The democracy we deserve

Elections ought to bring out the best in people. People are passionate about positive change, whether they’re standing for appointment or not.  So why is it politics seems permanently shrouded in a toxic haze of negative aggression?

There are two actors in our democratic process – the would-be leaders and the voters*.  We judge the candidates endlessly, but perhaps it’s time we took ourselves more into account.

There is an expectation that leaders should be ‘strong’ and somehow omniscient. We want them to have all the answers, and be right all the time.  This last, in spite of the certain fact that everybody knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party** saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.  There has never been, nor ever will be, a government that got it all right.

Democracy presents leaders with the great challenge of balancing the apparently conflicting requirements of inclusion and decisiveness.  That’s probably one of the reasons Churchill so famously said ‘democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others’.

So is it fair to criticise as sharply as we do, or to protest about things with such vehemence, without taking into account the complexities of life?

We are all very quick to claim our ‘rights’ – the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, and all of the other freedoms which the ideals of democracy bring.  People know they can fight for their rights – and this familiar territory is the arena in which we choose to hold our democratic debate.

This is where it seems to me our problem with democracy lies. As long as we assume our leaders carry all of the responsibility, and that we are merely spectators, we will continue to get the hefty servings of disappointment and failure that are our just desserts.

So whilst it’s important to point out the problems, and protest about the things which don’t work, it’s equally important we ourselves are not unreasonable in making our points.

Reason is at the heart of the ‘scientific method’ and we constantly turn to science for the comfort of facts which reassure us we’re heading in the right direction. When scientific researchers select only the evidence that conveniently fits their theory, they are quite rightly condemned for bad science.  And yet, this is exactly how most of our political debate is conducted – both by the politicians AND the electorate.

For leadership to function well in a democracy, the first task is to accept that democracy, reflects our experience of life – it’s a continuous process of learning, adaptation and change.  If we want our leaders to succeed, ALL of us need to take responsibility for being constructive in our dealings with differences, and for checking our own assumptions as closely and objectively as we can.

If we’re able to do this – resolutely focused on the development of our collaborative skills – then democracy has the potential to serve a very different dish from the one we currently find so distasteful.   If we build on the best of what works, we can be magnificent.  Or we can fight amongst ourselves around the dustbins of failure.

So draw a breath next time you’re about to weigh in to a political debate. Consider your purpose, the thing you’d most like to achieve. Ask yourself if the question or opinion you’re about to offer will help us move forward together. And be prepared to learn something new.

Challenge by all means, but before you criticise this or that political figure, remember that only the very brave or the foolhardy are prepared to step into the today’s deeply hostile gladiatorial arena.  They are forced by the baying of the crowd (that’s us) to adopt aggressive tactics in a battle for survival in which everybody will get maimed. Think how much you’d like to stand before the crowd before you raise your voice.

We can change the game.

If we claim our share of responsibility for the way our democracy conducts itself, and look to be constructive, we can effectively move the contest to a festival ground.  We can mix without fear of mortal attack, and explore the richness of difference the world has to offer.  In our collaborative mood of acceptance and accommodation of each other, we can reasonably expect to find improvement, and at times delight.

If we escape the the toxic haze of that claustrophobic arena, we’ll make leadership a much more attractive proposition.  A place where inclusion and decisiveness can sit more easily together.

We have to watch ourselves as closely as we watch those who would lead.  Then, and only then, will we truly be ‘all in this together’.

That’s the democracy we deserve.


2 Responses

  1. ** party here means group rather than political party, thanks to the very fair observation of Green Party Mayoral candidate for Bristol, Tony Dyer. His comment to me follows:

    “Party politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.”

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I felt I needed to respond with particular reference to the paragraph highlighted above.

    We experienced a big disruption due to the actions of an “independent” candidate at last night’s hustings, and given that some of the most negative comments I have received or noted in this campaign have been from supporters of “independent candidates” rather than supporters of the other “party candidates”, I personally do not think the use of the term “Party politics” at the beginning of this paragraph is entirely fair. As a result, I think it undermines the rest of your otherwise very good letter by inadvertently exonerating some of the worst offenders because they are not members of a political party, whilst attaching guilt by association to some of the most positive campaigners because they are.

    Rather than “Party politics”, the problem, in my opinion, is a particular form of “Group politics” whereby supporters of an individual candidate (whether a Party candidate or an independent) engage in exactly the actions you describe in the remainder of your paragraph.

    At a national level, the most visible element of this negative group politics has indeed been at the party level but this sort of behaviour precedes the formation of political parties and, as this election demonstrates in my opinion, clearly exists outside of party machinery. Clearly, political parties are not entirely innocent but they are not the only culprits either.

    In my case, membership of a political party has enabled me to engage in and run a positive campaign, and it has been my fellow party members and supporters who have helped me to retain a positive approach to this election even when provoked by the negative actions of others. Indeed, it has been my party “machinery” which has repeatedly encouraged me to continue to make a positive contribution to the election campaign when otherwise I may have been tempted to respond in kind.

    You may be interested in the following declaration on positive campaigning, written by myself with the support of other Green Party members, and approved unanimously by the party membership a couple of years ago;

    It remains at the core of my approach.


    Tony Dyer

  2. *The media is of course a significant actor in our democratic process, as several people have pointed out – however, we tend to forget the media are all voters too. Whatever people in the industry may claim about journalistic standards etc. objectivity is quite definitely not the norm.

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