Monday, 15 January 2018

What Voters Want

To equate voting with democracy is a bit like conflating mere movement with life. The former may be a possible sign that the latter is still present, but it is no guarantee that it is in fact functioning. The reflexive switches of a dead frog do not herald its resurrection. And when people’s votes are largely based on false assumptions and misleading information, democracy is basically moribund.

Rhetorically, it is easy to declare that voters should get what the voters want. But it does not take a genius to recognise that what voters want above all is a system whereby they and their fellow citizens can consider the real options, and without intimidation, bribery or deception, select what they have good reasons to believe would be the best choice.

History is full of examples of people being pressurised or tricked into voting for what is far from being in their best interest. The people of Sicily and Naples were once tricked into voting for their previously independent domains to be annexed to the Kingdom of Piedmont on the promise of the creation of an ‘Italy’ that the vast majority of them knew nothing about. The citizens of France were misled into casting their votes to give Louis-Napoleon the power to become their democratic president, which enabled him to establish himself as a very undemocratic Emperor of France for life. The Third Reich rose on the back of popular votes cast by Germans who thought they would secure long term security and prosperity, rather than oppression and a totally ruinous war. More recently, lies and prejudices so dominated the 2016 votes for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, that ‘post-truth’ was declared the word of the year (by Oxford Dictionaries).

If voters are to get what they, based on the available evidence, and the clearest understanding untainted by devious misdirection, would actually want for their country, then three guarantees need to be put in place. First, the status of shared and equal citizenship must be enforced. Everyone must be able to influence democratic outcomes in the same manner. There must be similar thresholds for a ‘majority’ vote to be validated. In the UK, for example, trade unions are not allowed to call for strike action unless at least 40% of their eligible-to-vote members are behind a majority vote to strike; but no such threshold is set for the far more disruptive action of pulling the UK out of the EU when only 37% of those eligible to vote backed ‘leave’. Other discriminatory practices vary from making it more difficult for certain demographics to vote, or requiring in effect many more votes to get one party elected compared with its rival (e.g., in many US congressional districts, Democrats have been thus disadvantaged by boundary changes ordered by Republican-controlled states).

Secondly, the pretence that there is no objective basis for truth, and that anyone can say absolutely anything must be swept aside. Every country that takes the rule of law seriously has a judicial system founded on the impartial pursuit of truth. While the likes of Trump and Brexiters may insist that only they speak the truth and everyone else is a liar, they cannot be allowed to undermine the rule of law by getting away with their dismissal of independent scrutiny and reporting of claims made in the public domain. Even the US, where the Constitution suggests that no law shall infringe on the freedom of speech, that has from the founding of the republic been interpreted by Congress and the Supreme Court as fully compatible with the setting and enforcing of legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security. Not applying these restrictions rigorously to politicians and their backers is not to protect democracy, but gravely endanger it.

Finally, the challenge to maintain power equilibrium must be taken up. It is abundantly clear that many of those with concentrated wealth and power buy themselves far greater influence over public policies by hiring leading lawyers, accountants, propagandists, lobbyists, etc to push forward what they seek at the expense of ordinary citizens. In parallel, plutocrats are determined to enhance their relative strength even further by pressing for the relentless cutting back of public services and societal safety-nets. The poorer and more vulnerable people are, the easier it is to distract them with campaigns against scapegoats, or scare them with unfounded ‘there is no alternative’ proclamations. The drive to curtail power inequalities is, therefore, not merely a social policy option, but the very essence of democratic development. And to ensure those with more equitable power will exercise it in an informed manner, deliberative participation techniques should be embedded in state-citizen interactions so that people can exert their influence in line with a sound understanding of different options and their implications.

There is no alternative to democracy but ‘might is right’. It will either come in the guise of an authoritarian ruler, or it will appear with the fa├žade of an anarchic paradise, before the greediest and most ruthless take advantage of the absence of collective constraints, and elbow their way to take control. If we want to keep democracy alive and, hopefully, vibrant as well, we need to put the aforementioned guarantees in place. Without them, voters will seldom, if ever, get what they truly want.

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A detailed exposition of what is to be done to rescue democracy is set out in Henry Tam’s Time to Save Democracy; how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, which can now be ordered from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Brilliant exposition of the dilemma faced by the thinking voters in most so called democratic polities.Thanks. Jayanath