The death of democracy as we know it?
Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed.
In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.
Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!
If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.
Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.
The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.
Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…
It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?
Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.
After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.
In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.
Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?
The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.
So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?
A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.
In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…
Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…
Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.