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