• What Price Democracy?

    With our own election behind us, we now await another election – one whose result will matter greatly to us but which will not necessarily go as smoothly or be as democratic as ours was.

    We should never forget that democracy is not just about elections and is not necessarily guaranteed just because elections are held. An election is just a mechanism that allows democracy to operate, but that mechanism can suffer its own malfunctions and will not necessarily produce a result consistent with democracy.

    We see, after all, many totalitarian regimes conducting so-called elections in an attempt to legitimise themselves. And the American election about to take place is itself subject to a number of flaws and inconsistencies.

    There are, first, the Trump-engendered doubts and difficulties concerning mail-in ballots and his possible challenge as a consequence to the legitimacy of the election; and there is the threatened presence at voting stations of armed militia, allegedly checking that no double-voting occurs; and, sadly, there is the yet-to-be disavowed suggestion from Donald Trump that he might not accept the result if it goes against him.

    And the American electoral process itself can act against or frustrate a legitimate democratic outcome. The electoral college system, whereby, in the case of a presidential election, each state conducts its own ballot and then, according to the outcome, casts its entire vote (calculated according to the size of its population) for or against a particular candidate, can mean – as we saw the last time, when Trump was elected – that the candidate who wins the most votes from the country as a whole can be defeated.

    It may be that the time has come for the United States of America to adopt a new identity, for the purposes of electing a President, (as opposed to electing state legislatures and state governors and congressional representatives), and should become “the United People of America” – and should kiss goodbye to the state-based electoral college.

    But even that step is not enough by itself to produce a working democracy in good health. The essential condition for a successful democracy is that the people should be “united” – not only in their adherence to democracy but in their understanding of what makes a good society and of how they should best interact with each other.

    Sadly, and worryingly, the American people today are bereft of that condition, and do not share that common understanding. We see an American society riven by racial difference, uncertain as to whom to believe, distrustful of their media, tolerant of armed violence from militia groups and unfazed by downright lies from their leaders, preoccupied wth sectional advantage, prey to wild and destructive conspiracy theories, and apparently attaching little importance or value to the advantages that only a true democracy can bring. They seem recklessly unaware of the risks they run and unconcerned at the fact that they may well stand on the brink of a fascist dictatorship.

    America’s friends watch this unfolding spectacle in despair and in open-mouthed disbelief. America’s enemies, on the other hand, rub their hands together at the prospect of further blows being delivered to America’s standing as the world’s leading democracy.

    The truth of the matter is that democracy is not guaranteed merely by the process of election. Democracy is a plant that grows from, and whose roots are found in, society itself: it is nurtured by the standards that the people set for themselves – moral convictions, standards of tolerance, making common cause, working together, demanding the truth, trusting each other.

    Whatever the outcome of the American election, the electoral process in that benighted country has revealed, not a functioning democracy, but a people and society that is blind to democracy’s true meaning and value. The real worry is that American voters seem – as individuals – to be so ignorant and self-obsessed as not to care about what they might lose or may have already lost.

    Even if Trump were to be defeated, the problem would remain. How is it that, in the world’s leading democracy, so many people could be found to vote for such a charlatan – for someone who posed such a threat to democracy?

    Bryan Gould
    4 November 2020