We need democracy because people can be wrong

Sun 19 Feb 2017

The people are always right. No? Ah, but then they vote for leaders like Donald Trump and… Oh well, we can add to the list, internationally and nationally!

Does this mean that democracy is a mistake? No, quite the contrary! But we have to hack away at some stubborn centuries-old shrubbery in order to see the foundation of this clearly enough.

One of the greatest myths about democracy — started largely by the Left in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and continued with a twist by the Right into the 21st — relates to the most common rationale behind it. The people are always right, claimed the Left in the past. The market, or the consumer, is always right, claims the capitalist Right today, tweaking the Leftist argument cleverly.

Between them, they justify democracy as a form of political organisation based on human beings being basically ‘always right’. Very little in the past — from the picnics at public hangings outside London jails to the genocides of colonisation and Nazism — justifies such confidence in people being always right. Over centuries, people have been horribly wrong at times.

Majority’s mistrust

Way back in 1882, Henrik Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright, wrote An Enemy of the People (adapted into a film, Ganashatru , by Satyajit Ray in his last years) around one aspect of this perception, arguing that one needs to be morally and intellectually ahead of ‘people’ in order to be right. Ideas and ‘truths’, Ibsen suggests in this play, get dated, habitual and platitudinous, and hence the majority, which lives habitually by grasping on to platitudes, tends to mistrust the truly ethical and intellectual individual. In other words, if you are Jesus, you risk getting crucified.

But even this argument is faulty: a lot of intelligent people can go horribly wrong. Cleverness does not necessarily save you from mistakes, and even ethics can be twisted in painful ways: there are many in the U.S. who claim to be ‘pro-life’ and hence will criminalise abortions, but they spare little thought (and no money) for the plight of women forced into unhappy pregnancies or the future of poor, abandoned and unwanted children.

History is full of brilliant people — ‘great’ leaders, scientists, thinkers, planners — who helped destroy a village, a nation or an age. Sometimes it appears that intelligence, on its own, merely provides a person with an easier ability to make excuses for his or her mistakes, and hoodwink others in the process.

So if people — whether as individual or group, entrepreneur or consumer, tribe or republic, nation or political party, king or voter — seem to make horrible mistakes much of the time, what hope is there for democracy? Why believe in democracy at all?

Actually, one can argue that the main justification of democracy is exactly this: that anyone — ordinary voter or monarch — can be wrong about any given matter. The ability to make mistakes is human — neither power nor riches nor education can eradicate it, though self-awareness might help. A king or dictator can make a mistake as well as the majority of voters in an election who vote in a party or a leader with bad plans. But in a democracy, after a period, during the next elections, such mistakes can be corrected.

A democracy, in other words, allows us to regularly check the mistakes we make — bloodlessly — and correct them when their disastrous consequences become finally clear to us. This is far more difficult, and costly, to do in any other kind of (autocratic) regime, whether justified in worldly or ‘divine’ terms.

Living with one’s opponents

Democracies are not necessary because people are always right: if we were certain of being right all the time, we would not need any political organisation at all, let alone a democracy. We would be gods. Democracy is necessary because people — groups and individuals — can be wrong. Hence, in a democracy one learns to live with one’s opponents, not exile or murder them. This is a political version of the fact that in life we always live with others — or with the Other, the self who is not and cannot be (by definition) entirely yourself.

Democracy is the only political option that allows us to mitigate the effects of our own mistakes, and the mistakes of others. Democracy is necessary not because the people are always right, but because human beings are often wrong. We forget this only at great peril to ourselves and others.


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