Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Whether you’re The Iconic Arty-Pole, Victoria Ayling, Ross Pepper, or Jim Clarke, how far would you go to get your name in this Friday’s headlines for the right reasons? And, whether you’re Matteo Renzi’s mother, Norbert Hofer’s Glock dealer, a stalwart Hillarian, a Milibrother-loss-denier, Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, or the invisible man charged with paying the Labour Party’s Richmond Park deposit, what more would you have done to help your side to have won, when it didn’t, yet you really thought it should have? What would you do to change the result? What would you give to make it all as you wished?
In these Trumpian days of post-result frustration, answers to those questions seem to verge worryingly towards the forsaking of freedom of choice itself. It’s been hard to miss recent coverage of Harvard-Melbourne research containing polls suggesting that decreasing numbers of people in Western countries feel it’s ‘essential’ to live in a democracy.
I’m now going to show myself to be one of those elitists currently being blamed for the rise of populism: my initial response to this finding was that people who feel like that must have forgotten what ‘democracy’ is. That they’ve forgotten it’s a method, not a means to a specific end. Democracy’s job isn’t to provide the answer you think best – disappointment is an inherent part of shared decision-making – but rather to reach an answer in a fair way for all.
If my elitist assumption were true, then combating this trend could be as simple as asking another question: would you prefer we chose our leaders by some other method? Siege? Martial force? Primogeniture? Bribery? Pot luck? Would you choose one of those over democracy?
Then I realised I was making the same mistake as those I was criticising: I was confusing results with methods. For the electorally discontent, what matters, increasingly, seems solely to be reaching the ‘right’ result. It does seem that they may think that they’d be happy to renounce fairness for all, in order to get what they, themselves, ‘know’ is right.
Aside from its inherent arrogance, this, surely, is a peculiarly privileged state of mind. Only in a democracy could you choose to give up choosing. And only in a place or time where you hadn’t witnessed the effects on people of a lack of choice might you be willing to countenance it, yourself. Indeed, these polls build on their researchers’ assertion from earlier this year that “a liberal conception of democracy is somewhat less entrenched among millennials (born since the 1980s) than their baby-boomer parents”. Those who remember iron curtains are less likely to want to retreat behind them. Ok, we might explain this away by saying that younger people seem less politically engaged – or satisfied – in general, but apathy is hardly helpful, here.
None of this is the same as trying to neaten up democracy’s mechanics, of course. The Conservative Party conference signs declaring ‘a democracy that works for everyone’ prompted a disappointingly small amount of discussion, but we can argue all day about alternative voting systems – though I’m sure we agree on the need to fight against gerrymandered districts and racist ‘voting tests’. We can also consider deliberation: how to improve the extent of collective reasoned say we get about what. Do we want Californian-length ballot papers, bursting with local referenda on everything? Do we want referenda, at all? These are difficult questions, but we’re united in our attempts to answer them by our desire to find the best way to represent people’s choice: usually, we disagree because we feel people aren’t being represented sufficiently.
If you forsake that choice altogether, however – by saying it’s not an ‘essential’ starting block – not only do you bin the famously ‘least bad method’, you also throw away your chance of winning it back. Flirt with abandoning democracy, and who knows who’ll sweep in and take you up on that. Give up your freedom to someone who agrees with you, and what do you do when it turns out that they don’t any more?
It seems obvious, but you can only vote out democracy in a democracy. The idea of having a free poll on doing such a thing would be amusing, if it didn’t mean so much to so many. Bluntly, if you were living in Gambia – where access to the internet was cut ahead of their presidential election last week – would you think like that? Or, if you lived in Cuba, would you revel in ‘free healthcare’ (no time to bust that one, here), at the expense of a free life? And what about North Korea? The past few decades have made us understandably wary of imposing democracy on other countries, but we mustn’t stop appreciating and promoting it.
Even if – for some unlikely reason – you thought Zac was the sole answer to your country’s problems, that wouldn’t be something over which to risk its freedom.