Democracy: beyond the ballot box
I am getting more and more fed up with the assumption, increasingly bandied around, that democracy comes down simply to popular voting. I know I have been here before, but allow me to have one more go, then hold my peace. I'm not just talking about the Brexit referendum, but about a whole range of other things, from how the Labour shadow cabinet should be chosen to how we should judge our political success, after we have intervened in what were once pretty nasty dictatorships (ballot box, ballot box, ballot box is always what we are shown... grateful Iraqis putting their cross in the box). Sure, as my philosopher chums would say, voting may be a necessary condition for democracy, but it sure isn't a sufficient one. "The people have spoken" is never quite the simple claim it may seem.
For a start, different electoral rules and systems can produce very different results that we more or less accept. In our system (and in most represenative democracies) governments can be elected without securing a majority of the popular vote. We tend to accept that as a price to be paid for (among other things) the direct relationship between individual groups of the electorate and their chosen representatives. Referenda too have quite different checks and balances written in. In the recent vote in Hungary on curbing migration, a higher proportion of the total population of the country voted for curbs than voted for Brexit here, but in Hungary it did not pass because they had a turn-out quorum which it didn't meet (unlike the UK... even though our turn out would have met the Hungarian requirements). Other systems try to get over that problem by insisting on a super-majority to ensure a real mandate, not 50% but 60% or 70%, But ironically the Hungarian referendum would easily have met that requirement. The bottom line is that it is very hard to work out how to evaluate the power of those who bother to vote versus the power of the people as a whole. And again, interestingly, in Hungary those opposed to the proposal actually manipulated the quorum effect by not turning up at the polling stations.
Then again there is the Australian solution, which compels people to vote (even if they want to exercise their democratic right not to... spoiling the ballot paper becoming the only option).
And that is only the beginning. Another question is who exactly are the people who have the vote. If it seems obvious that those under 18 should not have a "democratic" say, it is worth remembering that a 100 years ago it would have seemed equally obvious to many that women should not have the vote either. (And quite why prisoners should be deprived of their "democratic" vote I have never quite understood.) And more than that, there is the issue of under what conditions they vote. We would all recognise that a "democratic" dictatorship which rounded up the people at gun point and watched over them as they put their cross in the right place was no "democracy" at all. But how do we judge electoral decisions made when the voters have no access to information on the basis of which they can make a responsible decision. It's not quite a gun point scenario, but in terms of a free and fair election it's on the same spectrum (shared knowledge is one of the most important underpinning of radical democracy).
Initiave too, as I broached before, is another crux. Do we think we have a democracy if the role of the electorate is simply (as we are currently seeing in the US presidential elections) to choose passively between a couple of millionaires? Should we not also be looking for ways political policy is formed, and the structures that allow an active role in the political process across the social spectrum? (And I don't mean by that, rich guys like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump dressing themselves up as men of the people...)
Next time we hear that "people have spoken" phrase, lets remember that indeed they may have, but also that they may not have ... and that real democracy certainly needs a ballot box, but is a lot more complicated, difficult and interesting than that.