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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.

31 thoughts on “The death of democracy as we know it?”

  1. Excellently stated, Anna. My uncle, who was born in Greece, used to say that he didn’t mind if you disagreed with him, as long as you had an opinion. Then he’d expect you to defend that opinion with facts. Democracy is not easy and somewhere along the way we’ve taken it for granted that it will always endure.
    How did we get to this place? The key is to being well informed. We’ve stopped reading newspapers in favour of trolling through social media. Is it that one costs and the other doesn’t, or have we been programmed to take the quick sound bites and move on. This is how the electorate becomes uninformed.

  2. Very well put Anna. I voted to stay in Europe (because I took the time to think about it and look for a few things myself) But the decision (rightly or wrongly) was made so so be it – lets get on with it and ensure the leaving is done well. (Like you, not holding my breath). I don’t vote for a political party I vote for how good the person representing me is/has been / will be. Take our last local Council elections. One young person decided to stand because … well I don’t know why, he was about to go off to Uni so how on earth could he represent his local area efficiently? Another I had never heard of, never seen, never even had any literature about him. The third has represented the area for several years – and has done a damn fine job. It doesn’t take a geneous to work out who the best candidate was – is.
    One thing that intriguers me is the claim that the 18th century pirates were supposedly ‘democratic’. I guess compared to the Royal Navy they were but we base that assumption on a couple of pirate crews who had a written ‘articles’ of dos and don’ts. Just because two or three crews had this doesn’t make it a universal code for all pirates. And yes, some crews ‘elected’ their Captain but there’s no record of how many pirates got conveniently marooned if they voted for the wrong person… and anyway to quote a certain movie, ‘They’re more like guidelines really.’ In other words, not worth the parchment they were written on. I wonder if the same quote applies to the Brexit and the US Presidency campaigns…?

  3. Well said, Anna. With rights comes responsibilities, but this seems to have got lost. School pupils approaching voting age are not taught how the system works. Some schools do it well and have debating societies; others allow their pupils to leave ignorant.
    I knew people in the U.K. who couldn’t be bothered to register (The form was put through everybody’s letterbox.), then they couldn’t be bothered to vote.
    When one such came to me with a problem when I was a councillor, I asked why I should be bothered to take his case up. He reported me to the standards committee. He could be bothered to do that. I was stunned by the disconnect.
    People are keener to vote for Strictly – a dancing competition on television – than for their government.
    My instincts are to either make voting compulsory or to take away the right to vote after failing to use it six times. But that would never do, would it?

  4. Well said! It has been a frustrating year to be a U.S. citizen and voter. All the lies and hateful rhetoric, the blame and finger-pointing has been awful. I’ve never experienced an election so filled with division. Young people, first-time voters like my son and his friends were so disillusioned that too many of them didn’t bother (my son and his friends did!). It can’t even imagine what it must be like to come of age in this kind of divisive political atmosphere.

  5. I can share a great deal of what you said Anna, but if I lived in the UK and had lost my home and was in B & B accommodation or on the streets, or earned £7 an hours or less when the boss took home several million – I most certainly would have voted for anything other than the government. A lot of Brexit votes were against Cameron and what he stood for. England is a country in which democracy lost its way with Mrs Thatcher who made the rich richer and the poor poorer. She sold off council houses and refused to let councils rebuild, so we have landlords with a hundred or two hundred property portfolio. She privatised the services. She destroyed our industry. I only can wonder how this didn’t happen before … the reason is happened in 2016 was because Cameron gave the people a vote.

  6. I agree with much of what you have said here and will add that even after our election people are not interested in informing themselves. Instead of attempting to understand issues or different points of view, people are simply ‘unfriending’ each other and assuming that the ‘other side’ is just too ignorant to agree with them. I see no end to the division in our country when so many have this ‘if you don’t agree with me I want no part of you’ attitude. My only challenge to what you’ve said would be that both of the presidential candidates Americans were offered were manipulative liars, rather than just ‘one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything’. The system that puts two such unsuitable people in the running for one of the most powerful positions in the world needs to be fixed because this election cycle made me embarrassed to be an American – and not just because of Trump.

    1. I can understand the conundrum offered by the two presidential candidates. I would, however, say that when it came to lies and divisive comments, Mr Trump won–hands down! And yes, you’re right: the divisions caused are difficult to overcome – after all, all those “thems” that no longer feel part of the “we” will need quite some convincing before they believe they too belong. That is the challenge Mr Trump and his government face: they rode the divisions to power. Now they must bridge them.

  7. I agree with much. But democracy is also in danger from those who refuse to accept the result and determine that the other side is stupid or ill informed for voting the way they did.
    I know people who voted Leave for reasons that were neither stupid nor ill informed.
    The EU vote was actually a galvanising one for democracy. People did go out and vote because for once that vote counted.
    I think we thought it all very civilising that politics had moved to the central ground with all parties seemingly targeting the same groups but that left a lot of issues and communities on the sideline unaddressed.

    1. That is very true – and it is maybe a knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the voters on the winning side as “stupid” when the discussion is as divisive and acrimonious as we’ve seen this last year. As I said, maybe the vote would have gone the same way even if all voters had informed themselves–but it is an unfortunate fact that many,many voters had not informed themselves beforehand. Which, of course, does not preclude many did. I think the great challenge going forward will be just how to handle all those minority interests and opinions. After all, civilised democracy builds on the fact that the majority wins but does not use this to trample the minority, as is being done in Turkey at present.

  8. Judith Wright Aplin

    Loved reading this…so many voters here in the US don’t read..don’t analyze. I hope we survive the next four years without Trump’s starting wars. At least my Scottish relatives voted to stay…were against Brexit…and still are.
    Thank you for your article…

  9. Raymond R Neutra MD

    My Pomona classmate from 1961, Linda Root alerted me to your thoughtful essay on democracy. In the USA there are about 40% who can be counted on reliably to vote for policies that are based on the idea that social planning is not possible and that the unfettered market must be counted on to work its magic hand. Then there other other people whose identity is tied to their white skin and Scotish-Irish ancestry in Appalachia (who were originally viewed as “scourings” but were proud nonetheless). There are so many important issues to be informed about that people vote on simple principles, because it is not realistic to amass enough information to make informed guesses about likely consequences of policies. Size and homogeneous culture helps increase the chances for Democracy, but remember that the Athenians voted to mistreat the other city states in their alliance and diverted money for defense into the Parthenon and that gold statue of Athena and then invaded Syracuse for no good reason, so even size and homogeneity is no guarantee either. Oh dear….
    Raymond Neutra

  10. Excellent analysis, Anna. I will share it.
    The U.S. is a prime example of a failed democracy. When I complain that Trump was elected on a minority vote and that this is not democratic, some right wing Republican Trump supporter will remind me that “The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.” As if a republic should not be democratic.
    It is true that the founding fathers of this country set up our government as an oligarchy with voting restricted to property owning males, but these same founding fathers also envisioned that changes would be made with time-that’s why they allowed for amendments to the constitution. Indeed the system has become more and more democratic over the generations, with non-whites, women and non-property owners granted the right to vote.
    The lamentable state of American democracy is due in large part to intentional manipulation on the part of the plutocratic oligarchy. In the priorities of the powers that be, education is low and public schools have been starved for funds, consequently the quality of education has declined, and the uneducated are easily misled. The oligarchs have funded and promoted media outlets like Fox News which feed our under-educated populace a constant diet of right wing lies and distortions. Just today Fox News came out stating that there was 16 Billion dollars in Food Stamp fraud, a complete falsehood.
    These same oligarchs pour billions of dollars into misleading ads every election, and the result is that most of our state governments have been taken over by right wing governors and legislators. These in turn gerrymander the districts in their states to ensure that right wing candidates are elected to congress. This is why the House of Representatives is overwhelmingly Republican. These same state legislators pass laws designed to dampen voter turnout among racial minority voters who might be expected to vote Democratic. There have been almost no documented cases of voter fraud in the U.S. and yet various Republican state legislatures have passed laws requiring voter I.D. These requirements make it more difficult for minority voters because they are less likely to have driver’s licenses. In Alabama they have deliberately reduced the number of offices where a black person can get the necessary documents to vote.
    Then there is the distinct possibility that voting machines can be hacked. During the Democratic primary there was a large discrepancy in a number of state that Hillary won between the election results and the exit polls. What did they do? By the time votes were taken in California and New Jersey, they eliminated the exit polls. Some analysts believe that without substantial voter fraud, Bernie Sanders would have won the democratic nomination, and since he had far more support than Hillary Clinton among independent voters, he would have beaten Donald Trump in the general election.
    If you want an understanding of how the plutocratic oligarchy has affected our politics and has engineered the profound right wing takeover of our entire political system, read Dark Money by Jean Mayer.

    1. I am glad you liked my post, but I think it is important to point out that Mr Trump was elected democratically as per the process in place in the US. He is not the first president to be elected despite not having won a majority of the votes, which may indicate a need to overhaul the electorate system – but I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to express an opinion on that. As to the power of the oligarchy to steer the development of society as it best serves them, this is a very sad state of affairs. However, it is the responsibility of ALL voters to register and exercise their vote, even if at times this requires moving minor hills to get there.

  11. Excellent article, Anna. I completely agree. As an American, it seems to me that misinformation and lack of intellectual curiosity played a huge role in what happened in our election this year. There was a non-stop wave of fake news and news that was focused more on entertainment and ratings than on actual facts. Add to that, some legitimate media in both print and television were too scared of being accused of bias to report the news fairly and accurately. Instead, they drew false equivalencies or insisted on giving everyone equal time. This resulted in a lot of cranks, conspiracy theorists, racists, and misogynists being given a platform to spout their crazy rhetoric. It is all extremely disheartening and casts a harsh light not only on the dark, underlying ignorance and bigotry in our country, but also on how our education system has failed so many Americans. For a lot of people in 2016, especially for the poor and uneducated, the empty campaign slogans and bias-confirming finger-pointing were simply more palatable than actual facts.

  12. i love your articles – but this one is way too controversial for me to comment on. but i have shared it on twitter — just ’cause i love your articles so much.
    thank you for doing this one.

    1. I was in two – three, even – minds re posting this. But it has been gnawing at me for quite some time, and so…Thank you for your generous support – it means so much to me!

  13. The whole “we” vs “them” argument that has replaced rational debate is so sad – and frightening. It frames the debate in terms of scapegoating rather than careful analysis leading to practical solutions. As such it is reminiscent of the 1930s.
    People who voted for Brexit or Trump, resent the accusation that they are ill-informed. But there does not seem to have been an opportunity in either case to present logical arguments against the assumptions upon which those who believed themselves to be well informed based their decision.
    The saddest thing, in my opinion, is that those who believed they stood to gain most from the result will find they lose the most.

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment. ANd yes, I agree: as I write, some of those who voted for Trump in the US have just realised that potentially, repealing Obamacare will leave them without health insurance.

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