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Wednesday 16 November 2016

This Is Not How Liberty Dies

Not so long ago I would have happily chuckled away at this, secure in the knowledge that for all its imperfections, the older, weirder, but far more functional form of British democracy was clearly superior to the Yankee madness across the pond. Making fun of those more powerful than you is how any civilised society is supposed to work. A certain smug superiority could be justified, at least at the level of jovial, superficial banter between countries with a complex history. A harmless little joke that only offends those who are pathetically easily offended.

Alas, we live in a different and altogether stupider world than the one we had so very recently, but the internet is quick to adapt and summarise the situation.

There have been many knee-jerk reactions written to how it is that Drumpf, a misogynistic pig with about as much talent for diplomacy as a necrophiliac elephant that's just had a cattle prod rammed up its backside, could possibly be elected leader of the free world. Some of them are oh-so temptingly simple to believe.

Ah, so it's really all due to wealth inequality, and not Drumpf's abject racism and misogyny at all really. Alas this theory does not seem to hold water. As this BBC report (well worth reading in its entirety) comparing Drumpf and Brexit makes clear :
In the UK the gap was wide - around three-fifths of graduates voted to remain, while 63% of non-graduates cast a vote for leaving. In the US it was more nuanced - only just over half of college graduates voted for Mrs Clinton and only just over half of non-graduates backed Mr Drumpf. 
Moreover, in other respects the claim that it was the "left behind" who took Mr Drumpf to victory does not match the evidence. In the UK those who voted to leave often had few, if any, educational qualifications, but also tended to be on lower incomes. Around two-thirds of those with incomes of less than £20,000 ($25,000) a year voted to leave, while around three in five of those earning more than £40,000 ($50,000) backed staying in the EU. 
But Mr Drumpf was not particularly successful among low-income voters. In fact, just over half of those with incomes of less than $30,000 (£24,000) voted for Mrs Clinton. Conversely, those on more than $100,000 (£80,000) a year only preferred Mr Drumpf by the narrowest margins. 
Mr Drumpf's campaign messages may have enabled him to reach out to voters with few, if any, qualifications for whom social issues such as immigration are often a particular concern. However, it appears he was less successful at mobilising support among those who might be thought to be economically left behind.
Both Drumpf and Brexit appealed to the older, more racist generation. Both appealed to the less educated, but less so in the case of Drumpf. This is especially surprising - if anything, I would have expected the situation to be reversed. The E.U. is after all a fiendishly complex organisation and it's easy to take its enormous benefits for granted. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that anyone with even a high school primary school nursery level of education could look at this evil cross between an Oompa Loompa and Robert Kilroy Silk and ever think, "yep, that hideous thing up there could be President".

It was absurdly obvious to just about every other country that this was a bad idea - only "American exceptionalism" gave Donald the chance he needed.

So age and racism seem to have played their part (as the new maxim goes, not everyone who voted for Leave/Drumpf was a racist, but everyone who was a racist voted for Leave/Drumpf) but education made only a small difference and income equality practically none.

Then there are the claims that it's all the Democrat party's fault, a claim which, though time will tell, does not look like it stacks up. For starters, Clinton won the popular vote - by a very narrow margin, but a win nonetheless. EDIT : At the final count, by 2.9 million - a sizeable win, in fact a record for winning the popular vote but losing the election.

No, the axis doesn't start from zero. It doesn't matter -  DEAL WITH IT.
Bernie Sander's diehard fans* are even now clamouring that Bernie would have won it and that it's all the Establishment's fault. That doesn't seem to stack up given that Hillary did actually win the popular vote, and as this opinion piece makes clear, it's by no means at all clear that Bernie would have succeeded as well against Drumpf as was often claimed. Bernie may be a very well-intentioned man but he's not the Messiah. Similarly, the idea that third party candidates and disillusionment with Hilary are singularly responsible also look difficult to maintain given her win of the popular vote. It's all too easy to believe a reason with a clear, consistent narrative, but these theories are not substantiated by the facts.

* "Bernie or bust" was always a stupid slogan, given that it implied option B was somehow a sane choice.

It's simply too soon to say what the real causes are - the votes aren't all even all counted yet. No doubt most of these claims will have some merit, but it looks unlikely that there was a single cause. Wealth inequality doesn't seem to have played much of a role; turnout was down but wasn't ultra-low; Hilary may have been disliked but not to the extent popularly supposed; third-party candidates once again didn't really do a great deal; fake news was a thing but doesn't seem likely to be wholly responsible because again Hillary won the popular vote. Which also trounces the idea that it's all politically correct "social justice warriors" who are responsible, with people just being sick of being told what to think, or desperate to kick the Establishment in the proverbial gonads no matter the consequences. None of these really stack up because again, and I insist on emphasising this point, Hillary won the popular vote.

The most disturbing result is that the majority of Drumpf supporters appear to be old white men - the unpleasant prospect that this election was won not by the disenfranchised but by people who are genuinely bigoted at heart, despite reports to the contrary, looks disturbingly real. And that's sad.

Only time will tell if that's the case. There is, however, one overwhelmingly clear lesson that should be obvious to everyone : democracy is complicated.

Oh, we'd like to believe it isn't. It's supposed to be the will of the people and that's the end of it. But it isn't - it never has been and it never will be, because that's fundamentally impossible. Even ancient Athenian democracy was hardly truly direct, happy as the free men of Athens were to ignore slaves and women. The Roman Republic used a complex election process where the votes of the different social classes were weighted differently, with those of the plebs being gradually diluted until it was worth so little that hardly anyone bothered to use their vote. By the end, the vote from the plebs weren't even tallied.

Modern democracy is rather fairer and in some ways simpler : every adult gets an equal-weighted vote. Oh, there are some exceptions like prisoners, but these are generally a very small fraction of the population. But we don't get everyone to vote on every issue because that's a crap idea : it didn't work for the Athenians and it won't work for us.

So the modern solution is (mostly) representative democracy in which we elect people to vote on our behalf. The question then arises as to what we mean by representation. Do we want them to be souless vessels into which we pour our own desires and expect them to pander to our every whim ? Or do we want them to always do whatever they think is best for us, thus representing our interests rather than our desires, regardless of what the electrorate actually wants ? Do we really want them to just express the "will of the people", or do we want them to think more deeply about not just what the people want but why they want it ?

Obviously, the answer is a little from column A and a little from column B. You don't want your representative to hear your opinion on what the precise interest rate should be, but you definitely want them to listen to your pleas to keep the local library open. Some matters are best left to experts and some to generalists. On the expert matters, representatives (who are at least generally more expert than the bulk of the populace) still have to listen to you - they need to know what aspects of life you want improving - but it's largely up to them to figure out how best to accomplish that*. Voters still exercise a more blunt form of power over the details of how officials choose to act by being able to remove them their position come election time, but they have little or no direct control of the day-to-day process.

* This is why I don't like coalition governments. There's always a large degree of negotiation in modern democracies, but in my opinion coalitions shift the balance too far away from the pledged policies in favour of compromise, leaving the voters with no idea what they're actually voting for. This is especially bad when the parties have strong ideological differences, but perhaps more sensible when they're like-minded.

For example, if you claim immigration is out of control, it's the politician's job to figure out if this is really true and how to address it. Maybe it really is out of control - but maybe this is just a scapegoat to explain high unemployment which is actually due to other factors. If so, it's the politician's job to address those factors, not necessarily to cut immigration just because Joe Bloggs thinks it's a good idea when it clearly isn't. Politicians are (to an extent) supposed to get you what you need, not what you want.

It's a bit like calling a plumber. You may have your suspicions as to why the house was flooded and you should certainly point out the blocked sink, but you'd also expect the plumber to notice other factors. Like the local river bursting its banks.

What we're seeing with the rise of Drumpf, Brexit, and to some extent Jeremy Corbyn, is a shift in the expectation that politicians will do right by us toward the simpler, cruder notion that they should bloody well do as they're told. We've ended up with this bizarre form of unpopular popularists - especially bizarre since Hillary Clinton is more popular than Donald Drumpf. They say things a lot of people would like to see done with little or no regard for whether those things would be a good idea, or much in the way of searching for the deeper underlying causes which, if addressed, would be just as effective at addressing people's concerns.

First, the fact that Hillary won the popular vote but Drumpf handily won the election shows us yet again that modern democracy is complicated. Just like in the last UK general election, where we saw massive differences in the numbers of seats gained by different parties with similar numbers of votes. You have to campaign in the system you've got, and if there's one clear lesson here, it's that Hillary, the Green party and UKIP alike all failed to do that - while the SNP succeeded triumphantly. Plausibly, Drumpf's victory is less about moral or inspiring messages and more about pure political strategy devoid of any ideological cause. Anyone claiming that democracy shows you nice and clearly what the "will of the people" really simply does not understand the process.

Then there's the fact that not everyone votes. Much has been made of the non-voters by those on both sides of the issues, but the reality is quite simple : we don't know how those people would have voted. Presuming they're happy with whatever the result is is nightmarishly stupid when, for example, practically every poll shows that most people are opposed to Brexit. The only way to be certain of their intentions - the ONLY way - is to have compulsory voting with an abstain option. That would explicitly allow people to declare that they're satisfied with the result either way. Anything else and you're just guessing from your own biases, which is not remotely sensible.

What we've also got an awful lot of is, "you're only complaining because you don't like the result", as though it had somehow hitherto been considered entirely normal to accept the result of a vote no matter what.

Votes do not change issues of moral principle. If you genuinely believe abortion is murder, then a vote legalising it won't stop you protesting it - and no-one would expect you to. If you don't like who wins an election, you don't stop disliking them - and no-one expects you to suddenly become OK with their plans you might find morally reprehensible. So yeah, I'm complaining because I don't like Drumpf and Brexit, but would I expect their supporters to just shut up if the votes had gone the other way ? Oh hell no.

One of the videos somewhat popular to share in the wake of the court decision that Brexit requires a parliamentary vote is the following :

What utter bollocks. The independent judiciary is a cornerstone of liberty, not a means of a suppressing it. The same people crying out that Brexit is the will of the people are the same ones denying Parliament the right to vote on it. Do you idiots not understand that what you're doing is voting for tyranny by allowing leaders to overthrow laws without due process ? That is how liberty dies. Not through an extremely careful system of checks and balances refined over many centuries, but through the complete and reckless disregard for lawmaking through representative democracy - it's not supposed to be about tyranny through majority. So no, I will not shut up because I do not like the result. I will keep speaking, loudly and often, because that above all things is the whole basis of a democratic system of government. People who claim that democracy is dying because other people have the right to protest shouldn't be allowed to handle sharp objects.

The charge is sometimes made that people don't contest the results of general elections as strongly as they do the Brexit referendum. This is true, but for very good reasons : the voting system is completely different. In a UK general election we choose our representatives - we do not make binding decisions advisory reccommendations so that what should be a highly complex decision (what should be the nature of Britain to the European Union ?) is reduced to an absurdly over-simplified binary choice (should Britain be a member of the European Union ?). We vote knowing that, while our representatives have made specific promises they should try to keep as much as possible, we also know that isn't always possible. We expect to get something close to what they promised but only fools think the elected government will get to do whatever it wants - it's rare indeed that a government has a majority that strong. And when we don't like the government we can vote for someone else in a general election - as opposed to in a referendum, where it seems some people vote for the opposite option just to give the government a bloody nose, apparently stupidly oblivious to the fact that the vote has frickin' consequences. And in a general election vote, we damn well do not expect marginal victories to give the government a free hand to do what it likes.

Then there's the issue of freedom from versus freedom to. Should people get the freedom to inflict their lunacy on others or should other people be granted freedom from their lunacy having any impact on their lives ? Should they be free to discriminate on the basis of race and gender or should they be free from having to suffer this ? I overwhelmingly favour the latter. The voters in Britain and America have - marginally at best - chosen the former.

Which is the main weakness of democracy and why Drumpf's election is utterly batshit terrifying, if it wasn't obviously so already. Voters can and do choose lunatic options. The will of the people can be bloody stupid. Have we not, perhaps, let this go too far ? You let children bang their heads and scrape their knees, but you don't let them wander off the edge of a cliff or eat dog poop. The bitter reality is that large numbers of people have no idea what's good for them - because they're misinformed, lied to, or just plain idiots.

What we're witnessing here is the strange development of unpopular popularists. Drumpf lost the popular vote and is largely reviled as a human being. Yet he's undeniably a popularist in that he'll say whatever it takes to get elected, regardless of the consequences. The fact he lost the popular vote doesn't change the fact he said what he said to win votes. That's (one reason) why he's terrifying : he'll do whatever it takes to win popularity even if that course of action is bloody stupid. Even if he doesn't believe what he's saying half the time - and he changes position to a degree which is scarcely credible - that doesn't make the situation any better : rather, it threatens four years or more of Brexit-style nonsensical decisions, and that's a best-case scenario.

This, then, is how liberty dies : when democracy becomes tyranny by majority and no better than mob rule. When the right to protest is derided as going against the will of the people. When decisions are taken solely to give the people what they want without any regard for what they actually need, with no attempt to understand the deeper reasons for their genuine concerns. When the media are allowed to get away with telling outright, provable lies plastered on giant billboards and busses. When absurd conspiracy theories are allowed to run rampant and free speech is taken as meaning you can say whatever the hell you want in any and all circumstances regardless of the consequences. When bullshit becomes so prevalent that the Oxford dictionary declares "post-truth" to be the word of the year. When freedom to supersedes freedom from at any cost. When all attempts at dialogue are abandoned and democratic votes are given absurd, absolute power. When the idea of negotiation and compromise are abandoned and the advice of experts is held as some elitist plot, and the knee-jerk responses of the masses are allowed free reign, and the checks and balances of a careful, moderate system are labelled as enemies of the people.

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