These have been heady days for democracy. Last week, the British Prime Minister has indicated the path in which she sees Brexit taking. Secondly, on Friday Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the USA. Thirdly, on Tuesday, as a result of a legal challenge by an ordinary citizen, the British Government’s desire to trigger article 50 (which will formally begin Britain’s withdrawal from the EU) without parliamentary approval has been deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court. Finally, we have been introduced to a new word, ‘post-truth’, which means that the line between truth and lies is now so faint that it can’t be seen. The first two events highlight a malaise in democracy, the third indicates that all is not lost and the fourth point leaves us all confused and uneasy.
The die is cast. Brexit has a popular mandate and will soon have a legal basis. President Trump won the necessary number of votes in the electoral college. While many have questioned the narrowness of the majority in favour of Brexit at the referendum and many frequently point out that Trump did not win the popular vote, there can be no denying that both have won by the rules and, as such, they deserve our critical solidarity as do all elected politicians.
So where is the malaise?
It has frequently been pointed out that while some have been voting out of political conviction, others have been casting their vote against the political establishment. In the case of both Brexit and the USA , whole swathes of the country have felt unheard, unrepresented and disenfranchised and the only way they have been able to protest is to vote against the establishment’s recommendation. It is also a vote of desperation. Even though the cause or the person for whom the ‘disenfranchised’ voted embraces some disagreeable and unacceptable policies, these are considered unimportant alongside the fact that the disenfranchised believe they are being heard and taken seriously. Voting is not simply a rational action – human beings are not simply rational creations. Voting requires a dialogue between the head and the heart.
For too long these groups have been alienated and patronised by the political classes. They have been ‘done unto’ rather than brought into conversation and their intelligence and creativity have been ignored. In his farewell speech, President Obama recognised this and it is clear that he was speaking about himself as well as others when he said,
For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.
President Obama was specifically talking about the USA, but these words reflect the situation in the UK. The outcome is Brexit, as it currently stands, and President Trump. There is a deep malaise in our democratic institutions.
We are where we are, but there is much work to be done, not just by our politicians but by all of us. There is a need to break out of our ‘bubbles.’ There is a need to break out of our island mentality and be inspired, rather than threatened, by what is beyond our walls.
We need to help our politicians develop a language and vision which embraces the ‘other’, so that even those who disagree with or vote against a policy will feel that they are not alienated from the political system but are confident that their voice has been heard and taken seriously.
There also needs to be a vigorous challenge of the post-truth culture which have been marks of recent elections. However the term is dressed up, ‘post-truth’ is an attempt to mislead and make lying respectable. Maybe as a first step there could be a working group, drawn from a wide cross-section of society, which would scrutinise and guide in the ethics of political campaigning.
One sign of hope for UK’s democratic institutions is the challenge posed by an ordinary citizen of the Government’s intention to trigger article 50 without parliamentary support. And the ordinary citizen was proved right.
So, there is work to be done. We are living in perilous times that pose challenges to the moral and political fabric of our tired, fearful and divided society. But challenges open up new possibilities and fresh visions and they can raise up people of vision and energy. Without vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29.18). And where there is no vision, there is no hope.(George Washington Carver).
Who is up for the challenge?