How to say democracy doesn’t work without actually saying it

Sacred cows can be milked, but they can’t be slaughtered – such is the pitiful nature of today’s political discourse.

The casino will open on 12 December

One of those bovine creatures is the NHS: one can bemoan its difficulties, lack of funds, shortage of qualified medical staff, overlong waiting times – whatever. But, on pain of hitting the career buffers, one can’t say there’s something wrong with the very idea of socialised medicine.

The NHS thus leaves the domain of serious discussion and enters one of totemistic worship, with reason excommunicated.

That was evident in yesterday’s debate. Every time Corbyn accused Johnson of planning to do awful things to the NHS, the PM reacted the way St Athanasius would have reacted to charges of Arianism.

The same goes for democracy. You can point out all sorts of symptomatic problems, but never the underlying systemic one. Finding anything wrong with the very notion of indiscriminate, unqualified, universal suffrage is strictly off limits.

Daniel Finkelstein illustrates this simple rule in today’s article This Isn’t the Election Politicians Think It Is.

Drawing on statistical data and on the material gathered in the book Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Lord Finkelstein proves that most voters vote for spurious reasons. They know little about the candidates, even less about their policies and next to nothing about the issues on which the elections are decided.

For example, only one per cent of the respondents to a current poll have heard of the suppressed Russian report that’s very much in the news. And 42 per cent truthfully admit they haven’t noticed a single election story over the past few days.

Half the respondents have never heard of Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, which means they don’t know this rank communist is the eminence grise of the Labour Party. Only 18 per cent can place Dominic Cummings’s name, and he’s believed to pull Johnson’s strings.

“So,” asks Lord Finkelstein not unreasonably, “if people aren’t following much, what determines election results? Do elections actually hold politicians to account at all?”

No, is the answer to that, if one reads Democracy for Realists, which analyses reams of statistical data. Evidently most people hold contradictory or even mutually exclusive views on many political subjects.

Nor do they know what the politicians’ views on these subjects are. For example, half of German voters didn’t know whether a party called Die Linke was on the left or right. That’s like not knowing whether the Brexit Party supports Leave or Remain: Die Linke means The Left in German.

Here in Britain many people support nationalisation, but oppose Labour policy on this issue because they don’t know nationalisation is Labour policy. Similarly, they are indifferent to Johnson’s promise to increase state spending because they don’t realise this represents a dramatic change of Tory policy.

The book shows, numbers in hand, that policies don’t really affect how people vote. Nor does the government’s record.

“The problem,” writes Lord Finkelstein, “is that voters aren’t very good at working out who to blame when things go wrong or who to credit when they go right”.

And they judge whether things have gone right or wrong almost exclusively on the basis of their income over the past two quarters – not even over the lifetime of the current parliament.

Other factors coming into play have nothing to do with politics at all. For example, a natural disaster, such as the current floods, damages the incumbent, while England’s success in a football tournament benefits him by increasing the ‘feel-good’ factor. 

Another important, practically decisive, factor is the herd instinct: people vote a certain way because that’s how they believe the PLUs (People Like Us) vote now or have voted traditionally.

Since the previous generations of one’s family usually qualify as PLUs, Lord Finkelstein concludes that: “This election could be decided by the extent to which grandparents are left spinning in their graves.”

Yet to me this isn’t the conclusion of the argument, but its starting point. Lord Finkelstein doesn’t seem to be aware of this, but his informative article punches an irreparable hole in what I earlier described as “indiscriminate, unqualified, universal suffrage”.

He shows persuasively that most people cast their votes for utterly frivolous reasons, reducing elections to a roll of the dice. Because a chap hasn’t had a rise in the past six months, and because his Grandpa voted for Harold Wilson, he may vote in a communist (well, Corbyn’s) government without realising that’s what he’s doing.

A few years later he’ll look at the smoking ruins of everything Britain used to be and will perhaps change his vote. That is, provided he realises that the destruction has been caused by certain policies – and, for that matter, assuming he’ll be allowed to vote at all.

Democracy etymologically presupposes self-government, with the demos trusting its most qualified representatives to look after its interests for a few years. But if, as Lord Finkelstein shows so well, the demos is manifestly unqualified to act in that capacity, doesn’t that undermine the whole concept?

His findings tally with both my observations and thoughts on this subject. Unlike me, however, he isn’t prepared to draw the conclusion his facts demand. That’s shoddy, timorous thinking.

Daisy the Sacred Cow is so lovely, and she moos so cutely, that she’s impossible to slaughter. And if a politician or a pundit dares to suggest such a thing, he’ll instantly stop being a politician or a pundit. Lord Finkelstein knows this very well.  

16 thoughts on “How to say democracy doesn’t work without actually saying it”

  1. “Other factors coming into play have nothing to do with politics at all. For example, a natural disaster, such as the current floods, damages the incumbent, while England’s success in a football tournament benefits him by increasing the ‘feel-good’ factor.”

    Reminds me of a book I browsed (Fun City) some months ago where John Lindsay, an embattled Mayor of New York City, won the 1969 mayor’s race due in part to the wins of the World Series by the New York Mets and the Super Bowl by the Jets.

    1. It’s really a universal problem, isn’t it? And yet, in spite of all the evidence, franchise is constantly expanded just about everywhere. In Britain 16-year-olds will get the vote within a couple of years, and France isn’t far behind. Head of political science at Cambridge has even suggested — seriously — that the voting age should be lowered to six. Actually, on the evidence I touched upon, this might not make a whole lot of difference.

  2. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, we have the so called donkey vote. Apparently quite a percentage of voters don’t want the fine for not voting, and want to get it over and done with, simply run down the ballot paper; “1.2.3…Done! They are all the same these politicians, in it for their own pockets”, goes the thinking without contemplating the wider destruction that might follow certain policies.
    So the various parties hope to get to the top of the list as it’s a random decision on printing the form.

  3. It’s more a case of being afraid what might replace it should it become widely discredited. Where in the world has a better voting system? Give an example of a non democratic government that isn’t oppressive. Why did the semi-democratic system of yesteryear fail, because it did fail.

    Be careful, Alex! This is the road to oppression.

    1. An example of a non-democratic government that isn’t oppressive? How about Britain throughout most of her history? Actually, according to the think tank Freedom House, there wasn’t a single democracy (they mean in the modern sense of the word) anywhere in the West until 1900. So you either have to believe that the entire history of the West is oppressive or, better, give this matter as much thought and study as it deserves.

    1. Let’s just say that some qualifications are highly desirable. Property is one, education is another. Voting age should be increased. No representation without taxation is another criterion. A quick test to check basic familiarity with key issues wouldn’t be a bad idea. The overall objective should be limit the franchise to those capable of voting responsibly – in parallel with empowering competing organs of government, such as the crown and the Lords. Alas, all those good ideas have one thing on common: they’re never going to happen. We’re too far gone for that.

      1. You say that, but I know a lot of people who would hold that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average Leave voter.

        1. I’m on safe ground then because I’m certainly not an AVERAGE Leave voter. I’m sure, however, that after a five-minute conversation with me the towering intellects of your acquaintance will feel richly vindicated: there goes another moronic Leaver.

        2. I would have thought, considering the issue, the best argument against democracy would come from a Remain voter who wanted a second referendum because they didn’t agree with the outcome of the first democratically held one, or hadn’t you thought of that before writing? There are quite a few of them around.

  4. Alex you’re assuming that the removal of democracy would usher in a conservative government – what if we couldn’t remove Corbyn?

      1. How would you test it? If you’re going off education then we will more than likely end up with Labour given the over whelming propensity of the left to be educated.

  5. “Head of political science at Cambridge has even suggested — seriously — that the voting age should be lowered to six.”

    Remind me never to apply for admission to Cambridge. Well, probably Oxford for that matter too.

  6. One thing that is possibly encouraging is that there is more political discussion going on now the internet is here, from elementary to advanced and all stations between, but the state will inevitably attempt to neuter that. For example, a group on a Facebook page may have commenters at all levels of competency and current affairs knowledge, so contributors or readers can often learn something they weren’t aware of, or have their hearsay assumptions put into question, so they have become a form of hustings in a way, without the candidate being present. The problem there, however, is again the same one as the media, the propagation of false facts, statistics or information. But at least there is debate, which is bypassed on the MSM as too dangerous. Ironically, there is more debate going on in this context than there is in parliament, and politicians are totally annexed from it in the Westminster club. There are now many more voters who know that the fourth estate has been fatally corrupted because the web has pushed it all into the open. There are plenty of groups on social media who fight ideas out either cleanly or dirtily, and it is a bear-pit at times, but at least people are talking and questioning, even if they want to claw each others eyes out sometimes. So the complacency we’ve (forgive the pun) laboured under for the last three decades is now being questioned, this blog is one such example. Perhaps there is hope, even if at the moment it’s just like standing on the Calais beach at night trying to spot a lighted candle on the edge of the white cliffs of Dover? Then again, I could be wrong of course and we’d better prepare for our Huxleyan future.

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