Democracy and its discontents


In Winston Churchill’s famous formulation, democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others.  Not that we haven’t tried throughout history: monarchy, oligarchy, autocracy, theocracy, even the Platonic dictatorship of philosophers, which tends to always degenerate into a plain dictatorship without much philosophy. There have always been, and there still are, large sections of the populace, sometimes great majorities, sometimes significant minorities, which opt for other than the rule of the people (while some of my American friends would argue that the system of government bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers is a republic not a democracy, and so much better for it, I won’t be splitting democratic hairs here). Even in Australia, a Lowy Institute poll two years ago found that only 60 per cent and just 42 per cent of young people believe that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”, though it’s not certain what other kinds of government would actually be preferable to that 40 per cent. One has to be careful not to read too much into people’s general disillusionment with and disengagement from everyday party politics.

Be that as it may, even staunch democrats get exasperated with democracy. As the old saying goes, democracy means we all get what the majority deserves.

The left in particular can find democracy quite confronting. This is because the left has always seen itself essentially as a democratic movement of the masses against their overlords. The right is constantly caricatured as if not anti-democratic per se (the right, the far-right, Hitler. Get it?) than at least beholden to minority interests, specifically the rich. The left, on the other hand, has always considered and mythologised itself as broad-based, first the party of the working men, who once used to be the majority, and nowadays some sort of a coalition of lower and middle against upper classes. So when “the people” don’t vote the way the left thinks they should, the left gets into a tizz. They are, after all, the inventors of the whole concept of “false consciousness” to “explain” why people don’t seem to know what’s good for them. From Marx to Brexit, this has been a constant conundrum for the left. Only a few fully understand the irony. That old Weimer-era leftie Bertolt Brecht was one, in his famous short poem “The Solution”, written in the aftermath of the 1953 German workers uprising against the workers’ party:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

These ten lines still stand as a timeless epitaph of the left’s fraught relationship with “the people”. And their continuing efforts to dissolve the people and elect another through mass migration of more like-minded and pliant future voters is one of the reasons why the people themselves, when given a chance to have a say, continue to disappoint their betters, vide Brexit. It’s a vicious spiral.

Speaking of Brexit, it of course provides the best recent example of the left’s disappointment and anger with the old, uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, narrow-minded, racist and xenophobic masses who can’t get it through their thick skulls what’s good for them and their country, and as a result have buggered it up for the “better” part of the population. Hence, the increasing and increasingly hysterical calls for the people’s decision to be overruled or that people be forced to keep on voting until they get it “right”.

All that is not to say that the right is always perfectly in tune with the electorate and always respectful of the democratic verdict. We’re not. But I think, in general, we tend to be more realistic, or perhaps more resigned if not fatalistic about it. This is probably partly because the caricature or not, the right has historically been the home of the wealthier and the better educated – though not anymore, and not for a while now. As such, there is a realisation that not everyone necessarily shares all our outlooks and aspirations.

And partly, perhaps through a combination of a Christian heritage and conservative pessimism, we don’t share the left’s favourite illusion about the innate goodness or perfectibility of man (and woman, and those who don’t know which bathroom to use). Whether we’re all fallen sinners or simply bounded by our limitations, we know that people, individually and collectively, can do evil, stupid or strange things. Being a pessimist means you’re never disappointed. Or if we are, we get over it.

I, for one, disagree with about half of the election outcomes. As a believer in free market, small government, personal freedoms and individual responsibilities, I also understand that I’m essentially always in a minority, even in a developed, liberal society such as Australia, much less on a global scale, though sometimes my side of the politics ends up temporarily convincing a majority to support some of our positions in some circumstances. This is, of course, when we actually fully believe ourselves in our own principles and practice what we preach, which is not necessarily a given either. But, just as with the democracy in general, I know that the world is too complex to be perfect, and people on the right are as human, for better or worse, and as fallible as others.

But take it from me; I’ve lived in a non-democracy, and I lived in a democracy, and I will always choose the latter.

Yes, people can be ill-informed, people can be irrational, people can be emotional, people can be prejudiced, people can be wrong. And they often are many or all of these things. But they still have a better overall track record than all the other alternatives. Democracy is a very Rawlsian institution. John Rawls’ theory of justice (forgive me for oversimplifying) posits the fairest society as one which a person would choose to live in without prior knowledge of “his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.” Monarchy can be a good deal if you are the king, theocracy if you are devout, and dictatorship if you’re on top, but in the Rawlsian formulation, if you don’t know if you are going to be a king or a fool, or neither, or both at different stages of your life – or are simply an average punter – democracy is the only place for you.

There is one important caveat to this rather unromantic love letter to democracy: democracy can never mean simple majoritarianism. It’s not simply a “put your hand up/pull the lever/tick the box” process; it’s a culture. Just because a majority votes to commit a genocide on a minority this does not make the decision defensible or legitimate. Democracy only works if combined with the rule of law and constitutionalism, which set up certain rules of conduct and protections of people’s rights against “the tyranny of the majority”. So while in general I respect the decisions of the majority, even when I don’t agree with them, I would consider it proper to fight, for example, against the decision by the majority of voters to abolish the democratic system of government itself. Contrary to the popular wisdom, this is not quite what had happened in Germany in 1933, and it is also unlikely to happen any time in the future, but if it did… In the meantime, I may just grumble a bit from time to time, but will continue to relish living under the worst system of government bar all the others.