Democracy : a ponder

Someone I know asked whether, or to what extent, we do or should blame the people of Russia for the actions of Vladimir Putin.

I had already been wondering about a post on the disadvantages of democracy.

The obvious quote here is Churchill: “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

From the point of view of the good governance of the nation, there are obvious disadvantages: short-termism and the difficulty of getting people to vote for anything that isn’t directly beneficial to them (which also means the perceived need of politicians to appeal to sometimes deplorable instincts of selfishness and national enmity.)

But I probably shouldn’t presume to say too much on this point without educating myself a bit more. Plato and Aristotle both disapproved of what they called democracy; possibly I should find out why.

Today I’m more interested in the disadvantages from the point of view of the voter, such as myself.

One major disadvantage is that the “wrong” side frequently wins. I have written before about my feelings following the election of 1997 (joy) and 2019 (misery) and the fact that plainly other people’s reactions would have been the opposite. It is the price we pay, however; sometimes a heavy price, and I think it’s worth it.

We have recently viewed in the USA what happens when one candidate and millions of his supporters do not understand the concept of accepting defeat. And one of the reasons for the election result in 2019 was that many who voted Leave in 2016 thought that the Remainers were betraying this basic rule. (With justification I admit, but on the other hand that extraordinarily messy and badly thought-out referendum was always said to be “advisory.”)

Many years ago, I watched a TV programme with my grandmother called “One Man and his Dog.” It is hard to believe that it was on prime time television, a talent contest between pairs of sheep-farmers and dogs. The dogs were instructed by whistle, and they duly fetched, penned and separated out a group of sheep on a hillside.

It seemed to me as a viewer that the commentators assumed a simple equation: communication of farmer + skill of dog + obedience or otherwise of dog = result.

But what about the sheep? How can you expect a dog to corral six sheep into a pen if one woolly lamb decides not to co operate?

Similarly with elections. Commentators claim that one party or the other wins according to its skills in putting forward policies, and perhaps some skills in devising them as well. The electorate get to choose, we get a tiny bit of power, but we are not encouraged to take personal responsibility for the choice.

What would happen to a political party that openly attributed its defeat to the stupidity or callousness of the electorate? Nothing good, I suspect.

And yet we ought to take responsibility for the consequences of our votes, perhaps even occasionally repent of them, even though in almost every case my vote, my own, makes no difference whatever. (Paradox of democracy, and one of the excuses a depressingly large number of people give for not voting.)

Do we ever feel guilty for the way we’ve voted? Or if it doesn’t work out, do we just assume that the politicians were shockingly unworthy of our trust, corrupted by newfound power, or, more kindly, that their plans were sabotaged by what Harold Macmillan allegedly called “events, dear boy, events”?

However, there’s a difference between guilt and responsibility. If I vote for Brexit, and Brexit happens, I have some of the responsibility or the achievement.

If my government does something dishonest or cruel that wasn’t in its manifesto, should I feel guilty, or at least sufficiently responsible to want to protest?

Looking wider –

The citizens of modern democracies expect to exercise a tiny bit of power not only over the initial formation of a government, but also over its function in the years following. And we see our governments participating in wider organisations, which exert or attempt to exert some level of power or assistance at an international level. We don’t vote for the UN Security Council. American citizens don’t vote for the Supreme Court. But do we feel a level of responsibility for their actions or failures? And is it even wider than that?

The world is in a mess, and the reason for this may well be original sin, which includes my original sin. But I don’t think this is the only reason that some part of me feels responsible for the way the Chinese government treats its minority populations, or the Brazilian government damages the rainforest.

Not as much as the responsibility I may feel for the way the British government treats refugees, but a little.

More, I think, than a medieval peasant would have felt, even supposing a medieval English peasant knew anything about what was going on in China.

There are very small things I can do about the evils in the world, some more tokenistic than others.

But is part of the general worry that I feel about the world an unnecessary guilt for things that we can’t possibly control?

And going back to the top of the page, how much control or influence do we expect ordinary Russians to exert over their government and their army?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Clint Redwood

    4th October 2022 at 3:58 pm Reply

    Rob Bell’s podcast “Hope part 1” has something relevant to say about the loops in systems like this.
    As does the apostle Paul in Romans, where in the early chapters he describes peoples personal responsibility to choose sin, and yet in later chapters, describes how we are slaves to Sun, without choice but to sin. The first ends up resulting in the latter.
    In some way, the nation gets the politicians that the nation asks for. When more people vote for X factor than in elections, that indicates to politicians that people more interested in shallow reality shows than reality, and they remake themselves accordingly.
    Similarly, when most people vote against the party they don’t want, which happens when you have tactical voting, we don’t pay attention to the policies we do want, and only the ones we don’t. Now loop back to Rob Bell’s podcast.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    5th October 2022 at 4:33 pm Reply

    If you want a good understanding of the Russian people at the moment and the way Putin has managed to de-politicise them, I recommend the analysis provided by Vlad Vexler on Youtube – this was his analysis just after mobilisation which sums up the key issues:

    He insightful videos have helped me understand how badly I misjudged Putin and Russia’s behaviour.

    When you live in a repressive country, where dissent is crushed by violence, imprisonment and deprivation of the means to live, it is very hard to expect people to rise up against it. This typically only happens when the choice of remaining compliant is just as bad or worse than the risk of rising up. The Russians have also been subject to Putin’s endless propaganda, which is very different from Soviet propaganda as it sows doubt and confusion to stop people trying to gauge reality, rather than the old Soviet system of creating an imaginary reality. Active resistance is best saved for the moment when it will make a difference. In Iran for instance the passive resistance of women made no difference to that of active resistance, which means that after the murder of the girl over her slightly askew hijab, the population has moved on to active and sometimes violent resistance. I pray they may soon get their freedom, it will only come when the men with guns refuse to obey the orders corrupt, theocratic, genocidal gerontocrats.

    Western democracy has been severely wounded by the demonisation of political opponents in recent years (magnified by social media) and the powers assumed by governments during the pandemic to stamp out dissenting opinion. Democracy does indeed depend on the ability of the losing side to accept they have been defeated. Now leaders on both sides in the US have failed on this score. Clinton refused to accept her defeat by Trump, attributing it to Russian manipulation, but the real analysis shows the Russians did what they always do – sow division and chaos, they were behind both the Clinton server leaks and the Trump fake tape report. The latter was provided by Fusion GPS, who were simultaneously using Russian data to oppose the big anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder (see Browder’s latest book). Clinton couldn’t accept that she was an unlikeable and poor campaigner – her phrase “basket of deplorables” was all Trump needed to win – as you say that was a party insulting half its potential electorate. Then in 2020 Trump refused to accept that he lost, because he was an unlikeable and had proved himself to be an irrational and narcissistic asshole. it was an inevitable circle.

    Brexit is another issue – despite what you say, Cameron specifically announced the decision would be implemented by his government, then he ran away to try and make money (amusingly very badly, unlike Tony Blair, whose endless graft for dictators mirrors Bill Clinton’s vast accumulation of wealth). We then had years where the combined establishment of all the political parties, the judiciary and the media establishment tried everything to sabotage that decision. Simultaneously Brexit voters were subjected to endless slander of all being racists, xenophobes, ill educated and moronic. I lost my grandfather and one of my uncles to the Nazis because of their race and my father was a wartime immigrant who changed his name and citizenship after fighting the Nazis for 6 years – I found it extremely hurtful to be labelled with the mendacious anti-Brexit insults – was the blood of my family not enough evidence of my bona fides?!!

    Then we were told “we didn’t know what we voting for”, which is probably the most patronising thing that could be said to anyone and monumentally untrue based on all the conversations I have had with others who voted to leave – I have to add that the vast majority of these people were intelligent working class people. There was a very noticeable class divide between the two sides. I was also amazed at discussions with Remainers how little they knew about how the EU actually works or mainly doesn’t. I was always amused at how middle class friends would say they wanted to make sure their children could work on the continent. I then asked if any of their children were fluent in a continental language and the answer was obviously “er no”, so how did they think their children would have any chance of a viable job in a country where they didn’t speak the language. The British are notorious for lacking the interest in learning a foreign language and continental European history is noticeable by its virtual absence from British education. Back in 2015 I asked a group of 4 UK recent graduates at work if they knew who Martin Luther was? They all knew Martin Luther King because US Civil Rights history was covered (and rightly so), but none of them knew the identity and importance of the man MLK was named after. If we didn’t know what we were voting for – that is something that crosses the divide.

    I urge Remainers to try and imagine what is like to be on the receiving end of the hatred, contempt and abuse for simply having a different political opinion. We need more love and understanding. The surveys that show that Remainers and those of left wing views are far less likely to date or be friends with their political opponents should be a source of shame to those in that position not pride.

    We all have the sins of pride and anger and greed which is why the world will always be a mess, but we can overcome them at the edges. We can take heart from the fact that for all his guns and tanks and killers, torturers and rapists (mainly recruited from bullied, oppressed and impoverished non-ethnic Russians), he has not overcome a nation’s will to build a better nation with stronger democracy and less corruption. The Ukrainians were given a binary choice and the chose the painful, but wiser option. I pray for their salvation, but I also pray for the salvation of the Russian people – Ukraine’s victory will save both nations and be an example to the Western world on how we have to start working together more.

    • Clint Redwood

      5th October 2022 at 5:18 pm Reply

      Hi Stephen, a really interesting reply.
      I found myself initially joining the “leaver” bashing after the Brexit referendum, but quickly came to realise that I and many like me were becoming the very thing that we were criticising. I find myself now constantly needing to remind myself of Nietzsche’s warning, that when we set out to slay monsters, we must be careful not to become monsters ourselves.
      It’s all too easy to lose any semblance of a “moral high ground” when one finds oneself on the losing side unexpectedly.
      Sadly, I see nothing good about this current government, but I am trying to hold the assumption that they must think that they are doing the right thing, even if I can’t, from the outside, conceive how they can think that.
      I am trying to develop an assumption of altruism, and become curious about those I disagree with, rather than furious.

      • Stephen Sheridan

        5th October 2022 at 6:17 pm Reply

        Thank you Clint – I really appreciate that. I must admit that from my own point of view I developed a visceral loathing of Theresa May during her premiership and in fact of most MPs of all parties during the frozen parliament. Then I started to relax a bit and treat the situation with humour – those endless votes on alternatives where they couldn’t agree on a single option probably united Remainers and Leavers over the inability of our elected representatives to find constructive solutions.

        I quite understand your views about the current government. I only voted for Johnson in 2019 to get Brexit done. He managed to get it done in cack-handed manner and then failed to follow through with the benefits and simply got bullied by the ludicrous Cummings and then after him by his child-bride/rich mates like Zac Goldsmith. The hope was that he would be kept under control by sensible people – but there were none. All he leaves behind is empty charisma that failed to mask his mendacious and massively lazy character which has no glimmer of any real ideology, just vapid opportunism.

        On the plus side he may have destroyed the Tory Party, which now seems to be split about 5 different ways! All we need now is for the Labour Party to self-destruct (as it has turned its back on its working class base and is obsessed with the same bourgeois ideas as the establishment rather than addressing the economy, housing and poverty) and we can build new parties. We can worry about pronouns when we have enough affordable housing, decent jobs and skilled workers and we aren’t enslaved by cheap goods mass-produced in a genocidal dictatorship or worrying about a deranged gangster driving his tanks across Europe. And yes as Vlad Vexler points out Ukraine is not Putin’s objective – he wants the complete expulsion of Western influence from Eastern Europe generally. His latest speech specifically states he is at war with the West – he even calls us Satanists!

        They say that people get more right wing as they get older – I seem to be getting more socialist, but with a patriotic and small (rather than unaccountable international corporates) free market angle. I would probably place myself with the current SDP (yes it survives but has no money). As Penelope points out there is an emerging danger of a lot of people not finding a party they can vote for and apathy leads to the kind of tyranny Putin created. However by mobilising he has started to destroy that apathy and that will hopefully be his undoing – it could be a combination of 1905 and 1917 for Putin, but hopefully with better results!

  • Judith Leader

    5th October 2022 at 7:19 pm Reply

    You do write a letter long and interesting blog. I on the other hand do write don’t.

    I found the political stuff really interesting

  • Stephen Hall

    6th October 2022 at 3:36 pm Reply

    An interesting time to be writing on this subject Penny, when we have a new PM seemingly intent on turning her back on the bulk of the manifesto her party got elected on.

    Democracy is a continuum. Some otherwise very repressive governments, such as Russia and Iran, have democratic elements. I believe both countries hold secret ballots with choices of candidates and fairish counts; though there are severe restrictions on who can stand. On the other hand, Western countries are far from being ‘perfect democracies’ where the will of the people prevails in all decisions, and thank goodness that is so. Majorities can tyrannise minorities; kneejerk public responses to events may not be the most thought-through; and no-one has the time to become informed on all the issues on which decisions have to be made. So we have developed a representative model of democracy, which is really democracy at one remove.

    What we want is good government with clever people making sensible and moral decisions in a consistent way. The democratic component of our constitution is simply one of the tools we use (along with others such as an independent judiciary; a professional civil service; and, dare I say it, a constitutional monarchy) to help achieve that. It is not an end in itself, but it is the bit of our system that ensures that the government doesn’t get too out-of-step with public opinion on too many of the big issues. It’s the safety valve.

    Some other random thoughts:
    – I was and am a remainer, but it must be said that a big problem with the EU is its lack of democratic accountability. The European Parliament has very little power. The Commission is responsible for many of the most important decisions that affect people’s lives, and can at best be described as democracy at three or four removes. People elect representatives, who choose national leaders, who come together for a day or two every few months to set policy for the Commission to implement. In practice it appears that if the French President and the German Chancellor agree on something, then that’s what happens. It seems that the people of e.g. Greece and Italy feel that it makes very little difference who they elect as the main economic decisions affecting their lives are made with little input from them or their elected representatives.
    – Democracy must surely be most effective at a local level, where people are more likely to know the candidates, be familiar with the issues, and feel that their votes count (because of the smaller electorate). So a more democratic system would seem to be one that devolved more power, spending and revenue gathering down to as local a level as practicable. Far-reaching decisions need to be taken at a higher level, but I feel the UK is probably way too centralised.
    – I have something of a household approach to voting. If my wife and I are both, say, 55/45 in favour of candidate A over candidate B, then if she votes A, I may vote B. Thus the 50/50 split in our household vote more closely reflects our household’s opinion than our both voting A would have. That’s how I came to vote Yes for Scottish independence. I might also factor in the views of non-voting minors into this calculation :-).
    – Yes, one should own one’s decisions, including what you voted for and its consequences. But somehow I don’t find myself blaming ordinary Russians.

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