21st Century Democracy
Are we still to believe in democracy? Even though one of the most successful nations on earth isn’t democratic? Even though there is an increasing number of undemocratic Presidents / Prime Ministers? Even in spite of a failed attempt to provide every family in a country with a basic income regardless of whether they worked or not? For what reason should we believe in democracy? Churchill’s answer that there didn’t seem to be anything better was made in an age before data analytics, before fast communications, before choice of the sort we have now. I would like to say ‘before the electorate was educated’ but it wouldn’t be true. They still aren’t.
Belief itself, as a concept, is rapidly going out of fashion. That is not to say it is wrong, merely that we are demanding more evidence-based thinking in 2020, less whim and guess. As I often say, we need to be careful not to lose the sensitivities that humans have, feelings that make life livable and enchanting when hard numbers simply jar. But rational decisions require reason. For those to be reached facts and calculations must make the main moves.
However, it is not the supply of facts that is the problem. Certainly, there are too many of them. Certainly, the world has learnt – often at the hands of its leaders – to lie. ‘Fake news’ is a misdiagnosis. It’s not fake news that causes the trouble. It’s fake conclusions. Boris Johnson’s famous Brexit referendum bus panel proclaiming an additional GBP 350M a week available for the British National Health Service was a conclusion everyone wanted to hear. So they heard it. I want to hear it’s a lie, so I hear that.
But democracy was never intended to be rational, surely? It was there for people to vent, once in a while, about how awful the opposition was and how much they wanted what suited them. Then everyone went to the polls and voted strictly in their own interests in preparation for another few (usually five) years of political battles and chicanery. At least everyone had a say of sorts. ‘X’ on a ballot paper may not compete with Mahjong or Sudoku but it’s better than nothing.
And that’s where we all get off the Democracy Tram. It’s simply not enough any more. Now we know what our leaders are up to – at least to a greater extent than ever before – we want to be able to correct their misguided policies, equal up the pleasures of life and have fair shares for all. Vociferous we can be, even riotous. The theory is that if we make enough noise and trouble, the rest of the world will listen to us. And they do – for a transient and brief moment. Then along comes the next racket and we all turn our attention to that.
It is why the climate issue is having such difficulty getting adequate traction. You cannot get more mind-concentrating than survival of your grandchildren. And in the last few days – and the next few – we shall see great attention to saving the planet. But there are other issues, some even more immediately compelling like local wars and starvation. These will once again dominate the media. Climate will one day take a back seat again.
What are we to do? Shout louder? Riot more meaningfully? Storm the Bastille? I don’t think so.
We must find a way of prioritising our demands rationally, of giving those who think and contribute to society more say than those who don’t and of allowing people to qualify as they grow politically to have a greater opportunity to win hearts and minds without having to enter politics full time. In fact, full time politicians are usually a contradiction in terms since they become obsessed with their careers and forget the voters that they are there to serve.
It seems there is very little study of democracy taking place. Data analytics are increasingly applied to businesses, not to democracy. Education in politics is at an all time low right round the world. The cries for the hoped-for consequences of democracy are muffled in the screams of slogans proclaiming our rights, not the rights of others. Government used to claim superiority of decision making. With a few notable exceptions it has failed.
Democracy needs a wash and brush-up.
And it needs it now.