You probably know that Winston Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of Government… except for all the others that have been tried.” It’s funny because it’s true. I don’t have a better alternative, but I do believe that we should be looking for one because Winston Churchill also gave us the less-known observation “The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Right now it’s the morning after the 2016 US Presidential Election in which Donald Trump won, I’m watching a string of Facebook comments that support Churchill’s claim and I’m wondering how I can reflect on the outcome without being accused of bitching the way I was in 2013 when Tony Abbott was elected in my country. I was openly displeased with the outcome, which I thought would be disastrous for refugees, women, racial minorities, the working class, the unemployed, the LGBT community, and the environment. People still chose to characterize me as a whiny loser and gave me condescending lectures about democracy and that’s how democracy works and if it’s democracy it must be the right answer. I wonder what those people, who’ve seen how disastrously it did end up and now agree that it was a truly horrible outcome, feel about democracy now?
Even though the word Democracy gets conflated with other concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ it doesn’t necessarily mean or entail those things. It’s pure utilitarianism, the will of the mob. It favours bullies and conservatism. People assume that a democratic process is a way of finding and selecting “the best” even though a lot of the people who subscribe to that theory exclaim that the democratically-chosen candidates we get to vote for are very far from the best choices we could have.
Democracy is not a process of selecting the best, it’s a method of revealing the popular.
Believing that democracy is a process of choosing the best, we’d all have to agree that Coke is the best beverage and McDonalds make the best burgers. Gourmets will nearly always seek an alternative to Maccas. Nobody thinks Big Macs have the most nutritional value. People agree that tastier options are easy to find and that Maccas is neither the coolest or the best value, but they sure sell a lot. And Coke? It would be better for you if it were distilled from the tears of exploited lepers and it tastes like rusty capitalism blended with head lice and bitter regret , but it’s a wildly popular drink.
Democracy is at best a compromise – such as when 7 people in a living room people watch a TV show they can all agree on. Just because they settled on Celebrity Family Feud doesn’t mean it’s the most entertaining show, just that only 2 wanted Game Of Thrones and 4 of them refused to give Westworld a go. Nobody is that into Celebrity Family Feud but it won’t challenge them or make them think. The outcome isn’t a result of the people’s hopes and dreams – it’s the result of satisficing and the result is a dumbed-down lukewarm acceptable alternative to what anyone actually wants.
At worst, Democracy (which purports that everyone in the room has the same value) completely ignores and removes the value of the people in the room who are the least common. Five Purple people and four Green people in the room? Democracy says that the Green people get equal input, but there’s zero chance their interests will be met at all. If the Purple people declare that their policy will be to enslave the Green people, the Green people are going to have a hard time accepting that their enslavement is right because it was arrived at democratically. This might be why coloured people in America will be feeling nervous today. This process was never about giving all the people having a say and determining the aggregate will of the people was. There was no process, just a revealing of who got a say and who didn’t.
As far back as in Plato’s “The Republic” we were informed that the mob was going to win a Democratic process even though they were less informed, less moral and just plain wrong. Is the mob always right? The mob didn’t wanna hear the truth so they all voted to kill the guy who was telling it. Democracy, bitches!
Of course, Plato and Socrates kept slaves and the Oligarchic alternative that they promoted was both self serving (“Philosophers should be the ruling class”) and unfair. I’m not saying they’re always right – I disagree with most of their utterances. I’m just observing that Democracy has been getting it hideously wrong for a very long time. Democracy has precisely zero checks and balances to ensure everyone gets a fair deal. Worse, it thinks it is a system of checks and balances to ensure fairness. That’s dangerous – especially when the cruel people outnumber the kind ones.
Let’s talk Brexit, because Trump isn’t the only democratic fuckup this year. Democracy is supposed to be great because it gives people an informed choice. Except most people don’t make informed choices. They make choices, usually influenced by marketing campaigns. With Brexit, there was a landslide vote to “Leave” and then the morning after the election result, people started googling and trying to learn about what they’d already voted for. Then there was remorse from the “Leave” voters and judgement from everyone else when they finally realized what they’d done. With Trump, as there was with dickhead Tony Abbott, there’s a high chance that people are going to realize that what they thought they were buying and what they were really buying are two different things.
I don’t have an alternative to promote but I do want people to stop referring to democracy as a perfect system that’s always right and always produces the best results. Democracy has flaws, so can we please stop referring to it as if it’s the last word and validation of all outcomes? The “The People have spoken, democracy chose the winner so the winner must be right because it’s democracy” claim is every bit as circular and fallacious as Hegel’s “history is always right because it’s what happened,” the self-congratulatory reverse-engineered praise of liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama’s “The End Of History”, the naive “best of all possible worlds” claims made by Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, and Hitler’s “conflict is good because it produces winners” arguments.
I swear – if Democracy shit the bed I would have people telling me that the bed-shitting is good because it’s democratic. Fact is, Democracy’s been (metaphorically) shitting the bed for a very long time and with all of the sophisticated and massively funded resources that go into campaigns now, it’s not going to get better. There is a huge amount of inequality in the world and our existing processes have only served to increase it – which is the exact opposite of what democracy’s fans think it does.
“The worst form of Government… except for all the others that have been tried.” I don’t have an alternative to promote, just the suggestion that we maybe consider we need to look for one. People never discovered the earth isn’t flat or the center of the universe while everyone was saying we had the final word that should never be questioned. I have a suspicion that if we all stopped congratulating ourselves about how democracy is always right we might actually have a fairer system already.