“A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship.”
Lord Thomas MacCauley 1857
Whenever you hear politicians or pundits use the word ‘democracy’ you can be almost sure that they mean ‘representative democracy,’ where a proportion of the electorate chooses an apparatchik(a) of the political party which appears best equipped to serve their ends in a parliamentary system. Bleeding hearts and Guardianstas aside, this invariably means the gang who promises the lowest taxes/most benefits/most beer and skittles. Switzerland operates a referendum system, a version of popular democracy. But we are told that this is despicably undemocratic, since it assumes the public know what they want without being told what they want by those who know better, namely those whom they have ‘elected.’ A prime example is the EU, where highly paid, anonymous faces, ‘elected’ by tiny minorities, enact continent-changing policies despite the evidence that popular opinion in virtually every member country would see them hanging from lamp posts. So politicians dodge referendums asking questions such as ‘do you want to be part of the EU?’
Increasingly, western liberal democracies give the electorate a choice of two main parties, on the (centre) left and (centre) right, flanked by swivel eyed loons either side representing largely single issues. In proportional representation systems, where coalitions are the norm, the loons get at least the illusion of a say – we have a ‘coalition of the comfortable’ in the UK. In ‘first past the post‘ systems, coalitions are rarer for different reasons. The US, Canada, Australia have a caucus system whereby competing factions of the same parties smear and slander each other and stage road conventions, beer busts and potlatches to gain the party vote before ‘achieving consensus’ and electing an anodyne candidate to carry the flag. The media, funded by big business and lobbying groups then align to promote whichever candidate their owners and advertisers favour and tell the public how they should vote.
In the UK and Ireland local committees labour officials, council workers and busybodies convene around tea urns in formerly smoke filled draughty halls or village halls and drawing rooms of country mansions (depending on political leanings) to choose a motley fool to wear the party rosette and knock on doors of people once every four years. Almost anyone will do, as is evident from the ugly mob gathered inside Westminster.
In vibrant emerging democracies such as India and Pakistan, campaigns involve elevator thrones, miracles, fireworks, riots, assassinations and general knockabout fun. Imran Khan, urbane cricketer heart throb turned right wing tribal warlord famously fell off his perch when campaigning in Pakistan last year while Benazir Bhutto was murdered, some some say by the security services, and/or the CIA, others by members of her own family, on the electoral trail in that odd ‘managed democracy.’ In Russia, voters have the choice of Mr. Putin or . . . Most choose the latter. To combat voter apathy, politicians such as Putin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky compete for the lowest common denominator, broadcasting outlandishly homophobic, racist views that gain them plaudits at home and contempt abroad.
In new democracies such as the Ukraine, folks get poisoned by the opposition then ally with the opposition then imprison former colleagues in a bewildering cycle of democratic totalitarianism. In Iraq, where the population were shocked and awed into democracy, the current Prime Minister Nori Al Maliki was ‘elected’ in 2006 after running the elected prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari out of town. His latest re-election campaign has started with an assault on the Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi, currently undemocratically under the control of counter counter counter insurgents, backed (whether they like it or not) by Al Quaeda or a version thereof sponsored by Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, the subject of much Thus muttering in the past, Hamid Karzai, former Finance Minister and anti-corruption campaigner, is leading the field ahead of the forthcoming elections. Last time the US allowed a rigged poll to stand in the name of wider ‘democracy.’ Let’s hope that things change this time round. If Mr. Karzai remains in place, by hook, by crook or by proxy, in the forthcoming election round not much, if anything, will change for the better: people are fed up with rampant jiggery pokery.
Democracy thrives when states can afford the largesse required to bribe the voting population, according to MacCauley. Democratic deficit builds as the cash runs out, democracy turns to oligarchy and thence from virtual to actual autocracy. The iron boot is not far behind. I’m not sure where we are along that road, but suspect we may have travelled further than we would care to admit. I’m not talking about the usual suspects: the problem is nearer to home.