Democracy is difficult to talk about. The word itself seems to be rendered untouchable, treated with almost a holy reverence. If human morality is indeed tinged with grey, if it is subject to disconcerting fluctuation across time, culture, or place – even then, surely, something like democracy remains nonetheless a moral absolute, unfalteringly Good. We cannot argue with democracy. Everyone wants to democracy. It is taken as fact.
I am not here to dispute this fact. I believe, despite the veneer of sarcasm perhaps too evident in the previous paragraph, in everything I just recounted. I believe in democracy. I believe in its ideals, I believe in its purest form, and how I imagine it undistilled, like a bright white flame flickering resolutely in some dingy corner of the grime and degradation of the international political stage. Maybe it’s my flimsy western liberal bias, but for me, democracy is requisite in the very rudiments of a sound political system. I am willing, not controversially, to argue that such a system cannot exist without a basis in democracy and the ideals it exposes; freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, an elected parliament, universal suffrage, a government that works tireless to fulfil the needs of the electorate, and defend their freedoms. It would take a very twisted type of psychologically to not agree with the intrinsic principles of democracy.
It’s not the above democracy that I have a problem with. I understand that when I say ‘have a problem with’, it sounds ominous, and perhaps needlessly provocative, like I’m plotting a military coup in some basement somewhere because that’s obviously a much purer form of representing the will of the people. I’m not hear to make comparisons with tour system and other, some perhaps more lacking, some perhaps more sophisticated, systems abroad, traditionally-perceived-to-be democratic or not; I am hyper-aware of our relative luck. We enjoy universal suffrage, we can go to the ballot boxes without risk of being attacked, or mutilated or worse for our political choices, and we go with the knowledge that we have a high chance of our votes being counted fairly. A lot of people, – to grudgingly employ the tagline of idiots and the wilfully and infuriatingly avoidant, – have it a lot worse. I am not going to dispute that; it would be ridiculous to even try.
However, this does not mean we cannot point out the elements lacking in our own political system. This cultural obsession with the relativity of suffering is perhaps designed to appear like stoic selflessness, but in reality only serves to undermine and dismiss any grievance whatsoever, no matter how legitimate, because “somebody always has it worse.” You are (I would hope) not asked to keep a stiff upper-lip by your doctors when told you have Stage 2 lung cancer, just because somebody else has it at Stage 4. Likewise, just because we enjoy a relatively comfortable political system, it is not the same as living in a utopian dreamscape. We are dreadfully, fatally lacking. Our clinging to the First Past the Post system speaks volumes. We seem to forget, or not care, that our last government half-consisted of a party even the half-population that voted (the other half decided not to show up) didn’t elect. We seem to forget that parliament is not dissolved by the people, but by the Queen. We seem to forget, that even in 2015, we still have a Queen.
Whilst only the most abhorrent among us could deny the necessity of universal suffrage, it is at the same time disconcerting to think that a person who has devoted much of their life to educating themselves on various aspects of politics or philosophy or economics or ecology, who has come to their own conclusions through exposure to a wide variety of information, could have their vote overridden by someone perhaps less politically engaged, who has come to conclusions about which party to vote for after reading a leaflet stuffed through their door. Or worse, after being exposed to the most vile and reprehensible hate-mongering propaganda the Right relentlessly spews, because no-one else seems to provide a reason nor solution for the hardship and emptiness that typifies their existence.
It would perhaps be easy to attribute this to the moral or intellectual failure of each individual involved – and unfortunately, even in the allegedly more enlightened parts of the political spectrum people, are quick to to insist ‘well, it’s their prerogative to educate themselves.’ Sadly the problem goes much deeper than that, is symptomatic of a greater, nationwide, systematic failing. We cannot ignore, for example, the role class plays in the access to a standard of education desirable in order to make informed political decisions. We cannot ignore the fact that – conveniently, for the maintenance of the status quo – politics is not a core subject at school. It some respects it’s true that we as a nation are hopelessly depoliticised; the growth of the far-Right is as exponential as it is sickening, but that is nothing in comparison to the rate of absenteeism.
Worrying, such a level of political apathy is wholly understandable. We live in a society where profit takes precedence of people, each and every time. No party represents the interests of the masses. We oscillate between two or three parties that in general expose the same ideology, the only difference being the colour of the banners. Politics is run like a business empire, which perhaps looks glamourous on TV, but is terrifying in reality. It is not surprising that we have only a 50% turn out rate to each election, when the future of this country and its people is treated like a game of Russian Roulette.
Such cynicism in the general population is hardly surprising when it is reflected in the political arena itself. Is it surprising that a great deal of the electorate seem to exhibit an astounding lack of sense of responsibility for themselves, for the people around them, for the generations to come, when they are only reflecting the toxic strain of political, social, cultural and economic nihilism that seems to have permeated deep into the roots of our society.
Democracy under capitalism, that requires, for example, us to vote tactically, rather than for the party we agree with, (to keep, you know, literal actual bonafide fascists out of the cabinet) seems like a insulting, watery reflection of the bounties it promises. What does it say about the political system when going to the ballot box is like guest-starring in a terminally boring episode of Game of Thrones, complete with all the calculated plotting and low-level political intrigue, rather than an honest declaration of your political beliefs and desires? A democracy that relies on people voting against the party currently in power, rather than for the ideas and polices they wish to see come into fruition, has some undeniable problems indeed. I want to feel like I will lack integrity when I go and vote for Labour, a party I am not a member of, nor do I particular agree with. But I won’t. Because our political system is structured in such a way that, in this term, not voting Labour, and voting for a party I perhaps support more wholeheartedly, would mean running the risk of allowing a Tory-UKIP coalition into parliament. I cannot sit by idly and watch that happen. I do not want to see history repeat itself. So I play along.
How can we expose the merits of democracy when the votes are not truly reflected in seats in government? When one must vote with cynicism and calculation, rather than our hearts and minds? How can we say our version of democracy is working when half the population is so disillusioned with politics they can’t even be bothered to get up of the sofa to cross a piece of paper that might help in preventing fascists getting into cabinet? How can we pretend each person is listened to, when they’ve been trained never to open their mouths to protest injustice?
So often have I heard a certain milieu, a certain generation, berate the Disgusting Apolitical Youth in all their flabby, internet-addicted apathy, and yet my generation is not the generation that gambled their way into a global recession, or carpet bombed countries in the name of ‘Freedom’. We are not the ones who have the audacity to sit, complacent, overfed, waiting for the cold relief of death, wringing our hands about The Damn State of the Nation, whilst doggedly, incomprehensibly continuing to uphold a global capitalist system that is all too obviously cankerous to the core.
Just because we can understand why people do not want to engage in such a system, it does not mean it is the right thing to do. No system has been destroyed by people closing their eyes and hoping it goes away. We must, eventually, make it fall, and rebuild it from scratch. In the meantime, we must engage with it, because the cost of not doing so, with the likes of the EDL roaming the streets, and UKIP heading for office, is too high. I believe in democracy, and by that I believe in its future – stronger, better, brighter, more direct. I hope one day we’ll get there. But as it is, it is naive to demand the electorate to treat politics with anything more than cynicism, apathy and utter contempt, when the political system has nothing but the same for us.