Friday, June 24, 2016

I no longer believe in democracy

I used to believe in democracy, not because I thought it produced the best outcomes (it clearly doesn't) but because by giving people at least the illusion of having a say in the matter it encourages them to become engaged in the political process and, more importantly, to accept the results without resorting to violence.  At least in America the checks-and-balances built in to the system keep things from spinning too wildly out of control.

Alas, not so in the U.K., where We The People have just voted for secession from the European Union.  I predict this will ultimately be catastrophic, not just for the U.K. but for Europe and the world.  But that is not the reason this has shaken my faith in democracy, it's because, apparently, many British voters thought this was about Boaty McBoatface.  Now that they've voted to leave the E.U., British voters are frantically Googling to figure out exactly what it is that they voted for.
The whole world is reeling after a milestone referendum in Britain to leave the European Union. And although leaders of the campaign to exit Europe are crowing over their victory, it seems many Britons may not even know what they had actually voted for.
Awakening to a stock market plunge and a precipitous decline in the value of the pound that Britain hasn't seen in more than 30 years, voters now face a series of economic shocks that analysts say will only worsen before they improve. The consequences of the leave vote will be felt worldwide, even here in the United States, and some British voters say they now regret casting a ballot in favor of Brexit. 
"Even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and I just — the reality did actually hit me," one woman told the news channel ITV News. "If I'd had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay."
Talk about too-little-too-late.

This response was my "favorite":
I thought remain would win.  I didn't think my vote would mean anything.  I'm very worried now.
To whoever said that (the quote, unfortunately, was attributed merely to "a leave voter on the BBC"): you should be very worried.  You helped hammer the last nail into the United Kingdom's coffin.  Next year, Scotland is going to try again to break away from the U.K. and this time, with this precedent as a model, they will likely succeed.  And then Northern Ireland will go.  Why?  Because they will want to get back into the E.U.!  Unlike England, Scotland and Wales (God only knows what's going to happen to Wales -- there are nationalist grumblings there too), Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member, and where, at least for the moment, sanity still prevails.  Border checks are not going to be very popular on the Emerald Isle.  Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain.  Why should they be any happier about having their fates decided in Londan than London was about having its fate decided in Brussels?

But one thing is for certain: England is through.  The "leave" advocates liked to brag about how the U.K. is the fifth largest economy in the world [UPDATE: not any more].  But that was only because it was part of the E.U.  California has the sixth largest economy in the world, but I'm pretty sure it would not fare nearly as well if it seceded from the U.S.

If there is a silver lining to this mess it is that maybe, just maybe, it will awake people from their stupor and make them realize that votes really do have consequences.  Maybe, just maybe, this will help the U.S. avoid a similar catastrophe this November.

But for England, it's too late.  Their last ship just sailed.


coby said...

An easy fix the the underlying problem just occurred to me. Each ballot choice should come with an additional "qualification" selection. You can cast your ballot and then choose between "no really, I'm serious", "just venting, don't actually count this", and "LOL"

Publius said...

This, Then That

Given the above, would you now support literacy tests for voting rights?

Is there no possibility that the Brexit could be better for the U.K.?

Ron said...

> would you now support literacy tests for voting rights?

Nope. That would defeat the whole point of democracy. As I said in the OP, the point is not to reach the best outcome, the point is to convince people they have a voice so they will accept political defeat without violence.

> Is there no possibility that the Brexit could be better for the U.K.?

Nope. There are some individual constituencies (mostly old, rural white guys) who will get what they want (or at least what they think they want) out of this, but for the U.K. as a whole this will be a disaster. The U.K. might even break up over this. As I noted in the OP, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. If London doesn't take marching orders from Brussels, why should Belfast and Edinburgh take marching orders from London?

Stephen Collings said...

This process started me contemplating what, exactly, you would have to change about democracy to make it work properly in this scenario. I concluded it's an issue of sampling and filtering. The solution is to have elections all the time! Of course, it's completely insane from an implementation standpoint, but I think the theory is sound...

Luke said...

I'm pretty sure the Founding Fathers believed that a certain level of civic virtue is required for democracy to function as anything like a democracy. Sometimes they confusingly used the word 'religion' here, which probably hearkens back to the Latin religio, which carries a sense of constant duty. English retains this: "He goes to the gym religiously." The term civil religion is also relevant, here.

What I think you will find is that people have stopped caring about public life except in an instrumental sense. What really matters, for the majority, is their private lives. That's actually what happened with Rome, and a plausible reason for its downfall. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the US would turn into an "immense tutelary power"; a simple example of this would be soft drink bans because people cannot exercise that simple level of self-control. Government must come from inside or outside; if it's not going to come from the inside, externally imposed order is the only alternative to anarchy—or at least fracture.

When you stop caring about a domain, and especially when you raise children, knowledge of how that domain works deteriorates. You start accepting distorting simplifications and outright falsehoods. You prefer falsehoods that allow you to deny responsibility, as well as falsehoods which obscure impending catastrophe. You listen to the prophets who say "Peace, peace, when there is no peace." And then BOOM, time steps forward in a way that greatly mismatches expectations and some will wake up and start doing the hard work of seeing how they were deluded and picking up the pieces.

I doubt that democracy-as-illusion is a stable solution. Either the country is ruled by the majority, or there is an elite. (Furthermore, power has a tendency to aggregate and concentrate.) People will eventually figure out which it is. Maybe with Trump, many have. Or maybe they just want a better tutelary power.

Unknown said...

Ron, thinking outside the box, would you consider any improvements to Democracy (writ large) that would allow you to believe in it again?

For instance, what if polling were held open longer, and trends were reported? Pretend for a moment that the logistics and security of this were not an issue. If people saw after day 1 that this issue were actually winning, they might turn out to vote against it the next day.

Or, how about a quorum of turnout for the successful passage of an issue?

I think there are a number of ways to fix this without giving up on the idea of Democracy. It's the least-worst system, to paraphrase.

But if "the will of the people" is really to leave the EU, and you are genuinely against any process that faithfully expresses this will, then I guess that yeah, you don't believe in Democracy.

Ron said...

> improvements to Democracy

I think you missed the point. Re-read the first sentence in the OP. The reason I believed in democracy is not that it necessarily produced good outcomes, but that by giving everyone a vote you increase the chances that people will accept political decisions that they don't agree with without violence. The reason the Brexit vote shook my faith is not that it went the wrong way, it was all the second-guessing and people saying, "Wait, what? You mean this vote actually mattered?"

There actually are ways to improve democracy. I would love to see instant run-off voting in the U.S. for example. But that's just whittling at the margins if people don't care enough to cast an informed vote in the first place.