My salad dressing days

Some thoughts on democracy
August 15, 2005, 11:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

So uncomfortable are many of us with George W Bush’s notion of ‘spreading democracy’ around the world that I worry we might be at risk of becoming unduly sniffy about democracy itself.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. So, it’s ‘the best of a bad bunch’ – flawed, but still worth it.

I’d say that was pretty close to my own view.

The two most frequently cited facts about democracy are the ones I find most persuasive:

(1) The fact that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.

(2) The fact that evidence shows that democracies never or almost never make war against each other.

[Click here to read Amartya Sen’s 1999 essay ‘Democracy as a universal value’.]

However, I don’t believe that democracy can be ‘imposed’ on a nation state. I believe that it is more likely to stick and succeed if it comes about organically.

In my own experience, there is something very humbling about going to cast your vote in an election. I regard it as an honour and a privilege to live in a country where we are free to choose those who govern us. It quite literally brings a tear to my eye every time. I wonder whether others feel like this?

No, I am not naive enough to think that we have a perfectly functioning democracy here in the UK. Our first-past-the-post system means that the make-up of the House of Commons often far from reflects the proportions of votes cast for each political party. But it is still possible to make your voice heard, as happened in this year’s general election. Bloody noses (possibly due to anti-war sentiment) were delivered to the Labour party in the form of much-reduced majorities for many Members of Parliament (and some lost their seats altogether).

But, basically, I am happy to wave the flag for democracy as uncynically as I possibly can.

To even things out, a handful of quotes from the cynics:

“Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few.”
David Hume

“While all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a standstill – little better understood, little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.”
John Adams

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Finally, did you know that Swiss women have only had the vote since 1971?


12 Comments so far
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I think it was also Churchill who said “In a democracy the citizens get the government they deserve.”

That pretty much summed it up for me after our elections here in the US last November. However, now I’ve come to feel like our election system here has been tampered with and I’m not sure we can trust our results. I too used to feel a great swelling of pride when I would cast my vote but now I just feel suspicion and sadness.

I refuse to let the bastards win though. I’m fighting for it. Democracy might be imperfect but as you observed it’s the best we’ve got.

Great post!

Comment by GodlessMom

hi GLM!

having read the posts re your experience of the election, i am hardly surprised you feel more suspicious than proud when you cast your vote (for anyone who hasn’t read them, visit GLM’s blog – link on right – and look at her posts from 22, 26, 27 amd 28 july)

but you’re right, we cannot let the bastards win

Comment by Urban Chick

I like the idea of Arthur C Clarke from Songs of Distant Earth.

Anyone who shows any desire to be a politician is immediately barred for life from becoming a polition, the Parliamentary representatives are chosen at random from the qualifying populous, and must serve a set single term, the President is elected from this randomly chosen group by the parliament.

Can’t be any worse than western democracy, where he who has the biggest wallet or the most powerful friends wins.

Comment by Aginoth

Well, then there’s always India innit. Supposedly the most “perfect” democratic system.

Plenty of famines and war-type activity going on there.

Of course, so much easier pointing out what’s wrong than, you know, actually fixing anything, so I’ll just shut up now.

Comment by SBB

The only virtue of Democracy is it enables us to KICK OUT GOVERNMENTS. I think Karl Popper said this but much more eloquently

Comment by Swifty

I-B: now, i did investigate the india thing a little, as i know there was a famine in the ’60s (?), in other words, post-independence

perhaps it was the amartya sen article – will go back and see what he said…

there was also discussion on some sites about the irish potato famine, but that was squared off by the fact that only about 5% of the population (of britain) at the time were allowed to vote

Comment by Urban Chick

UC – I also feel overwhelmed and tearful and very responsible whenever I go to vote – I’m in my 30’s so haven’t voted in a national election many times so perhaps it will wear off!

I find your views accord with mine very closely – thanks for your thoughtful post! I’ll have to read Sen.

Comment by yclepta

It makes me so annoyed when people say that there is no difference between the parties of course there is! And also it has taken us so long to get to full enfranchisment (sp?) I’ve tried to encourage people to vote whatever even if it is just to spoil the ballot paper cos it is registaring an opinion.

Comment by Jane

When I vote I remember those who weren’t given the same privilege as me. Right before I submit my ballot, I hold them deep in my thoughts.

Comment by Atreau

Yes, G.W. Shrub thinks that democracy can be transplanted anywhere.

But it cannot. Using his logic, any form of government can be transplanted to any nation. If soviet style communism can not be transplanted to America or the UK without a fight, what makes anyone think that democracy can be transplanted anywhere?

People elected Hitler. People elected Chavez. People elected that facist italian dude.

What is going on in Iraq is more like elections in Cuba. Over there, Castro picks the candidates then the people vote for what stooge they like the best. Often there is only one stooge to choose from.

In Iraq, the stooges are approved by Bush. Then the people “vote freely”. But could the people vote for Osama? No. How about that other guy we are looking for? No. But in a “free” election, people could vote for anyone right? Or is it you can vote for anyone you like, EXCEPT this list of people from a forigen power.

The democracy in the middle east is more of a puppet government system than anything else.

But most people in America are either too dumb to realize this, or just do not want to know about it. Bush’s base in America are all about more guns, more Jesus, less abortion and homos, and tax cuts that go mainly to the top 5% income earners, while everyone else gets a few token peanuts.

Comment by The Lazy Iguana

How can someone so hostile to democracy possibly want to spread it around. Bush’s party understood that it would get less than 10% of the African American vote. Instead of trying to figure out why that is and do something about it, they sought to keep black voters from casting ballots. Or keeping some votes from being counted.
Our electoral SYSTEM has been ruined by the rich and powerful but, I still have faith in our concept of government.

Comment by Nigel Patel

The difficulty with what Bush is saying is that he is using the word ‘democracy’ as part of a spin campaign to get everyone to agree with the war in Iraq. Its only a little country, and the way he talks about them, you’d think there were a billion 10 foot tall trained mercenaries waiting to invade your country and eat babies.

Democracy good? I think so. But I heard an Iraqi comment recently that Iraq has been led by one man for the last 6000 years. Whether that is true or not, it is a perception they hold. I took it to be a pretty strong indicator, if anecdotal, that Iraqis might be more satisfied with a monarchy or tyrant.

Thing is, there is no democracy in what the USA is actually doing there. Bombing people into submission does not equal democracy.

George W does not seem to understand that peace must be created by peaceful means. I think he is working from a position of arrogance. He also seems to be ignorant. His speech smacks of “I just memorised this 5 minutes ago: I’m an expert now because my advisor told me to say this.”

Comment by Justine

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