I expect many people won’t agree with what follows. But there seems little point in writing if the only objective is to imitate those around us, as if we were shadows on walls aping others’ movements. So much harm can come from this shadow dance. Not so much from what is said, but what is left unsaid. Because if we merely repeat what we consider to be the popular response, we will become a people who will be silent about many things.
It seems strange that I should have to qualify my support for the practice of rule by majority verdict. That it wouldn’t be the popular thing. Except it is. Our view of popularity is warped by the losers being much louder than the winners. By them thinking that they know better. But unless we respect other people’s opinions, we disavow our own, because in a democratic system neither can survive without respect, and they of course have no future without survival.
In recent times bashing democracy has become a popular pastime. Not a day goes by without the majority’s judgement being questioned, and without their choice being attacked. Many do so by invoking the spirit of the high ideals western civilisation has been built upon, including democracy itself. But in affirming democracy, it appears as if millions of people are actually rejecting democracy, without knowing the difference.
Democracy can’t succeed unless the losers concede defeat. What we have seen from some quarters is an increasing unwillingness to do so. A multitude of excuses have rained down on proceedings like a monsoon.
We have had personal scandals, Russian conspiracies, Ukrainian conspiracies, character assassinations, violence on the streets, rent-a-mob protests. And much else besides. We are led to believe that all of it is justified; that the establishment’s lamp is shining a light on corruption. But it’s as if the devil himself is lighting the lamp only to make everything appear as it is not. Because on both sides of the Atlantic nothing has come from these attempts other than an ongoing obstruction of government. In the US the failure to bring an administration down has certainly not been through a lack of will. In the UK efforts have been every bit as desperate, if only more civil.
In both countries what can only be described as the weaponisation of the legal system has been an unwelcome development. And for what? Either the winners’ heinousness is somehow escaping eagle-eyed justice, or the losers are emptying their arsenal of bad faith. But I would tentatively suggest that if these frenetic efforts had as much substance as billed, they would have met with more success than just the vitiation of democratic will.
Many have welcomed these interventions. Their bias has afflicted them with a feverish misapprehension that the law is the last bastion of justice; that it is the guardian of public interest. But anybody with a trace of common sense must know that legal processes will probably work against democracy, but quite certainly in favour of an oligarchy. In a society where power goes with wealth and where wealth is in an extreme state of inequality, extending the powers of the law means something quite different from extending the powers of the public.
If those with material wealth or position can muzzle those they disagree with in an electoral system, the public become little more than chimpanzees at the ballot box. As it is the vote is reduced to scrawling an illiterate X in one of two boxes. But now it appears as if it’s effectively an X in one box. Because if we so much as dare to put an X elsewhere we are treated as primates who are not able to follow simple instructions. Not only are our wishes not respected, we’re insulted for having them.
This has a destabilizing effect. People don’t like to be treated as fools. They prefer their abjection to have the character of self-determination.
Put simply, we either have a democracy or we don’t. If we desire a system that is genuinely democratic, public choice must be the means as well as the end. Otherwise we live in a system quite different. One in which people are told to keep their minds on their work, pay their taxes and leave matters of the state to the state.
It requires tacit and explicit consent for a small class to rule over a much larger class. The democratic process is part of that consent. When you toy with it, you toy with the very basis of the social contract itself. A house with rotten foundations will eventually crumble, for we should always remember that there is a marriage that cannot be endured by anybody or anything: to be overworked and neglected.
Neither can a house at war with itself survive. Indeed, the constant barrage of negative, sensationalist media coverage has achieved little but impede governance and inflame tensions. Every stone thrown has disrespected the vote of hundreds of millions of people. And more troublingly, its long-term effect will be to threaten salubrious dialogue. I think it’s no coincidence that society has become more polarised since electoral results started to go against the established order.
As for those presently siding with an anti-democratic power smarting from electoral defeat, they may get what they prefer in the short-term, but in the long-term the surrendering of popular consent to the expertise of a ruling class is very dangerous. Because what happens when it is their democratic wish superseded by ‘expert’ edict? It’s surely foolish to think that it won’t be. To forgo your democratic say for favoured short-term results is akin to wanting to trade real beauty in exchange for its appearance, like gold for bronze. One principle is ageless, the other will only have its moment in the sun, before it’s lost to Time’s Caprice.
“The democratic tendency… leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons… often sacrificed without regret and almost always violated without remorse… men become less and less attached to private rights just when it is most necessary to retain and defend what little remains of them”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
If we want to retain our rights and freedoms, we must keep one eye open like a watch-dog and keep guard even when rested; we must remain ever attentive to the ruses of those who wish to subvert them; we must never grow complacent, always remembering how hard people worked for them and under what harsh conditions. Because a “[Citizens’] chief business… is to remain their own masters”.
The surest way of doing so is by the upkeep of a democratic system fit for purpose, by the people and for the people, with public servants accountable to the electorate they serve. The surest way of doing so is to not be a part of a process that constantly denigrates our fellow citizens, scolding them as if they were wayward children. We must at least consider that we sit in the same schoolroom as they do. I’m afraid that in such a world, if Truth and Honour are the objectives, it isn’t the children who receive gold stars who are the most enlightened.
In fact, if we are unable to assert ourselves by making meaningful democratic decisions, we may as well be tots in a nursery. In other words, if we lose the responsibility for these rudimentary functions and forms of freedom, we lose not only our citizenship, but our adulthood. You only have to take one look at the television and cinema listings to discover that we are championing this infantilization in more ways than one.
There’s not a huge number of positives to take from this infernal mess in the play pit, but at least the people paying attention should realise that the liberal establishment holds them in utter contempt. All people. Because wherever your loyalties lie, the attempt to cancel a vote is the attempt to cancel every single vote cast; an attempt to constantly hinder an administration, not through debate, but by slinging mud, is itself an attack on every single person. Because democracy isn’t simply the public’s opportunity to ratify what has already been agreed; nor to be induced, through the art of manipulation, into accepting it. For democracy to have any real meaning it is surely that the masses can go against the wishes of a governing class, and for their wishes to be respected.