Democracy at its Finest

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Even Winston Churchill, one of the most literal fighters for democracy in our modern age, didn’t pretend that democracy was without its faults.

No system of government is faultless, but perhaps democracy is the least worst option; it’s representative, to a degree. What an awful way of thinking about the way our governments are formed, that they might be the best of a bad job in the same way that first-past-the post is a weak way of measuring the votes. The same argument, of course, could be made of the alternative vote scheme, and probably all the others to varying degrees.

Have I convinced you yet that the democratic experiment should be ended and our government should be replaced entirely by a gopher called Gordon? If I have, you are deranged; get help.

Politics affects every part of our life; education, health, science and technology, a free press, our cultural development. We need a government that we can trust to make the hard decisions and to get it right; not so that everyone agrees with them (that would be impossible), but so that it keeps the country safe.

We – the public – can register dissatisfaction with our government every day of the week if we so wish. We have a free press, so much social media that it’s hard to keep track of, petitions that can be created and shared in minutes, and can also have an old-fashioned rant down the pub. We have the right to do all these things and more – including the ultimate comment on the government’s behaviour and giving them more time in power, or booting them out of office without even a day to pack up their belongings.

Most of our ancestors would be stunned by the amount of power we have over the process; when kings and queens had the absolute right to rule, parliaments – on the occasions they were used – were there to raise taxes and do what their monarch told them to do. I can’t imagine Elizabeth 2 or Prince Charles ever imagining that they could get away with that.

But yes, there are indeed alternatives if we truly are fed up with the democratic experiment. Perhaps I could tempt you to one of these instead?

Dictatorship. This has, of course, not worked so well in the past; Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Emperor Hirohito, and Mussolini have proved that benevolence and absolute rule don’t go together. To have one person making decisions for all of us never works so well; who gets to decide who that person is, and what can we do if they aren’t that good?

Theocracy. Religious leaders are meant to be kind, moral individuals, aren’t they? As long as we follow the moral teachings of their religious book, then where is the problem? Well, first of all, which holy book do we choose? The bible? The koran? The torah? Who gets to be the ultimate authority? And what happens if you don’t believe in their god? Will you be treated with the same kindness as those who do? What about gay people and women?

Technocrats. Let’s hand the entire thing over to experts, shall we? That’s actually a tempting idea, tell the truth; it’s nice to think that the complex issues facing us right now and in the future could be dealt with by specialists. But, of course, that doesn’t allow for any oversight, and we – the general public – don’t have any involvement in shaping our society. The grip of stupidity that democracy sometimes allows to take hold might almost be enough to convince me differently, however …

Anarchy. Oh, actually, let’s just abolish the entire thing. Politics is too unwieldly and cumbersome – we simply don’t need it, and we certainly don’t need these endless politicians trying to tell us what to do. How could they possibly know what is right for me in my local community? Just leave us to organise things the way we need them. Maybe we’ll each develop our own foreign policy, given enough time, or different currencies for each town. You can perhaps see the dangers inherent in my argument.

I’m a fan of direct democracy being used far more than it currently is; referenda like in Switzerland, where it is entirely normal for the citizenry to be consulted on a lot of different issues. Most democracies are representative, where we direct our officials to make decisions on our behalf – it certainly makes things easy, but does it ensure that the decisions made are what we want and not just what the representatives think we want?

Face-to-face democracy was actually the first kind of democratic rule; people would literally turn up to make decisions in ancient Athens (although not if you were female, a slave, or foreign – perish the thought). But a kind of mob rule that can exist when strong voices carry weaker ones along with them. Considered, nuanced discussion can take time, and needs experts to be involved; but when we find ourselves in a situation with people who shout the loudest having a lot of influence, it’s not so much democracy as it is everyone out for themselves. Big issues require big discussions, and direct votes might not take into account the nuances of health care, education, and defence – or whether we should invest in nuclear or solar power, the death penalty or not, or who should be taxed the most. Experts need to be involved, and we should not allow them to be sidelined.

We are all democrats – not in the American, centre-left sense, but in the sense that we believe in democracy. We deserve having a voice about how our country is run, but it’s also our responsibility as well; we must be deliberative, not reactive – we should think about the consequences of our votes and seek out the facts. Only that kind of nuanced conversation will allow us to succeed with an open, democratic society.

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