The Divine Right of Voters

We laugh - oh how we laugh! - at the benighted people of ancient times who believed in 'The Divine Right of Kings' to rule nations.  We ask ourselves, how could they have been so foolish?

I can't help but wonder if people in the centuries to come will look back at us, and laugh merrily at our strange belief in the divine right of voting, our commitment to the absolute power of unrestrained democracy.

Stephen Marche has written a piece in the Guardian about his recent book, The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future.  It's grim reading.  And the problems it identifies are not only found in the USA.  All over the world, democracies are steadily tearing themselves apart.

Marche quotes from Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked undercover against domestic terrorists during the 1990s.  “If you look at how authoritarian regimes come into power, they tacitly authorize a group of political thugs to use violence against their political enemies,” German says. “That ends up with a lot of street violence, and the general public gets upset about the street violence and says, ‘Government, you have to do something about this street violence,’ and the government says, ‘Oh my hands are tied, give me a broad enabling power and I will go after these thugs.’ And of course once that broad power is granted, it isn’t used to target the thugs. They either become a part of the official security apparatus or an auxiliary force.”

The worse things get, the more we 'need' a 'strong leader'.  We believe that everything will be fine, because we voted from him - it usually is a 'him' - and we can vote for someone else when this crisis is over.  And this works ... right up to the point where the crisis is so deep that we discover we are not allowed to vote again, for some perfectly plausible reason; or we find there are, strangely, no plausible candidates left to stand up to the Great Leader.

There is nothing magical in democracy, nothing that will automatically protect us from our own foolishness.  As various wise people have observed, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."  Note: they did not reassure us that "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, unless you live in a democracy."

The hard truth is that democracy is just a tool, an imperfect tool, and what it produces is entirely determined by how we use it.  Democracy - the activity of choosing a government by voting - relies on other structures, such as an independent judiciary and a free press.  Governments always want to limit the power of other institutions to investigate their activities, challenge their decisions and hold them accountable for their actions.  If we choose to elect politicians who cannot be trusted with power, we should not be surprised if their actions tend to benefit them, and not the nation.

And democracy is always tempted to ride roughshod over the rights, needs and desires of the minority.  "We won!" say the majority, "We should get our way!"  The divine right of voters needs to be tempered by compassion and generosity towards the minorities, and those who lost the popular vote.  The winners may have the legal right to implement their policies, but in exercising our rights we can be in danger of losing our humanity.  Democracy must be restrained by compassion and wisdom or, in the long run, it will fail.

Voters - like Kings - have no divine right to rule.  Enlightened government, operating in the best interest of the nation (not to mention humanity and the environment), is a difficult, complicated creature which requires time and attention, and a long-term commitment to its wellbeing.  In simple terms, the survival of enlightened government will depend on whether we care enough.


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  • We in the West have always believed that it is self-evident that democracy is the best and only way to run a country. We are incredulous that anyone could possibly believe otherwise, and we have been prepared to fight neo-colonial wars to force other countries to be democratic (absurd when you think about it, but no-one did think about it). But for most places outside of the Western hemisphere and Europe, democracy is not their natural state. And we are perturbed when we see democracy failing in our own societies. 

    In Germany in the 1930s, the Nazis were voted into power. In Russia, there was an experiment with democracy after the collapse the Tsarist monarchy and again after the collopse of the Soviet Union, but the country soon reverted to what makes the population feel safe (provided they don't criticise the govenment). In China and India, and many other countries that had been colonised by Europeans, there was an experiment with democracy for a while, but those countries also reverted to rule by a dictator who was initially voted in. I suspect that the reasons for this are two-fold (a massive simplification no doubt):

    Firstly, almost every major decision a human makes is a choice between freedom and security: do I buy that holiday or do I put the money into my savings? It doesn't take much adversity for a population to choose to live under a dictatorship if that brings them security, Existentialism is largely a Western preoccupation and it has its limits for most of it's adherents: I like to think that I have validated my life by making some bold existentialist decisions, but ultimately I make the safe decisions. Dictators are most successful if they also bring material wealth. The proponents of the Free Market such as Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher. Ronald Reagan etc, believed that freedom, democracy and Small Government were necessary for wealth creation that would trickle down to all the population, but this has proved very wide of the mark: look at China, and Singapore, to say nothing of all those British expatriates who choose to live in luxury in Dubai but know they cannot criticise the Sheikh.

    Secondly, it has been said that religion is the cause of most evil in the world, but that is not entirely fair, because religion is a sub-set of the strongest instincts of humans: tribalism. This had origins for very good reasons in the pack mentality of animals that we are descended from, and then from the tribal instinct of our human ancestors. But these now manifest as nationalism, "my country right or wrong", and worse still as a fear of "the other", which leads to adherence to dictators that will control other people groups that we feel threatened by: Jews, asylum-seekers, etc.  You don't have to work in an office very long before colleagues in your team are talking about "those idiots in Accounts", or "they don't understand what it's like on the front-line". 

    In Britain we feel horror at the excesses of Donald Trump, and he is a figure of fun for his alleged stupidity and orange skin. But the fact is that at least half of all Americans do not see it that way and will probably vote for him. And these people are absolutely sincere: they truly believe that the election was "stolen", and that those parts of the media that support Biden are the ones that are twisting the truth and promoting lies and "false facts". Many sincere American Christians really believe that they are voting for a President who opposes abortion, gay marriage and immigration, and supports Israel and the right to own guns, and so his three marriages and bullying behaviour and occassional f-word can be glossed over. The tragedy is that most Americans that I actually know are very nice people, but the country is headed toward civil war or at least serious unrest, more or less along the lines of the last Civil War (or the "War for Southern Independence", as it is still called in the South). And how bizarre that men with long hair and tattoos, ridling Harley-Davidsons have been seen as being rebels: but actually this type of man is the most reactionary of them all. 

    So what is the reason for these traits of human nature? It doesn't prove or disprove a creator God. One type of Christian will say that it is original sin; another type will say that these are symptoms of Spiritual Warfare. Or, it can be explained in evolutionary terms as I say above. Some Christians will say that of course democracy will not work, because mankind is sinful: what is needed is for a nation to repent and turn back to God. But Religion has had its chance and failed. We see that right now in the United States, where many prominent evangeilcals support Trump (James Dobson, Cindy Jacobs, Rick Joyner, Paula White for a start). In Britain, we had a theocracy after our Civil War, led by a God-fearing man, Oliver Cromwell, who suspended democracy, executed the King (who was a more sincere Christian than most English Kings) and slaughtered the Irish: within ten years we were asking for the King back. And we came close to a theocracy in Victorian times; the country was avowedly Christian; ok we had stopped the slave trade, but we still colonised and exploited large chunks of the world and got into an arms race with Germany. True, the Methodists and the Salvation Army and the early leaders of the Labour party were Christions who tried to do good and change the lives of the poor, and so they did, but they rapidly became corrupted and insititutionalised. 

    So, my only conclusion is that democracy remains our least-worst option. 

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