Democracy is alive and kicking: arguments that it isn’t are themselves anti-democratic
John Lloyd has written in this weekend’s Financial Times that “democracy is in trouble – in some versions terminal trouble”. He cites the disillusionment of UK voters with the expenses scandal, the reluctance of electorates to revolt against Berlusconi and Sarkozy, and, implicit throughout, the way that triangulation and the drive to the centre removes the scope for active politics, offering only a watered-down, lowest common denominator political ‘debate’. This is understandable dismay, but it’s (a) dangerous, and (b) wrong. Arguments that democracy is in trouble are, in essence, anti-democratic.
First, is John Lloyd actually right? Well he’s certainly right that elected politicians shouldn’t be venal, shouldn’t try to squeeze debate out of politics, and shouldn’t get away with things. But is he right to assume that because politicians in the west are doing all those things, democracy is itself in trouble. Democracy is, at heart, the right to ‘vote the bums out’ – but only if we, the people, want to. Votes for fringe parties rise when the main parties are seen to be complacent or too close, and that is what is happening, as it did in the 60s and 70s, when Lord Hailsham complained famously of ‘elective dictatorship’. Partly in reaction, no one could accuse the Tories or Labour in the 80s of scrapping for the middle ground!
But mostly, John Lloyd is wrong because – strangely for him – he is ignoring the global perspective, where, arguably, democracy has been at fever pitch for two decades (democratic spikes have occurred for hundreds of years – but rarely as widely or for as long since the fall of communism). Across Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia, democracy has never been as alive as it has been in recent years. Even the coups that are the high point of dictatorship are now usually met by waves of popular protest rather than resignation. Even in Europe, when was the last time every single country was run by governments that faced periodic popular elections? (I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘never, ever’ but I may be ignorant on both counts – please correct me).
Which brings me to my other concern. Without being complacent about the venality, boredom-inducing triangulation or political elitism that John Lloyd rightly criticises, the argument that democracy is in trouble is a deeply reactionary, anti-democratic one. The idea that ‘if voting changed anything, they wouldn’t allow it’ is wrong and pernicious. Because if democracy is sick, what’s the point trying to exercise it? What’s the point protesting? What’s the point of voting? What’s the point of politics?
The point of politics is to change things (people who disagree with my view about how things should be changed are wrong, of course, but better than people who think things shouldn’t be changed at all). Including the current state of politics in western nations.