MILES LITTLE.-Democracy? What kind?

Dec 23, 2019

‘We have two Australias: Election results show a growing divide within the nation.’ So read a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, May 25th, to an article by Matt Wade.

Elections are an essential part of democracies, but the majority vote inevitably leaves a dissatisfied minority. In some countries, this leads to crestfallen reflection on what should have been or might have been, a sense of dissatisfaction or resentment that grumbles for a while, and then subsides until the next election. In others, the losers challenge the winners, take them to courts of disputed returns, accusing the winners of corruption and vote rigging. At the extreme, the protests become violent, and people on both sides of the divide die in the clashes of arms. Civil war is possible, with all its gruesome consequences. We can see all these outcomes across the globe wherever democracies allow votes, and it seems that dissatisfaction with election results is getting worse. India and Indonesia, for examples, have seen violent objections by losing minorities, with civil unrest leading to loss of life.

Australians, rather than taking to the streets, tend to brood and ruminate, to analyze repeatedly for months the disparities between aspirations, polls and actual results. Analysts take to print examining the reasons for the democratic process failing to deliver what the experts had predicted. They speculate as well on the consequences, usually the dire ones, of the actual outcomes for the nation, its economy and its diverse peoples.

Democracy is a flawed political system just because it claims to seek the acquiescence of so many interests in the policies of a supposedly representative government. The majority will is supposed to be expressed by a chosen government. We have only to look at the conduct of our parliament to recognize the inadequacy of the system and the mismatch between its rational ideals and its partisan practices. The same mismatch is starkly obvious in the British Parliament over the Brexit processes. There seems to be a sense that the forms of democracy that are widely adopted cause internecine struggles every bit as much as they are supposed to achieve some degree of consensual governance.

The trouble seems to be that politics and governance involve people. Kant wrote presciently in 1824 that “out of wood so crooked and perverse as that which man is made of, nothing absolutely straight can ever be wrought.” The more people there are to be governed, the greater the chances there will be for disagreement. This inherent instability of difference is the price we pay for the freedoms we prize. Trading away democracy for some form of populist or authoritarian government means that we stand to lose the rights to speak out, travel freely, trade freely and vote as we see fit. This is the stark choice that presents to us. Democracy began as a mode of governance for small city states, in which each vote could mean something, and each qualified citizen voted directly on matters of policy and political action. Modern democracy claims to preserve the voice of the demos by way of elected representatives – and by and large it has done a reasonable job in allowing freedoms while observing laws that ensure the security of its citizens.

But the larger the populations, the more individual variability matters. To take an extreme example, there may be only 1% of sociopaths in the population at large, and with only 10 in a population of 1000 the problems they generate might be manageable. But the potential for disruption becomes much more evident in a population of 1,000,000, where there might be 10,000 influencing one another and the web of people with whom they associate. It is scarcely surprising that democracy in countries with large populations produces blocs of people with antagonistic aspirations and expectations – not sociopaths against the rest, but people with firm beliefs against people with different views.

Democracy began as a mode of governance for small city states, and for them “the will of the people” was meaningful because those (males) who had the right to vote felt obliged to do so, and the count of their votes determined outcomes in times of dispute. Athenian democracy was “direct democracy”, but voting was confined to males over the age of 20 years who were full citizens. There were, therefore, only roughly 20,000 eligible voters among a total population of about 600,000 in the 5th century BCE. As populations grew and the concepts of franchise evolved, direct democracy usually moved toward some form of “representative” model. Switzerland preserves a hybrid variety of direct democracy by frequently consulting the people via referenda about matters of legislation or constitutional change. Most countries classified as democratic, however, employ party politics to elect representatives to their governing bodies. Headship of the state may be by way of constitutional monarchy, presidential election by the people or prime ministership by the internal vote of the winning political party.

Democracy is thus a contested hybrid beast, a chimera, a mixed metaphor. The Athenian ideal of direct democracy that persists as an aspiration to this day is not fit for purpose. The representative model seems to lead to further and more bitter dissatisfaction, reflected in the rise of populism and the swings to the right in many countries in recent years. There is a huge literature devoted to formulating models of democracy that might work more convincingly in modern times. Jean-Paul Gagnon in 2018 undertook to document the adjectives used to qualify the word – such as torpedo-boat democracy, creative democracy, American democracy, presidential democracy, democracy lite – and, using strict criteria for selection, unearthed 2234 descriptors of democracy in the English language. The precise number may be disputed, but his research gives some indication of the size of the problem and the activity of the discourse around it.

We haven’t found a convincing alternative to (flawed) democracy that would allow our freedoms to continue while in some way controlling the strife generated by those same freedoms. We may want utopia, but neither rigid governance by authority nor the inevitable adversarial phenomena generated by modern versions of democracy can offer us stability, freedom and the ability to flourish in satisfying measure. There are arguments to support the view that we do better to seek ‘protopia’, increments of advance that address inequities and help us to do a little better than we were doing. The great, unfinished changes in the status of women that have occurred in my lifetime provide one example of protopianism in action – better than it was 60 years ago, but still with many shortcomings that should prompt more thought and social action.

Those of us who may deplore the failure of a progressive party to win the recent Australian federal election may feel disappointed, but there are several matters from which we should take some comfort. While continuing to worry about the environment, indigenous affairs and welfare, education, housing, the arts, refugees and whatever else makes up our portfolio of concerns, we can at least be thankful that the losers did not take to the streets, and that it is smoke from bushfires burning rather than tear-gas that stings our eyes and makes us cough – although there are major issues of governance and democracy behind the tragedy of fire.

Donald Horne make a perceptive comment about this country when he famously wrote “Australia is a lucky country run by mainly second-rate people who share its luck.” Given our early history, our violence toward the indigenous peoples, our institutionalized racism and anti-intellectualism, we do remain a lucky country with a lackadaisical attitude to political affairs. By default, we remain a civil society, despite the lack of civility practised by our politicians. We seem to have given up on the passionate confrontations of Vinegar Hill and Eureka. We live instead in a kind of grumpy harmony, critical and suspicious of the beliefs of our fellow citizens, but I wonder whether democracy can really offer us anything better than this uneasy but non-violent stand-off.

And I wonder too whether there really is a “better” system of governance for countries with large and changing populations. Even balance and stability come at a price, it seems. Democracies in Europe face increasing nationalism and move toward the right. India has managed its huge election peacefully enough, but the losing parties have challenged the validity of electronic voting. Indonesia has faced unrest after its recent elections. The Philippines has moved well toward authoritarian government. Brazil’s economy and stability have faltered under democratic rule, and corruption has flourished. China has retained power for its central government, while relaxing some of its cultural and economic controls, but it remains open to criticisms by the Western democracies because of its restrictive attitudes to free speech and human rights.

Whether we like what we have or not, we still have constrained rights to voice our concerns. If we object to the outcomes of our public discourse we should think very carefully about the implications of political alternatives. To sum up with a set of clichés, there are no free lunches to be had, utopia is very much in the beholder’s eye and what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.

Miles Little is a retired professor of surgery who started a bioethics centre at the University of Sydney.

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