We call our political system ‘democracy’, but how far have we drifted from the concept in its purest form? This article is a description of the ways in which we as humans devalue the concept of democracy. From stubborn ego driven voters to politicians themselves I have identified five main culprits in this breakdown between conceptual and applied democracy. I conclude that while true democracy may be incompatible with human nature, we can come much closer to it by minimising these five flaws.
Democracy is a naturally attractive and logical idea when it comes to picking how best to to run your country. In theory, it protects against the corruptive forces of power and creates a state in which the decisions which affect the people are made by the people. Leaders and rulers are, in principle, representatives of the set of ideals and policies chosen by the citizens themselves. It’s a pretty appropriate way to do things; in theory.
Right now, in Scotland where I live, we’re building up to the independence referendum which is by a thousand miles the biggest political decision we’ve been faced with in my lifetime and probably much longer. While I use the referendum as an example of democracy in action throughout, this article is completely neutral. I have tried to balance every YES example with a NO example and any references made to either side in no way reflect my opinion, which is irrelevant to the subject matter here. Secondly my use of the male and female pronoun is chosen randomly and implies nothing about the sex of the group in question.
So with the referendum, we have for once a stark choice between YES and NO. One path leads to a fairly substantial degree of uncertainty, excitement, fear and all the other emotions that come from change without full control. The other is a choice to maintain the status quo and continue along the road our country’s been on for the last few decades. Scotland is currently buzzing with excitement. Bold and in your face capital letter wielding blue and white YES badges bob along the street to the rhythm of their wearers’ eager footsteps. Slightly more subtle and craftily designed ‘No Thanks’ banners carefully and proudly line the windows in the area where I live.
So is this finally fully functional democracy; the citizens of a country deciding logically between two entirely separate paths? For the first time in my life, a vote is a meaningful tiny weapon in the process of our country making an actual decision to shape the future. I feel like my power as an individual finally equals one person’s worth of the population, if only for the four seconds where I cross a box and drop a slip into a bigger one. Regardless of which way you’re inclined to vote, this is something everyone should smile about. This choice is between the apple and the banana, while those in the past were between two rotten apples, one perhaps slightly though ambiguously less rotten than the other. We as a nation are about to make a choice that reflects what most people think is genuinely and rationally the best way to go thus instantiating the beautiful concept of democracy in the real world – as it’s meant to be.
In fact, what’s jumped out at me over the last few months has been the many different ways in which people completely fail to flesh out the potentially brilliant bones of democracy. We as humans seem sadly to be largely incapable of doing the system any real justice. The following types of person are somewhat of a political plague, driven by motives completely incompatible with the purpose of a democratic system.
1. The Backwards Voter
The backwards voter is one of my most loathed types of people to discuss the referendum with. It’s maybe sensible to first outline what a ‘forwards’ or ‘correct’ kind of voter would be. Let’s just take a second to break that down. We’re faced with an objective and real decision. One choice will turn out to be better than the other would have been – this much is pretty much guaranteed. So our job is very very simple. We should gather as much information as time and life practically allow and use this information to logically determine which choice is likely to yield a better result in the future. This process is a slow one and requires voters to remain at least mostly impartial until they’ve given enough informed thought to the decision to know how they’ll vote. Even then, their decision should remain provisional and open to adjustment should new information emerge.
The backwards voter completely defies this simple instruction. He instead makes a decision very early on based on some reasoning that seems important to him in the early stages, where many relevant factors are yet to be brought to light. The backwards voter thrives on being correct and imposing his righteous determination onto others. His decision is the right one because he decided it was and he decided it was because of X and Y non-absolute factors that are subject to lots of potential nullification. If the backwards voter decided it was best to vote NO, in January, then vote no he shall in September because his mind has been completely closed to the idea of reconsidering; this is too complicated, scary and ego undermining a procedure to embark on. Rather, all the energy he could willingly dedicate to discovering objective truth and forming a more accurate opinion is instead devoted to finding reasons why his original choice is good and the opposite a political blunder. He will research and preach only those articles that support his original choice as they fuel his ego and make him feel more justified in his rashly formed decision. He will read some opposition articles and quickly skim over, ignore or construct weak counter arguments to quieten any mental rebellion thus stirred within him. In debate, he will despise the opposition, listening to their point of view only in an attempt to beat it to death, using his rigid set of counter arguments he’s tattooed onto his skull. He will think less of you for voting the other way as the possibility of someone thinking his beliefs are wrong is extremely threatening.
The backwards voter is an absolute disaster for rational democratic choice and in fact fails largely to engage with his role as a citizen of a democratic nation. Backwards voters could do with realising firstly that this is in fact how their brain is approaching the decision; it may not be a conscious choice but a pre-programmed response. Most will be in denial, as to admit to being a backwards voter is to undermine the integrity of their own view – the very thing their ego is trying to desperately hard to defend. Secondly, they could do with realising that it is politicians who are the argumentative puppets picked to do whatever it takes to argue a side regardless of what’s actually best, not voters. It is very possible that the NO campaign leader, Alastair Darling, actually believes Scotland should be independent. It is his job and life’s purpose at the moment to maintain it’s not. Similarly YES leader Alex Salmond may believe that Scotland is better remaining a part of the UK, yet his political position and self interested thirst for power forbid acting on it. It’s their job to take a completely one sided view of the matter and then ram that down others’ throats – not yours. Democratic decision making is a journey of enlightenment not a fight or mission to defend an almost arbitrarily chosen position. Backwards voters dilute truth from being translated into well placed votes and are hence a randomisation away from what is objectively best.
2. The Arbitrarily Motivated Voter (AMV)
Ibrox football stadium, home of Glasgow Rangers football club, on a blustery late August afternoon. An enormous grid of union jacks (UK flags) lines an entire stand. “Vote No on September 18th” reads the blue, white and red banner strewn across the advertisement boards separating grass and plastic seating. I look across and am fairly certain there sits not one supporter of the several thousand holding these signs who’s voting YES. I broaden my perception to the entire stadium and expect that no more than 5% (and this is being generous) are going to vote YES in three weeks time.
So what causes this bizarre correlation? Why does supporting Rangers rather than Celtic or Dundee United compel these people en mass to believe that Scotland is better off remaining a part of the UK? What does Rangers FC affiliation have to do with their views on how fragile the economy is likely to be in an independent Scotland, or whether the UK government will privatise the national health service and render decent healthcare unavailable to the poorer masses? Nothing. It has nothing at all to do with any real life consequence of voting YES or NO, yet evidently there exists some related and common reason for voting NO within this demographic. So, the hardcore unionist portion of Rangers supporters who typically line much of this stand share a few things in common. They are very happy about the outcome of a battle that occurred hundreds of years ago; they think the british monarchy is some kind of holy symbol of their identity, and they tend to think of themselves as British before Scottish. Oh, and they parade down the street churning out drum bashing flutey high pitched tunes that destroy your Saturday morning lie-in in order to proclaim some King’s glorious victory in said battle. These things seem to me to have absolutely nothing to do with either Rangers FC in 2014 or the question of whether or not Scotland is better off as an independent nation. They are nevertheless, the all conquering blinkers that predetermine democratic choice before it can even be considered on real grounds. I understand most people that fit this bracket have been raised this way by their parents. It runs in their family and its all they’ve ever know. It’s still extremely sad that so many are incapable of seeing beyond this and opening their minds for just enough time to do some research.
The backwards voter douses the potentially apt decision making power of democracy. He declines the opportunity to discover what’s best based on the evidence available. He reads one page of a book and decides he knows the entire story. However, if there’s anything that can be said in his defence, at least the ammunition he uses to promote his rashly chosen and permanent point of view is in a sense, politically relevant to the decision. The arbitrarily motivated voter (AMV) votes one way or the other because of some political, or religious motivation entirely detached from the real question. It could be proven beyond all reasonable doubt that voting YES is by far the best choice for the country and these people will still proudly vote NO as programmed by their version of christianity or the right wing conservative preachings of their father when they were a child. Independence could be shown to be a sham of an idea, likely to descend into chaos if brought about and some ‘liberals’ who hate Westminster and the Tory party would gladly plunge themselves and their children’s future into such chaos. It is in fact impossible to argue with such people. Their motivation is entirely irrational and arbitrary and therefore cannot be affected by logic or relevant details. This proportion of voters skew the polling result one way or the other (depending which side is more numerous) and once again provide a kind of variance to the outcome completely removed from what anyone thinks is practically best. The backwards voter is cemented onto one road for the referendum, but the AMV is stuck this way for life. Sadly for him, his choice will always be pre-made in such matters due to patriotic stubbornness, obsolete religious bias or the blind left or right wing crusadings of his parents.
3. The Mono Reason Voter (MRV)
The MRV is usually either lazy and disinterested or overcome with emotion for one aspect of the issue. Both of these afflictions render logical decision making impossible. This type of person engages with the relevant evidence far less then the backwards voter does. When questioned on her opinion in the referendum she’ll respond with a sharp and decisive ‘I’m voting YES/NO’ When questioned as to why she’ll produce one reason in the same confident, self assured tone such as ‘because I’m not having Alex Salmond running my country’ *smug smile* or ‘because Scotland should decide how things are run in Scotland’ *serious stare* The reason given is often coherent and solid, but the problem is there’s only one of it. Needless to say, there are very few political situations where one reason is so powerful as to override any possible counter argument from the other side. If it were so, we wouldn’t have such a divide in the first place. Therefore, in order to get to the bottom of the situation and determine the best way to vote we need to weigh up a multitude of different reasons; not pick the one that resonates most deeply with us and use it as a cannon to dispel all opposition.
MRVs are often lazy because politics doesn’t interest them. I often hear people say ‘I’m sick of this whole referendum nonsense, I wish it’d just be over!’ What an absolute pain – the inconvenience of having to listen to people talk about how to shape the future of the country we’ll live in for the next however many decades. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not being interested in politics, especially in the current UK climate where we’re endlessly lied to, betrayed and swayed to the opposition only for them to do the very same thing in four years time. It’s perfectly okay to favour your own day to day life over political decisions. It’s not for everyone to be a functional piece of nationwide decision making. If you don’t care about the way your country is run or feel that it’s better decided by others, then that’s maybe counter intuitive to most and a little sad for democracy, but it’s not unethical or treacherous as some people like to suggest. I don’t care about sailing and I wouldn’t vote if there was a world wide election for president of the Sailing Federation or whatever body governs sailing regulations. If you’re disinterested in the referendum and don’t want to research what’s best then don’t vote. Just remain neutral and you will in no way sabotage or undermine the ability of the rest of the population to reach the correct decision. Your non-vote sways things not at all and for me this is massively preferable to you chirpily blurting out that you’re voting YES because you hate David Cameron and then going and skewing the results of the referendum based on one shallow reason alone.
The other type of mono reason voter is overcome with emotion. Some reason resonates so powerfully in their mind that nothing else matters. ‘I’m voting NO because I was raised to be British not Scottish’ Awful reason. Again, it has zero to do with what’s the best future to choose and is essentially just emotional shrapnel. This shrapnel will translate once again into a thoughtlessly chosen and as good as random vote. Again, we’re no closer to choosing the best course of action. If you’re overcome with emotion due to one piece of a gigantic puzzle then try to acknowledge this and separate out feeling from justified belief. You believe Scotland should remain a part of the UK, but you have no justification other than the cause of your emotion. This cause doesn’t always translate into good reason, and even if it did it’d still only be one piece of the puzzle.
It might be obvious by now that what I’m arguing for is a reduction in the arbitrary variance caused by illogical voters. This reduction is what purifies democracy. The MRV should abstain from lazily voting or else control their levels emotional interference depending on what causes them to be this way.
4. Absurd Propaganda – Feeders and Eaters
Yesterday I heard the swish of another glossy leaflet floating down from the letter box onto the floor. I picked it up and recognised the purply subtle layout of NO propaganda. I brought it to my eyes to see that it featured a Scottish actress who acted in The Hunger Games movies. At the moment, I’m quite enjoying reading The Hunger Games, it’s a pretty catchy page turning set of novels even if it’s void of real substance and I can’t stand the protagonist. The question is obvious though. Why the hell is this being sent to me as a reason to vote NO? If anything this kind of propaganda just insults the intelligence of its target audience. They’d like me to assume that voting NO is somehow inherently better based on the opinion of a teenage girl who was in a popular movie. Is this celebrity status supposed to somehow qualify her researching and decision making prowess or am I to assume instead that it’s better just to do what the more famous people are doing rather than consider things for myself?
This morning I woke up to find an article on Facebook listing 20 more so called successful people from comics to businessmen to JK Rowling and Susan Boyle who are voting NO. It’s actually worrying that the feeders of this stuff believe this is in fact a legitimate way to sway people. It’s worrying because presumably they’ve done their market research and there are indeed people out there who will vote NO because Susan Boyle’s doing so and they quite like her singing and admire her tenacity for succeeding in the pop industry as a middle aged lady with a learning disability. Anyway, it’s supply and demand. The feeders exist because the eaters exist. There are actually people out there basing their nation’s future on what their favourite celebrities think, where these people are in no way more qualified than the average citizen to make a good decision.
If these celebrities were highly intelligent, especially good representations of the logically informed voter, then fine, this propaganda has some persuasive clout (although not too much given there will always exist these people both sides of the debate.) As it is though, this kind of propaganda is a sad statement about the way many of us make our decisions and approach life. In fact, it’s an argument either against democracy or for better education in how to use your vote. Why should we just blindly dish out votes to brain dead zombies reading OK magazine, gawking at Lady Gaga’s cellulite and voting NO because they liked the Hunger Games trilogy.
The upshot is exactly the same as above. This propaganda both feeds and feeds off of absurd illogical approaches to voting. We’re encouraging our citizens to make decisions based on things we know fine well have nothing to do with objective reality. As a nation we’re becoming stupider and stupider and more reliant on guidance from unqualified role models. Functional democracy requires that citizens are able to think for themselves. Otherwise they’re reduced to mere pawns in the battle between two political armies and democracy starts to revert to despotism, the very thing it tries to prevent.
Until now we’ve been dealing with the defensive, the deluded, the emotional and the overly suggestible. All of the above are manifestations of irrationality in one form or another. I’m going to finish by switching focus to an entirely different kind of beast. Politicians are on the whole aggressive, better informed, calm, calculated, suggestive and rational in achieving their aims. The trouble is that their aims usually have far more to do with maintaining or grasping power than with the objective good of the nation as a whole. The UK government has for years allowed huge corporations and banks to revel in their disproportionate hordes of wealth while the common man labours and struggles, searches for employment and then still pays a chunk of his measly earnings in taxation. A politician’s first and foremost aim is to further the interests of himself and his party. In politics, power equals success and votes equal power. Therefore acquiring votes is the primary goal, ensuring you continue to honour the desires of the population after that point is secondary. This is where democracy as it’s instantiated in our country breaks down completely. It causes distrust, disinterest and above all misrepresentation. A democracy which represents primarily in the currency of promises does nothing to protect against the corruption of power. My view here is obviously a pretty gross generalisation. There are no doubt politicians with good intentions who seek to represent the interests of the majority. Unfortunately this quickly changes when we get towards the top of the power ladder.
Recently I’ve been tuning into the referendum debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling and witnessed a wholly adversarial blood bath of words in which each politician attempts to ridicule his opponent to death whilst making himself out to be righteous and golden. Attacks are often ad hominem with one leader questioning an inconsistency dating back months or years in the words of the other. So much time is spent shouting, speaking over each other and dodging the most crucial questions that a search for truth gets hopelessly lost in the frays of verbal combat. As a result of their sly, indirect defensive tactics and personal irrelevant offensive onslaughts, the watcher becomes disheartened that either of these imbeciles is leading a campaign for Scotland’s future. Information is constantly distorted and twisted. Biased backwards voter audience members hurl barrages of scorn at the opposing leader, in attendance as devoted cavalry, not truth seekers.
I mentioned at the start of this article that many people consider the independence referendum the first really meaningful democratic choice in a long time. I’m afraid of remaining a part of the UK where our political system is constantly undermined by the actions of selfish unrepresentative politicians. I’m afraid that those in charge of an independent Scotland will be no different.
Perhaps the very notions of human kind and a fully functional democracy are conceptually incompatible. There will always be the adamant backwards voter spilling out his closed minded wrath on those around him. There will forever be the devout bigot who believes his religious views supremely govern matters they have nothing to do with. There will always be the victims of this shell of democracy we live in: the bruised and confused mono-reasoner who hides away from a system they just can’t understand or care about. There will always be people living in their own deluded bubble of non-thinking where film stars determine political futures. There will always be power and with power, come power seekers and with those, inequality. The word ‘democracy’ creates a nice illusion of a developed, non-barbaric, fair nation; but when its application drifts so far from the original virtues of the concept, it might be time to step back if you’re one of these five types of people and think about the greater implications of your actions.
Perhaps we can never exemplify democracy in its purest form, but surely we can get a hell of a lot closer to that than we are today.