The implicit link between democracy and responsibility is something that has been bothering me for some time. The chaos of the current political scene in the United States, the laughing stock that is the British Government over the past weeks, if not the past few years, have both made me think a little harder about the idea of democracy and what I believe is its inexorable link to responsibility.
The reality of this link was also driven home to me by a recent conversation with a friend about the American democratic concept of “one man one vote”, which is the topic of one of the other blogs this week (An Interesting Conversation).
I think the results of pursuing “the popular vote” as a way of electing officials is quite different from its theoretical concept. The idea of using the “popular vote” makes the implicit assumption that all, or at least a majority, of the electorate will vote: In other words, democracy and responsibility are linked. The reality is that less than half the electorate in most countries normally vote and, quite often, that percentage is way less than half.
That reality means that any focused minority can determine the fate of the majority. Even worse, fanatics, who tend to be more focused than any other group, can end up determining the fate of all of us. The far right and the far left in the United States, Boris Johnson and Brexit in the UK are recent examples of the apathetic majority “being led around by their noses” by the fanatics. That’s hardly anyone’s definition of democracy.
Does this mean that democracy, particularly the American style of democracy, is a failure because its basic tenet of rule by the people (assumption: all the people), for the people (Again, assumption: all the people) doesn’t even come close to reality?
This is the reality of democracy and responsibility that bothers me.
One can easily, and correctly, say that the U.S. experiment with democracy has produced one of the most successful governing regimes in terms of balancing human rights, compassion, economic development and power: Communism, the other major competing world regime, hasn’t come close to that level of success. Even the meteoric rise of China over the last two decades seems to be on the brink of collapse: History says that aggressive central control can only keep the lid on populations for a limited time before there is an explosion/revolution.
So, why shouldn’t we be complacent……and happy with our democratic experiment? I would suggest that this is a dangerous “Ostrich” syndrome.
The truth, unfortunately, is that apathy, non-participation and lack of responsibility on the part of the electorate opens the door for a decline of democracy into authoritarianism. It seems to be one of the basic tenets of human nature that there will always be someone, or some group, who wants complete domination, and is willing to do anything to get and keep that power. Democracy seems to be an efficient tool for controlling such human urges but it has to be practiced responsibly. Without that responsibility, it doesn’t work and authoritarianism will win.
Could it be true that the vast majority of humankind doesn’t want the responsibility of participating in decisions? Historically, men/women, and most animals, have always had patricarchs/matriarchs to make decisions for them, whether those “bosses” have been kings, emperors, heads of families or the male in charge of a pride of lions. That’s a huge weight of cultural baggage working against democracy. Is that why humans can’t be bothered to participate, at least until decisions made for them encroach directly on their lives. Then, and only then, do they start coming awake. And, even then, its normally just to complain. If they participated in the democratic process in the first place, most of the autocratic movements would be stifled at birth. That doesn’t seem to happen.
We appear generally happy to be dominated. In this sense, we can talk about Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and even Alexander the Great and Hitler, in the same breath.
The question, therefore, has to be asked, “Is the pursuit of a “one man, one vote” democracy a frustrating waste of time and effort?” Does human nature prohibit its success as a governing system? Not a comfortable question, to be sure, but a reality that, perhaps, should be faced.
Maybe we should give up the idea of the popular vote, and concentrate on an education system that instills “Civics”, “Ethics” and “Responsibility” in an experienced elite who can actually make informed and sensible decisions for the rest of us. Mob rule is mob rule, and has never worked to anyone’s benefit. Referring to my other blog this week, it appears that even the US Founding Fathers understood that danger, and designed a governing system of “one land-owner, one vote” to avoid the dangers inherent in mob rule.