The problem with democracy

The problem with democracy

Niall Adams demonstrates why 21st century democracy is broken.

This week Donald Trump has, once again, blown the Republican party apart by suggesting he would refuse to accept November’s democratic election. As an unashamedly left-wing voter there’s very little I agree with Trump on. His views are antithetic to everything I believe; yet this year I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe in democracy.

Ironically, Trump himself is the most glaring reason for sweeping away elections. His nomination as his party’s candidate for president has allowed some of the worst traits of humanity to become part of the political mainstream: crowds cheering for racism, politicians and the media attempting to defend sexual assault and the emergence of the “Alt-Right” as a viable political force. Trump’s nomination validated and legitimised all these opinions. His voters saw it as a victory for the common man over the establishment, but this new brand of populism and demagoguery has opened the floodgates for a dangerous new form of politics where truth and reason don’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way advocating tearing down the system for an authoritarian socialist utopia (as delightful as that sounds). Democracy is great! Ever since its birth in ancient Athens it has rightly grown to become the cornerstone of our civilisation. In Britain, thousands have had to fight for their right to vote- from the 1819 Peterloo Massacre to the attacks on the suffragettes and suffragists in the early twentieth century. These movements have always faced violent attacks from the establishment. Nevertheless, they persevered and prevailed because the ability to have a voice in parliament and politics is a glorious thing.

So: in theory, democracy is great. But the basic model for modern representative democracy (the form prevalent in the US and the UK) is in many ways ridiculously undemocratic. It relies on the assumption of qualified individuals, who have the knowledge and judgement necessary to govern, being elected to represent the general public. This doesn’t always work out well. Those elected are not guaranteed to work in the common interest – and centralising decision making in the hands of a few powerful men and women can often lead to a government catering to the troubling institution known as the elite. Handing power to the public has time and time again proved more dangerous.

In June, Britain arguably had its own Trump moment. Against the advice of experts, academics and mainstream politicians, the country made a colossal mistake. In the subsequent weeks we’ve seen the pound collapse, a rise in hate crime and the EU seeming no more accommodating to Brexit than prior to the vote (despite the assurances of the ever-toxic Michael Gove). Polls are finding a reversal of opinion with some voters saying they didn’t actually plan on leave winning and others are surprised by the economic consequences – after being warned ten thousand times that this is exactly what would happen.

The anti-immigration rhetoric of the Brexit debate is symbolic of another issue with democracy: prizing the many over the few. Switzerland often faces this problem. One of the few direct-democracies in the world, the country has already hosted twelve referenda this year with further votes planned for November. But these referendums allow minority voices to be silenced. In 2009 57.5% voted to oppose the construction of new minarets on mosques, with the majority deciding upon an issue which affects only the roughly 5% Islamic population. Similar concerns in Australia have led to calls from LGBTQ+ activists to oppose a referendum on same-sex marriage. Essentially the majority are allowed to decide the human rights of the few.

Reversing this problem, democracy then allows the opinion of a few to become representative of a whole nation. This week, for example, Leave campaigner Christian Holliday launched a petition to brand anyone opposing Brexit guilty of treason. Now, you would think the Prime Minister would be wary of branding half of the population as traitors, but then this is Theresa May. Rather than disregard the ridiculous proposal, May’s spokeswoman simply reiterated “the British people have made their decision”. The Daily Mail, deploying their usual restrained rhetoric, has branded anyone opposing Brexit as an evil “Remoaner”. The problem is 48% of the British people didn’t vote for Brexit. This half of the population have been lost as May pursues her farcical Middle-England war against immigration.

So that’s four gaping flaws in our democratic system: manipulation by the powerful, votes for frankly awful decisions, the disenfranchisement of minority groups and the exaggeration of public opinion. To put into Brexit terms: Farage and Johnson, leaving the EU, anti-immigration, and 52% transforming into 100% respectively. I’m in no way advocating totalitarianism, but democracy – especially in 2016 – hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be.

Featured Image Credit: WikiCommons

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