We got there in the end, didn’t we?
What a triumphant intermediate conclusion that was – the thinking behind most votes resembles a stenchful mire, all bubbles and floating lumps. Yuk!
“But what does this state of affairs mean for democracy?” I hear you cry (assuming you have either forgotten, not read, or suspended your disbelief of, my introduction).
“Well,” I might well answer. “It could mean all kinds of things. If we hold that the will of the people is ultimately good in and of itself, then everything’s fine. By in and of itself, I mean it has innate value. You don’t need to, and cannot, reason that value. You just accept it.”
>Oh<, you might think. >That doesn’t sound much like Jaime’s normal approach to things. He normal loves reason and logic. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic?<
See, I recon, and the founding principles of lots of modern democracies seem to recon, that we all support democracy not for an unquestionable intrinsic goodness, but because of a because. Several becauses, in fact:
Because the people are best equipped to rule themselves.
Because rule by any group but the people seems unfair.
Because of the historic badnesses perpetrated under other forms of government, and the comparative (albeit not unblemished) good record of democracies.
Because the Greeks and Romans (and Iroquois) did it, and they were damn clever buggers.
The clear assumption seems to be that the majority’s votes will pick [A. the best set of policies] and [B. the best qualified leaders] to [1.best satisfy the needs and hopes] and [2.confront and solve the fears and problems] of the majority.
Now that’s very well, in theory. But. But I hope that I have at least made you question the reality. The electorate does not vote along with this idealised model. The sum of all my previous posts suggests that the electorate is so swayed by rhetoric, traditional political values and stereotypes, evolutionary biology, societal constructs, brain chemistry, chance and inadequate education, that few if any individual voters act according to a dispassionate and well-informed assessment of their own, or the country’s, best interests.
Multiply the effect of that by a few million, and you have a malaise. A morass system that throws up either demagogues (convincing anti-logic) or centrists (appealing to what the herd already holds dear).
I hardly need, then, to deliberate over the countless historical examples of lacking politicians, failed policies and underwhelmed electorates to fart out a subsidiary conclusion:
Democracy itself is shit.
Before my epic solutions, let’s consider whether these are real-world issues. I mean, there don’t seem to be any politicians who are actually as good at ‘magic’ as my argument suggests they can be, right? Riiiiiiight. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be. It doesn’t mean that every Prime Ministers Questions, every Newsnight, every Second Reading and Congressional Hearing and Cabinet meeting, there isn’t a swathe of logic fails, information mishandling, legacy-prioritisation and interpersonal bullshit. It doesn’t mean that most politicians don’t try to exploit you as far as they can, in their dress, speech, policies and PR. It doesn’t mean their soundbites, their speeches and their campaign posters won’t deploy tricolons more effectively than I’ve just done. And it certainly doesn’t mean that YOU aren’t a pathetic little shit-eater, voting away with the barest understanding of economics, political theory, morality or anything else that’s relevant.
So the problem is relevant.
But maybe you think it’s a non-issue. Perhaps you are one of those people who likes to think that the fluffy, populist, essentially fallible nature of democracy that I’ve spend several posts lampooning is in fact strong due to this very shitty nature – the tyranny of the majority is hunky dory, perhaps even natural. Certainly, the electorate’s basic faecal nature cannot be changed, right?
I like to call this the ‘Sam Harris’ argument, not just because I think Sam Harris is an idiot, but because Sam Harris [famous ‘New Atheist’ and neuroscientist] has argued that we can derive moral propositions from brain scans. That we can codify human impulses, then define what is ‘right’ accordingly. Now (and I’ve mentioned this before?), what’s hilarious is that Harris himself discovered that humans of race X automatically have a hostile neuro-chemical reaction to pictures of humans of race Y or Z. Now this is a massive straw manhypothetically, but for the sake of argument, I’m going to suggest that Sam wants us all to embrace our own evolutionary-biology-derived natures and declare that violent racism is moral.
But you see the problem, no? Just because humans tend to act in a certain way (not thinking very well before voting; genocides) does not mean they are acceptable. Harris’ (or rather, my faux take on Harris’) position is essentially a very long term argument from tradition. We’ve been choosing our leaders badly since the days Neanderthal clubbed Erectus, that’s the way it’s supposed to be!
Plato, at least, saw that this was not OK. Sure, his opposition to democracy might well have been because Athenian direct democracy (that is, all citizens [in this case basically rich males, only 10% of the population, but theoretically everyone important] could vote daily on any issue they chose, forming a true ‘government of the people’) killed his buddy, Socrates. Sure, he was writing thousands of years ago. But Plato was perfectly prepared to say that the electorate were fools, and Athens’ effective rulers were rhetorical ‘sophists’ (and their noble pupils) who used rhetoric to sway the crowd, whilst essentially doing exactly what the crowd’s short-term demands were.
Now, after that Plato and I diverge a little, because he thought that philosophers, unlike others, could perceive an abstract objective ‘Good’, and that on this basis philosophers should have dictatorial (or strong-oligarchical) power, and everyone else should obey. This would be fine if philosophers truly did know the perfect way to run the state. Sadly they don’t [in my humble opinion; they can’t seem to agree on much, anyhow.]
What we got now is a pseudo-Platonic hodgepodge, that is electing representatives to govern, because people basically agreed that the Athenian direct-democracy model was unwieldy. Either that, or they were too lazy to vote daily, I don’t know. What I do know is, the solution the Western world is sporting does not really solve the problem. It abstracts it a little, and it’s certainly an improvement – voters have to think a few years ahead, consider local and national issues; representatives (MPs, Senators etc) tend to be educated to a standard that tends to make them better-than-average candidates for power.
But all the shit I smeared earlier applies to representative democracy, because I’m not Plato.
Where were we? Oh yeah, Democracy being shit.
Now I know – right – that Churchill said (well, actually circumlocuted) that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. And I don’t disagree with the splendid old buffer. I agree wholeheartedly.
Only thing is, he was a Conservative. The clue is in the name. Maintain the status quo.
I am not a Conservative. To me, dear Winston’s quote is not a call to accept what we have with gratitude, but an exhortation to try something else. Let’s experiment a bit! If it all goes wrong, we can fall back on democracy, sure. But so far as I can see, global δημοκρατία has reached its limits*. The shit has hit the fan, spun out in all directions, slapped wetly to the floor and stewed a little.
It’s time to clean the shit up. And my next blog is almost certainly the best possible solution.
(*This is not to say that stable democracy would not be a vast and welcome improvement to a whole host of countries, most visibly Syria and Myanmar/Burma.)