT. Not just those who voted against it, but those who didn’t vote for it. Only 37 % of the electorate voted to leave, 35% voted to remain but what of the 28% non-voters? Were they lazy, undecided, unable to understand how it might pan out, genuinely unable to unpick lies and half-truths from fables and smears, or what?
Thinking more about the significant rump of non-voters, how much work has been done to establish their motivation, or lack of it? Do they not count because they didn’t vote? Maybe they simply couldn’t decide on the evidence available. Maybe they simply couldn’t be arsed to get up off the sofa. We just don’t know. However, it strikes me that there is a reasonable argument that complacency could have been a significant factor. The argument here, is that those clamouring for change are much more inclined to vote than those who expect things to continue as they are at present. Stupid, I know, but we are talking about an electorate after all, and my friends set out their views on ill-informed electorates later.
Now, history is written by the winners, so we always concentrate on who got the biggest vote. This can however be thoroughly misleading.
Take the votes cast in the 2017 parliamentary election:
Just over 13.6m voted Tory which equates to 42.3% of those that voted (but only 29% of those entitled to vote). Even if we add in their “Supply partners” the DUP, this only creeps up to 13.9m votes which is only 43.3% of voters and just under 30% of the registered electorate
Yes, the Tories were the single biggest party and they “negotiated” the support of the DUP, at a significant financial cost to the rest of us, but how much of a “Democratic” mandate is this?
Over 70% of registered voters did not vote for The Tories or their supply partners.
In fact, even if we restrict our consideration just to those who bothered to vote, over 56% did not vote for The Tories or their supply partners.
If we look at this in binary terms … 44% for a Tory government, 56% against.
I know that this is not how it works and that we’d never have a government at all if we approached things in this manner, but I am using it to demonstrate that binary choices can be used to hide a multitude of detail and complexity.
I have just had a look at the manifesto that the Tories stood on at that election, and surprise, surprise, it doesn’t look much like the approach being taken by Johnson’s exit or bust, right wing cadre. There is no mention of No Deal exits, but, among other things, it does talk about a “deep and special partnership” including a “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement”.
Somehow, BREXIT, Do or Die by 31st October and No Deal is Better than a Bad Deal, just doesn’t cut it in democratic terms.
We, the great unwashed, haven’t had an opportunity to vote on this malarkey since 2017 and yet here we are, enduring rather than enjoying the fruits of our “Democracy”.
Interesting eh? If this was a financial transaction some recompense would be in order. We would have dozens of cold calling companies ringing us up offering to get us compensation for mis-selling. I can hear it now “ Have you been the victim of Project Smear? Have you been mis-sold electoral EU products? Just give us a call and we will get on your case for compensation. Don’t delay, this is a time-limited offer”.
Well, having got that off my chest, I thought I’d ask my friends and the odd luminary to share their thoughts on democracy with us. I must say I was a bit shocked by some of their observations, but they can be enlightening and amusing.
OK, so lets get this party started – who is going to kick off?
GBS, Shaw by name and sure by nature, was champing at the bit so we let him sound off first. He was certain that democracy merely replaced “appointment by the corrupt few” with “election by the incompetent”. I think he had been preparing this for some time, but he tried to make it sound like an ad lib bon mot. We talked about this for a while and pretty much everyone agreed. However, Florence King, AKA The US Queen of Mean, who once described seventies men in the feminist era as being “caught between a rock and a hard-on”, was insistent that democracy is “the fig leaf of elitism”. I’m not sure that we all fully understood what Flo was getting at, but it sounded good, so we went with it.
There were a few who took a pretty jaundiced view
It was then that H.L. Mencken, “The Sage of Baltimore”, an iconoclastic cynic, got into his stride and, believe me, he is not a man to mess with. He regarded democracy as a form of religion and described it as the “worship of jackals by jackasses.” I must say that most of us found that difficult to argue with, and, when he went on to build upon this by declaring that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”, we were blown away.
Oscar Wilde had been uncharacteristically quiet up until then, but he inserted himself into the conversation at this stage by grandly declaring that “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people” and then pausing, expectantly, as though waiting for a round of applause. Churchill upset him by telling him that he always was a clever bugger, so to speak! No tact that man.
We then had an interminable discussion on whether to have tea, coffee, or something stronger by way of refreshments, and in the end, I made the decision that this was getting too complicated and ordered all three. Dreading another discussion about which variety of biscuit to choose, I decided to assert my authority as host and, having mentally discarded Bourbons, Florentines, Jammy Dodgers, and Garibaldis for a number of different reasons, settled for Hob Nobs in the spirit of irony. These were not met with rapture but nobody cared much. Maybe it was this choice of biscuit that prompted James Fenimore Cooper’s thought that “The tendency of democracies is, in all things, to mediocrity”. We’ll never know.
Cooper did, however, surprise me by getting upset when I suggested that this was just an extension of the familiar argument that more means worse, that had been trotted out over the years whenever anything was opened-up to a wider public. Maybe it was the whiskey talking.
It probably was, because our PM Johnson’s hero, Winnie Churchill, couldn’t contain himself any longer in his disdain for the electorate. He said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” and Johnson then also got upset when I said that it was nice to see that some Traditional Tory attitudes “Remain” even if we aren’t allowed to!
This comment fired up my old mate Mencken again, who thought that people got what they deserved. He said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Isaac Azimov, who had been quiet all evening, took his head out of his book and chimed in at this stage. He said learnedly, that there was an unfortunate anti-intellectual thread in our society that was exploited by those that manipulated the democratic process by claiming that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. This rang bells for many, although Jackass Johnson looked a bit bemused. It did prompt good old Bertrand Russell to wake up and chip in, suggesting that we make the mistake of thinking that “a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man”. Bertrand went on to say that our politicians, “take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.” Poor old Johnson definitely bridled at this barb but seemed to have left his script at home on the dressing table along with his minder and his famous ad lib wit.
Anyway, things were getting a little heated, so we had more strong drink and moved on to consider who actually runs democracy.
Leaders, Bosses and those in control
Unsurprisingly, Woodrow Wilson had no doubts and was convinced that “government, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy”. Some of the others decried him as some kind of early day conspiracist, but it seemed pretty accurate and contemporary to me.
It was then that Mencken claimed his pre-eminence by showing us something he had written years before Donald Trump was even born. We were all amazed by his prescience. See what you make of this…
“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
I suggested that this worked equally well over here, especially given Trump’s casually glowing endorsement of Johnson, but had to admit that I’m not sure who the morons were, the politicians or the electorate!
This really put the cat among the pigeons but I pressed on anyway saying that I was absolutely sure about something else that my man Mencken had said to me earlier, namely, that a Demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots . I said it looking straight at Johnson but he wouldn’t make eye contact!
The party ended with dirty looks all round, threats of revolution, cries of taking back control, and all sorts of nonsense; so I reminded them that, before any of us get too carried away by all this talk about Democracy we should heed the wise words of US satirist Jon Stewart: “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.” I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t, but I get his point!
Of course, as a footnote, most of the assembled company had absolutely no idea what The Macarena was, or what he was talking about!
Anyway, I hope I’ve said enough to convince you that Democracy is in the eye of the beholder, that what ever we do will be imperfect and that results of one-off events do not stand in isolation or in perpetuity. At best it is an aspiration, an attempt at fairness and it is open to all sorts of ambiguity, interference, manipulation, and a heavy dose of stupidity. It is surely a process rather than an event and maybe there should be a mechanism for pulling back people who stand on one basis and then set off to implement something else before the ink has dried on their promises.
But for those looking for some small comfort when confronting power, hang onto the words of US Socialist thinker, Howard Zinn, who said:
“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”
The question for me is – How to do it effectively?