I still believe in democracy

I’m a dual citizen – my mother is from the US, my father is from the UK, so I’m a citizen of both countries.

As you might imagine, I’m quite disappointed in both of my countries this year.

I thought I wasn’t going to write about this, because most of my opinions on the subject are fairly standard, but it occurred to me that actually there’s something I do want to say and it’s quite important. It’s not intended as a disagreement with anyone in particular, it’s more an affirmation of my beliefs.

And that belief is this: Despite the fact that in both of my countries a majority or near-majority of votes were cast for an option I believe to be a disaster, I still believe that the way out of this is more and better democracy.

A quote from the then prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, after the the right-wing terrorist attack by Anders Breivik, has stuck with me ever since:

“We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values,” Stoltenberg said. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”

I am still shocked by what has happened, but I will never give up my values.

And one of those values is that a country should help all of its citizens achieve the best possible version of their lives, and it should do so with their active participation in the process. The solution isn’t to ignore their voices, it’s to help them and involve them in making better decisions for everyone together.

This doesn’t require us to accept the results – Democracy is far more than simple majority rule, and dissent and protest are integral features of a well functioning democracy – but it does require finding some sort of common ground.

Not everyone will be able or feel safe to participate equally in the process of finding it – many of us are far more at risk than others – but I think that makes it more important for those of us who can participate to try to help do so.

Common ground feels particularly difficult right now, with so much of the population having embraced outright racism and self-destruction, but I still think it’s achievable. More importantly, I think it’s still achievable without giving in to or compromising with that racism.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career is that just because someone has the problem doesn’t mean that they know what the solution is – often they think they know what the solution is but are entirely wrong, and usually when you ask them what the problem is they will tell you about their solution.

If this is true in comparatively simple things like software, it’s certainly true in fiendishly complicated things like national and international politics, where people (including me) are even less likely to understand the problems and are even more likely to feel strongly about the solutions.

But generally when you provide people with a solution that actually works and solves their underlying problem, they eventually let go of their wrong solution.

There are definitely some hard core of supporters for Trump and Brexit who are actually just terrible people (there’s certainly a large subset of supporters for Hillary and remain who are also terrible people. This feels less central to their causes, but then I would think that), but I choose to believe that they are not the majority of them, and that most of them are just people who have problems and have grasped on to wrong solutions.

Those solutions are ones I find especially objectionable, and ones I have no intention of tolerating, but ultimately I still think the fix is the same: Talk to people, involve them, and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

But I don’t know how to get from here to there.

I’d like to end this with some great suggestions about how to fix our politics, but I just don’t know.

I still think electoral reform and proportional representation are vitally important – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both the UK and the US are among the worst democracies for actual representation – but it’s not like an immediate switch to proportional representation would help us given how the population actually voted (or maybe it would? Perhaps some large fraction of Trump and Brexit supporters would have voted for a more nuanced option given the ability to do so? I don’t know).

I still think the press and their coverage of the issues are a major part of the problem, but I don’t know how to fix that – freedom of the press is important, and much of the problem really comes from the financial incentives of news as it currently stands. This feels like a problem where I don’t have a more specific solution than “fix capitalism”, which tends not be a viable solution.

I still think economic insecurity plays a major role in fostering hate, and that the way to fix that is going to be some form of universal basic income, but I have no idea to get from here to there either.

But all of that makes this feel like a “This Major Political Event Proves That I Was Right All Along” post, and I don’t know if I was. I still think I’m right, but maybe there’s something else going on here.

So I don’t know. This is not, in the end, a solutions post. It’s what it started out as: A values post.

I still believe in democracy, and I don’t think we have a way out of this that doesn’t somehow engage with the large subset of our population who have made disastrous decisions.

I am still shocked by what has happened, but I will never give up my values. My response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.

Now we just have to figure out what that looks like.

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2 thoughts on “I still believe in democracy

  1. まるまる

    There is a huge amount of data showing that far-right parties gain significant power upon economic crises (http://www.statewatch.org/news/2015/oct/financial-crises-cesifo-wp-5553.pdf analyses data from 1870 to 2014), and their techniques of blaming immigrants / people of color / disabled people (and using authoritarianism and austerity to target them) for long-extant economic problems seem to still work quite well in 2016.

    I’m worried though — in a few years, self-driving cars and trucks will be a thing and paying people to drive will, soon, be more expensive than paying silicon and software to drive. I am terrified what will happen then and terrified of how the ensuing economic and social crisis will be exploited. I am terrified because there hasn’t been any sort of major political, economic, or social pushback in the US against the ideas of “everyone can have a job if they want to get one” and “people who don’t have a job are bad and it is totally fine if they starve on the street” (which are enshrined in US culture and enshrined in law in US welfare policy). Of course, those ideas (and their enforcement) have been issues for like, disabled people for a long time (in US getting disability benefits is extremely hard even if you have a lawyer and extensive medical documentation, the government’s strategy is just to deny and make people appeal and hope people give up or die in the meantime), but with automation being able to take over more tasks, the problem becomes larger scale and starts affecting more people.

    I feel like a more general principle to draw from this is that unsolved problems (or problems that society deems solved through sufficient use of austerity and ignoring and authoritarianism/criminalization) are liabilities to society in general and external factors (like changes in technology, or climate change-induced conflict) can cause them to change in scale in quite nasty ways.

    1. david Post author

      This is an excellent comment, thanks.

      Also, I basically agree with all of it.

      In particular the fact that we’re moving towards a world where there’s really no plausible way to have full employment is a large (but not total) part of why I’m in favour of universal basic incomes. I *do* think there are good job programs we could be creating to increase employment (e.g. I think there’s probably good scope for a bunch of environmental programs that would also create jobs), but ultimately they’re still only a transitional step.

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