2016 and 2017 so far have, to be blunt, not made a positive case for democracy.
In our current society and culture, this is basically blasphemy if stated openly; how dare you question the right of the people to govern themselves, to charter the course of their own future? Are you a fascist? What right do you have to decide that the opinion of the majority should be ridden roughshod over?
However, this smug, pious rhetoric about respect for the will of the people that is so common in discourse regarding the election of President Trump and particularly in the aftermath of the Brexit result, does come across as rather disingenuous, and dangerous. I find it extremely difficult to view the sneers of many Brexiteers who proclaim themselves vanguards of British democracy as legitimate. This is exemplified in the reaction of the popular right wing press(“Yet again the elite show their contempt for Brexit voters!” etc.)to the decision to delegate the decision to trigger article 50 to Parliament, rather than simply allowing the use of executive powers. In essence, the self-righteous defenders of democracy only want to actually implement it when it serves their interests.
In all of the grandstanding about respect for the will of the people, the focus has entirely been on the fact that the people are rightly free to make their own decisions. But frighteningly little focus is given to the idea that the people’s decisions, for the good of society, ought to be based on facts rather than unsubstantiated claims so as to ensure that policy isn’t dictated by superstition but rather by what actually works or is necessary. Questioning why an individual votes for or against a policy is viewed as intrusive, as a mere stepping stone to totalitarianism. I’ve heard this argument before, and it has never held water; if you truly believe in what you’re doing, why are you embarrassed to explain your reasoning? If you cannot justify your views aloud even to yourself, how can you hold them in good conscience? On issues such as climate change, religion, sexism and racism the stakes are simply too high to afford ourselves the luxury of denying any examination of what we believe and why. The old adage of the best argument against democracy being a 5 minute conversation with the average voter has never been more appropriate. Just because you can articulate a view doesn’t mean it has any merit or legitimacy.
Ironically, this viewpoint is identical to the much reviled political-correctness-gone-mad viewpoint held by the worst in left wing politics. All people have the right to hold an opinion, regardless of the actual factual basis or lack thereof. However, the most infuriating aspect of the exploitation of democracy is the sneering rejoinder that because an opinion is held by a significant portion of society, it is valid and deserves respect. “Tyranny of the majority” is the idea which immediately springs to mind when the flaws of democracy are brought up, but it would be a lot easier to swallow if the majority in question was at least acting on actual facts. If this viewpoint is alien and uncomfortable, consider this: would you accept a panel who knew nothing about medicine voting on a course of treatment for you, with the power to overrule those with actual medical training and knowledge? Would you be happy to accept their choice of surgeon, when their choice has no criterion beyond being popular? You may have the correct course of action picked, either by luck or by the efforts of the panel to become informed; but for what possible reason would you allow anyone on that panel to vote and simply not bother to demonstrate any reasoning or research?
Democracy at its best, when it works as intended, isn’t simply about allowing a majority to choose a president or a policy- it’s about allowing informed participation in our own futures. Unfortunately, the US election and the EU referendum exposed two truths- that statistics and facts do not trump instinct and anecdotes, and that a depressingly large proportion of the population of both the United States and the United Kingdom didn’t vote. Only 72.2% of the UK population eligible to vote exercised their right to do so and in the US only 57.9% did. This can be, in part, ascribed to genuine difficulties in accessing polling stations or voter registration, but culturally if not under law we have to render non-participation simply anathema, with voting being as easy as possible for all.
Similarly, we have to make it a point of pride that we vote based on as much information as possible. Politicians must be held accountable for lying to the populace- I know, I’ve heard the jokes about how there wouldn’t be any left to form a government. But passive acceptance of the current situation means accepting any consequences that arise. If you don’t care that the Leave campaign arguably misled the population about the figure of £350m per week being available to the NHS (with Boris Johnson compounding this argument’s inappropriateness by voting against an amendment to the Article 50 bill requiring the government to publish figures on what Brexit will mean for NHS spending.), or that the Remain campaign misleadingly claimed that an emergency budget would be necessary if we did vote to leave, then why would any politician bother to tell you just the truth? Do we not fight this systemic use of language deliberately open to misinterpretation simply because it’s hard?
Another depressing element of the election in the US that is to an extent relevant in the context of the EU debate is the justification that political correctness and the establishment have been oppressing free thought and free speech, and that the results we have seen have merely been an expression of anti-establishment sentiment. This is a valid argument on paper, but it doesn’t alter the end result; that those who voted for Trump endorsed the views that he has propagated- that it is acceptable to objectify women as sexual objects (“just grab them by the pussy”, anyone?), and to deny the scientific consensus on climate change because it is an inconvenient truth. Those who voted Leave in some cases didn’t do it because of any meaningful reason; some genuinely were the racists that all Leave voters were caricatured as by the left, sticking it to “the establishment” by blaming the Germans, or the French, or the Polish, or those fleeing the war in Syria. We may be living in an era where the population is so apathetic that alternative facts will be afforded the same legitimacy as actual fact.
The most resounding lesson of the US election and the EU referendum is that the Western system of democracy in its permutations on both sides of the Atlantic is in dire need of reform, both practically and morally. Otherwise, democracy will cease to be, in the words of Winston Churchill, the least worst of all forms of government.