Anyone who is a bit of a smart arse, like me, will recognise the quote above. It’s from Winston Churchill and it is about Democracy.
You would be forgiven for thinking the full quote is ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’, as that is how the punchline is usually delivered. In fact the quote is
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried from time to time
I remember learning about democracy at school. The ancient Athenians, I was told, had the purest form of democracy because literally all the people were called to vote on the major issues. It was an entirely participatory democracy, not a representative one. The voice of the people spoke directly on all the issues (so long as ‘the people’ only meant rich Greek men, of course).
We don’t do this any more because it would be impractical… but of course, now, with the internet and our clever phones, we probably could do it again if we really wanted to. We could also, when it comes to it, do any number of other things to make decisions which would like be way more representative than what we do do. Why couldn’t we do sampling to decide, why couldn’t we analyse Google’s search logs? We might not trust Google, but we don’t trust MPs either.
When I talk about polling or sampling, I don’t mean the sort of polling where Rupert in Piers Rupert and Tristan PR asks two mates what they think about designer handbags and then sells it to a newspaper as a story (“66% of women like handbags”). I mean honest to goodness polling. Ask a scientifically balanced control group their opinion and then do that. It’d probably still end up being more fair than what we do now, and a damn site more practical, and cheap. After all, that’s how they decide what’s on the telly.
The obvious concerns is that we wouldn’t have any safeguards against tampering. Well why not, we don’t think people tamper with general elections now do we?
The truth is that we do already govern by polling. Not officially perhaps but political parties often using polling / sampling to set policies and decide agendas. This is how they figure out which laws they’ll pass and how to spend your money. But most people would shy away from it being a formal mechanism (polling suggests).
Why? Because it’s not what we’ve done in the past. And we must always do what we’ve done in the past.
As I see it, the most fascinating example of this very conservative bias towards the past is US politics. Americans agree on nothing. They are bitterly divided on almost everything. Unless it was said more than 100 years ago, or by a Kennedy or by Dr King. In which case, everyone agrees on it.
This reverence for the past is amazing. Especially for a country so wedded to the future. The American Dream is about tomorrow but the American consensus is firmly about the past.
Of course, revolutionary America was gifted with many fine men, many great public speakers and many heroic soldiers. If only the leaders of today who match these qualities could gain the same respect.
And as we look at the hideous turmoil in Egypt, can we ever imagine that the statesmen, the soldiers and common people will be revered as such decisive change makers? I certainly hope so, but they should not be forging that future based on the model of dead presidents or prime ministers from years past. Where the army can remove elected officials in the name of democracy, perhaps we need to think more originally about what it means to be a democracy.
Now that we can all talk to each other all the time, couldn’t there be and shouldn’t there be a more challenging re-evaluation of what it means to operate a society. Why cling so fervently to rulling through putting folded pieces of paper in metal boxes?
Let’s look for one of these forms of government that is less bad that democracy to try from time to time, or rather lets look at a version of democracy which deliver fairness but also the progress needed by these countries who are growing up in an era of big data, or mass communication, of mass participation and of political despair.