Let me say from the outset that I believe in democracy; and I agree with Abraham Lincoln when he exhorted the audience at Gettysburg to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What I’m saying here is that, in my opinion, a democratic system of government is the closest we’ve come thus far to creating a process that can deliver the principles Lincoln then advocated. But while democracy might be the best system we’ve got, it is nevertheless imperfect; and as such, we have to be very careful with how we handle it.
For a start, democracy is predicated on the dubious premise that the majority of voters know what is best for their country. That is simply not true. If you think about it seriously, the majority of voters in any country actually know little about what it takes to run a major western-style democracy. What percentage of them has actually done it? Running the local bowling club, or a pub raffle or a betting syndicate is not the same. Running a small business or a branch of a bank or a medical practice is not the same. In fact, running a publicly listed company with branches right across the country or even a multi-national corporation earning billions before tax is not the same. Maybe the argument would be valid if the political system we were comparing these enterprises to were a dictatorship where the CEO makes decisions, and issues commands, and his or her subordinates execute those commands without question; but we are talking about democracy here; and running a democracy as our forebears intended is unlike any challenge that the business or public sector can throw up. It takes a special kind of person, with a broad range of very specific skills to effectively run a democracy. But many, if not most, voters wouldn’t actually know what those skills are, much less how to decide if any given candidate possesses them.
Voters often make up their minds who to vote for based on a few simple criteria: (a) personality, (b) personal affinity and/or (c) persuasive rhetoric. Some people are more likely to vote for a candidate with charisma than one who is dull and boring. This decision might be based on the candidate’s innate personal charisma, or charisma derived from the fact that the he or she had been a movie star or a sporting hero in a previous role. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a person having charisma; and having previously been a movie star or a sporting hero should not disqualify anyone from offering themselves as a candidate for public office. Indeed, having a certain amount of charisma is essential for a diplomat whose responsibilities include persuading others to adopt their point of view. The first requirement of a leader, after all, is to persuade people to follow him or her. But if charisma is all the candidate has to offer, it is not enough to handle the complex and often competing demands of a socially developed and multilaterally diverse constituency. A candidate with bags of charisma but with no other skills or talents to back it up is like one of those Hollywood movie sets, all front but no substance; and when the campaigning is over and the time comes to get down to the business of running the country, charisma alone won’t create jobs, redress social imbalances, ensure that people can go about their lawful business in safety and security, ensure that the young are taught, that the sick are healed, that the old are cared for, that the homeless are given shelter, that the poor are provided for and the capable are given the opportunities they need to develop their capabilities. Bright eyes and a big smile alone don’t get that done.
Affinity comes in two varieties: (i) ideological, and (ii) behavioural. Ideological affinity is a good thing. It means that you have found a candidate who is prepared to fight for what you believe in. But during election campaigns, candidates sometimes get carried away with the euphoria of the contest and start telling people what they think they want to hear instead of what they are actually prepared to fight for once the election is over and they hold office. Nor can you assume that a candidate who claims to have ideological affinity with you has articulated their policies clearly and unambiguously and with absolute integrity; so it is vitally important for voters to scrutinise the speeches, to challenge and question and dig into the prior record of each candidate to reassure themselves that he or she means what he or she says and is the kind of person who will carry through those promises faithfully if elected to office. I hired many people during my professional career and never, ever, would I accept a résumé or a spoken or written claim at face value. I’d always check it out. But how many voters, when asked to hire people to run their country, go to that trouble? The two-minute sound bite on the TV news is not enough to understand the real essence of a candidate; is not enough information on which to base such an important decision as the one the voter has to make.
Behavioural affinity is what you have with a candidate who comes across as having been cut from the same cloth as you – a surrogate who will run the country in your stead, doing all the things that you would have done had you stood for office and been elected. This effectively means that you believe you would be capable of running the country yourself if you had the time or inclination to accept the office. Think about it. You are the fan on the terrace at a ballgame who thinks he can do a better job than the professional player out on the field: with no training, no practice and no experience. But deep down, if you are being brutally honest with yourself, you know that you would be ill-prepared and ill-equipped to do the job. So, if you know that you yourself are not fit to run the country, why would you vote for someone who is just like you and therefore just as unfit as you are? Behavioural affinity alone, without proven executive capability, is a good reason NOT to vote for someone. What you’re country requires you to do is elect someone who is better than you; who is capable of doing a job that, right now, you can’t even begin to comprehend.
Rhetoric. We hear so much rhetoric during election campaigns that many of us tire of listening while others wearily acquiesce, accepting what they hear as truth. Politicians know this. They know that if you make an assertion often enough, with passion and conviction, people will start to believe and accept it. In election campaigns, rhetoric is the tool of the vacuous: those with nothing more substantial to say. Voters who decide their allegiance based on rhetoric alone are abrogating their solemn responsibility to elect a candidate capable of putting words into action and effecting necessary change that will make the country a better place for all its citizens and a more responsible member of the global community; because the rhetorician’s arguments are invariably based on words rather than deeds. The responsibility of voters to elect the best possible government for their country is a serious one. Rather than simply accept the candidates’ rhetoric at face value, the democratic process places an onus on the voting public to question everything that is said and written by the candidates in pursuit of office, dig deeply into it, challenge it if it doesn’t ring true and never allow the candidates to believe that the voters can be so easily fooled as to blindly accept their rhetoric because once that channel is opened up, there will be no end to the BS that gets flushed down it. An election is like a job interview and as the interviewers, voters should demand that each candidate substantiate his or her claims and allegations with independently verifiable facts rather than accept the same hollow rhetoric repeated ad nauseam by candidates who have no substantive ideas in their arsenal to expound. And voters who are not prepared to take this responsibility seriously and put in the effort commensurate with the importance of the task they are being asked to perform should, I my opinion, abstain for voting (if their particular variant of the voting system allows it) rather than cast an ill-considered and potentially damaging vote.
The second major fallacy in democracy is that it allows eligible constituents to determine who will lead their country and act on their behalf in the legislative arena. In principle, this is true; but one can only vote for candidates who put themselves forward for election; and while, in some democracies, it is possible for an ordinary citizen from a modest background to rise to political office, in others, that path is only open to those with (a) enough personal wealth to independently fund their campaign or (b) access to someone else’s war chest. For those who are not independently wealthy – and that means becoming increasingly wealthy as the candidate climbs towards pinnacle of the governing hierarchy – the candidate’s choice is (a) to align him or herself with a political party – i.e. a puppet-master who will effectively control the successful candidate while he or she is in office – or (b) seek funding from wealthy supporters who, in return for electoral support, will inevitably expect favourable treatment from the candidate once elected. In my professional life, if I really believed that no suitable candidate had presented for a role advertised, I had the option of re-advertising the position, broadening the scope of the search, doing whatever was in my power to ensure that I filled the position with someone with the right skills, experience and mindset to fulfill the responsibilities of the role and realise whatever opportunities the role might present. In government, this is not possible. When an election is held, one of the standing candidates will be elected, even if none of them can convince a majority of voters that they are capable of doing the job adequately. This is how democracy works.
It is my earnest conviction that those of us fortunate enough to live in a parliamentary democracy are uniquely privileged to do so; but with privilege comes responsibility. Our forebears called upon their knowledge and experience, their ideas of justice, equality and human dignity, to forge a system in which ordinary people could determine their own destiny through the offices of their chosen representatives. Millions have fought and many of those have died over the subsequent years to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But it is precisely because democracy is flawed that we must all be vigilant, we must all play our part to ensure that the system is not subverted, or corrupted, or diverted from its true purpose as enshrined in Lincoln’s words. Democracy is not our right, granted gratis. Each generation must re-earn that right by using the privilege of suffrage as our forebears intended it to be used. And those who fail to take their responsibility seriously, who trivialise it by voting for the candidate with the winningest smile or the deepest pockets, make mockery of the efforts and intentions of those who bequeathed this privilege to us, and those who subsequently fought and died to preserve it.
Democracy might be the best political system we have, but its frailties and shortcomings render it fragile and vulnerable to subversion. It is an electoral system in which no one gets exactly what they want, but the majority of people get what they deserve. So if you have to vote any time soon, and are of a mind to do so, think seriously about what you are doing: delve deep into the minds of the candidates, apply logic and reason to your deliberations, don’t allow fear to cloud your judgement, don’t let emotion sway your decision; and make the effort to ensure that whoever you vote for will deliver what you feel you deserve, what you believe your country deserves; because if you don’t, you might wind up electing a candidate who will deliver what they who didn’t take their responsibility seriously deserve.