If you ignore the paranoid raving about Skynet coming to eat us, I think this is one of the more lucid thoughts from Eliezer Yudkowsky – that people say things just for the sake of inviting applause. They’re trite and pointless things, but they sound good at a first, uncritical, glance.
This is particularly important to realise in an era where such soundbites aren’t just used to invite the audience to clap, but also used to is used to shut people down. And one phrase I think has come up a lot goes along the lines of “that’s democracy”. I.e., “but people voted for David Cameron and Conservative policy, you shouldn’t be allowed to protest because that’s democracy.”
Because what does “democracy” even mean these days? If it isn’t about putting up a sign that says “APPLAUD NOW”? As Yudkowsky points out “let’s bring more democracy to the process” sounds nice, but doesn’t mean much when you try to figure out their point.
We tend treat it as a magic word that just means ‘Good Thing’. It’s tautologous.
“Democracy is a good thing” simply means “The Good Thing is a good thing” to most people. We fight for it. We rile ourselves up for it. But rarely do we seem to take a step back and ask why it’s a good thing. What properties of “democracy” are the Good Things that we want? Much like “freedom of speech”, democracy is should be the means to a better world, not the end in itself. When people didactically declare that “we have democracy” and “we have freedom”, is that just a meaningless platitude and a thought-terminating cliché?
So what is “democracy” really about? Or, more precisely, what should it be about? And even more importantly, do we have it? Do we have good things, or do we have the didactically self-declared Good Thing? Have I used too many rhetorical questions in this post so far? Yes?
Is it about elections?
Well, we get those so infrequently we could host most of one of the World Wars in between them, and a lot can change in those 4-5 years. To put it in perspective, we complain that students are a demographic that don’t vote, but about 2-in-5 university students won’t, statistically, get even the opportunity to vote because elections are so comparatively rare. A degree lasts 3-4 years, and so you could go that entire time without the opportunity to vote. You could be paying fees imposed by a government you had no say in and will have no say in while tuition has salience to you.
But when these elections do come around, our choices are constricted already. We don’t get to choose the candidates, those choices are made for us by the Parties. They have to undergo pre-selection before hitting a ballot paper – and while you can go it alone as an independent, please, don’t make me laugh at you for suggesting they have a genuine chance of making a difference. Our selection process is truncated at the first hurdle without our input.
I hate to say it, but on their own with nothing else to support them, our elections are mostly meaningless.
Is it about voting in general?
Well, we get to vote… occasionally. As I pointed out above, the elections come around every 5 years. Twice a decade.
But we certainly don’t get to vote on most policies, voting for those are covered by our representatives. In theory, that system arises because voting for every little thing is a pain in the arse – elections and referenda are difficult to organise. So we avoid doing it and have representatives.
So, no we don’t get to vote on specific things, or even on general things most of the time. We vote on representatives who we trust make decisions for us. And, as recent UK political events have shown, quite frequently elected governments do the opposite of what they claim. After the election, we’ve got no power to object save protest and petitions. And less said about how the whips system and party power means representatives rarely get a free vote to follow the will of the people, and leaving their constituents high-and-dry in the process, the better.
We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them. – 2001 Labour Manifesto, a position which was reversed entirely by January 2004, conveniently before the next election
Is it about representation?
At this point I would like to say I think this is the biggest key point in the democratic process. You can have all the votes in the world but they mean nothing without representation. Meanwhile, while you can, at least conceivably, do accurate representation without formally voting even once. For instance, you can randomly select people to serve as representatives like jury service – thus making sure you have a statistically representative cross-section of the country, without ever having to poll the whole population at a ballot box once.
Well, the current UK government are in power with about 7 in 10 people not voting for them. Or “actively voting against them”, if you will, since we have a first-past-the-post system that doesn’t allow us to transfer votes and gauge broad support, or empower people to vote for their true preference.
All of our electoral woes translate into a disproportionate number of seats in Parliament compared to the popular vote and our best guess for what the will of the people actually is. More people voted for UKIP than the SNP, yet the translation of that into representative seats is farcical.
Basically, it ain’t representative. Not in the slightest. If you think otherwise you are fucking delusional.
And if you want to change the meaning behind “representation” slightly, don’t forget that Parliament is way off our actual demographic make-up on all counts. Gender, ethnic groups, disabilities, sexual orientations… In fact, the Lords – the appointed house – is a comparative trailblazer in that respect, probably because it’s appointed and not elected. We tend to elect people similar to “us”, and in most places the majority is, as they say, male-and-pale. Given our winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system… well, it’s an unfortunate side-effect of elections that we don’t get demographically representative representatives. There’s also probably nothing we can do about that.
What about electing the leaders and holding them to account, that must be what democracy is all about, right?
Again… you don’t vote for the leader of the country, that’s selected for you. You vote for your MP, and that translates into a seat, and the side with the most seats takes their preferred MP and sticks them in the executive branch of government.
Even the cabinet you don’t vote for. They’re appointed based on connections and party loyalty, and certainly not their qualifications or suitability for the post. And they’re reshuffled at will, at quasi-random intervals, and usually with regard to what looks good on the news.
So, think about that: in UK politics, the people actually wielding the power are not voted for.
The whips mean the Party must vote the way the government want, and the government – that is, the cabinet and the policy-makers – are selected and appointed from the pool of MPs, not elected directly to their positions. Doctors have zero say in who the Health Secretary is, school teachers have no say in who the Education Secretary is – because no-one, save the Party Elite, has that power.
Oh, and when we petition a vote of no confidence in one of them because he’s fucking up the job at an objective and demonstrable level, we get nothing. In fact, we occasionally get laughed at.
So, if “that’s democracy”, then screw it.
Democracy is evidently shit.
I’d rather have meaningful voting, qualified representatives, an accountable executive branch, houses that accurately reflect our opinions, and the ability to be continually heard. Because those are good things, not Good Things.
When you say “that’s democracy” like it’s a good thing, to avoid talking about problems with the government, or to shut down protesters, complaints, and petitions, then you’re doing nothing but buying into a load of bullshit. If you want “democracy” to begin and end at elections every five years, if you want representatives that aren’t allowed to represent us, and you want executive leaders who are appointed through their connections and party loyalty, then you probably shouldn’t be engaging in the political process in the first place.