As the sun sets on the UK’s general election, and the population waits to hear which party will form government, I can’t help wondering if the result will have any real meaning. If it will bear any relationship to the will of the people. If it will deliver any benefit to the common good. If anyone outside the party machines will feel as though they have really had a say in how their lives are governed. It seems unlikely. As I look around the world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I can’t help wondering if democracy is dead.
Remember learning about democracy at school? I don’t, not really. But I do remember the first time I voted I felt an enormous sense of pride. I was participating in a democracy! The apex of civilisation! Now, I vote reluctantly. I feel it’s my duty but I don’t really feel like my vote counts – or even reflects my views. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. What’s more, I know that there are many millions of people who are even less engaged with the process than me. Am I right? Is democracy dead?
Most ordinary folk, if pushed to define or describe democracy, would mention first off the right to vote or the right to have a say in how you are governed. Some might mention the separation of powers. Some might mention a free press. Quite a few would probably mention something about the collection and distribution of tax for the common good. That, I’d argue, is about where we’d start to get debate, but on that definition, plenty of people would answer my opening question with a ‘no’. We have all of those things. It ain’t broke!
But a wise man says that knowing what something is not sufficient. What we need to focus on is why we do it. My argument is that we settled on democracy as our preferred system of government over time as we recognised that putting power in the hands of a small, elite group is incredibly destructive and unsettling – even when you don’t project god-like status onto that group. We discovered that we limit our potential as a society if we don’t have mechanisms to nurture talent wherever it occurs. We calculated the cost of adversarial positions against our fellow humans, and found that we all do better without it. In summary, the impulse to democracy is essentially egalitarian.
If I’m right, then democracy is dead. Because our democracy does not protect the weak. It does not provide equality of opportunity. It rewards dynasties of monied families with positions of power and oppresses minorities. It puts what is good for the rich ahead of what’s good for society.
Where’s my evidence? Look around. France is governed by a man who courts celebrity and favours beautiful women for his ministers. Italy is governed by a man whose corrupt behaviour and borderline paedophilia makes a mockery of the institution of government. The US, UK and Australia were all, until recently, led by men who thought it was acceptable take their people to war on a lie. Most of the West is still governed by men who not only failed to act to prevent the financial crisis but have personal stakes in perpetuating the deregulated market that caused the collapse. Demmocracy is dead – and capitalism killed it.
In most Western democracies, having a say in how you are governed amounts to having a choice between two not-very-different parties. In the 1980s and 1990s, theories of economic rationalism were so pervasive that the old divisions between left and right disappeared. We may have the right to universal suffrage, but so many of us are disenfranchised or disillusioned by the process that we don’t bother to exercise it. The 2000 election that gave George W. Bush (scion of the Bush dynasty) is the most oft-cited example. Only a fraction more than 50% of the eligible population voted. The popular vote was won by Al Gore, with 48.4% of the votes, compared with Bush’s 47.9%. In some areas the award of representative places was decided by just a few hundred votes – when overall 103 million people did not exercise their right. In the last UK election only 61% of the eligible population voted.
Despite being protected under the law the separation of powers has been seriously undermined. In Australia, a single senator representing a religious party has been able to hijack the political agenda on major issues, even though his party only support things that align with their religious beliefs. He is actively influencing law. In the US the religious right has incredible influence over all debates. Under Bush, aid to developing and war torn countries was denied if they offered women abortion as an option. Women pregnant from gang-rape, lucky if they have a family left to support them, abandoned in the name of religion.
In the US, Obama’s efforts to make health care a universal right are being presented in the right wing media as tyranny. Tyranny: cruelty and injustice in the exercise of power or authority over others! He followed the systems of law in the country. He used the same powers every President before him has used. He spent nine months debating amendments. The press is free – to say any damn thing they like. Murdoch and his cronies have completely distorted the role of the media at the service of their own business interests and it means it is much harder for people to get clear, factual information about what government – or business – is doing.
Here in the UK, the Sun decided several months ago not to support Labour. Throughout the entire campaign they have run positive stories – including celebrity and topless model endorsements – about the Conservative party and their leader and have run smears about every other candidate. Even if you accept their right to say “we’re not supporting Labour” (I don’t) why does that translate into support for the Conservatives? What happened to the concept of media objectivity?
And, last but not least, we don’t collect and distribute tax for the common good. In most Western countries, most average wage earners pay more tax than the richest men in the nation. We let small children die at the hands of inadequate or dangerous carers while City traders wearing £1000 shoes sip £30,000 cocktails not more than a mile or so away.
If democracy is not dead, it’s in a bad way. We are barely, just barely keeping it alive, but its pulse is weak and there’s the rattle of death in its lungs. We pay lip service to its recovery but we’ve sold its soul to the highest bidder.
With any luck, in the UK the election will result in a hung parliament and all the people with political ambitions will at least be forced to work with each other, instead of engaging in the petty political point-scoring, short-term policy-making and disingenuous public representation that has become the hallmark of our democracy.