It’s fashionable to claim there is “no such thing” as democracy. The view ranges from the moderate complaint of paltry electoral choice to radical claims that we are utterly in the grip of dark and unaccounted powers. Cue everything from apathy to Chomsky-esque polemics about the “manufacture of consent”, capitalism’s “false consciousness”, etcetera.
But if the ideal of democracy really is flawed, it’s perhaps for a far baser reason: we are by nature essentially tribal. We do not live rational individual lives. Democracy rests on the hope that we dispassionately evaluate policy, consequence, and precedent – and cast a vote accordingly. In truth, the minority who attempt this democratic duty are dubbed “swing voters” and made to hear it as an insult from “committed” party members; it's tantamount to betrayal.
Proud claims of being “dyed-in-the-wool Labour” or “true Blue” or “from a long line of Liberals” are all just admissions of tribal identity - be they unwitting or honest. Who cares about underlying ideology! When supposedly opposed manifestos are more or less indistinguishable, when all parties converge on a broadly liberal Weltanschauung, there is all the more reason to resort to the basic strategy of tribal differentiation: Attack the Other. My party is the retainer of the True and the Good; yours is just Evil; their very name is an insult. The left is particularly good at this: think of what it means to call someone a Tory, if you aren’t one yourself.
Everybody needs to belong, sure, but what’s surprising is how little it takes to define a thing we feel we can belong to. Apart from demonising the other, a clan only needs some trivial self-identifier so that even the most half-witted member can recognise his own. Colour is the timeless choice; gangs throughout history have made totemic use of a colour for their members to rally to. In Constantinople in the sixth century, Green and Blue gangs of chariot-race fans virtually destroyed the city with their running battles. Red and Blue have been perennial opponents in the ghettos of Los Angeles and electoral campaigns all over the Western world. Contenders wear colour-coded ties on television so that we know who our man is; it means we don’t have to listen critically or ask ourselves why we belong ideologically.
A tribe sticks together – that’s what makes it a tribe. An election is a quick tally of each one’s membership. Those that defect are implicitly disparaged, whereas they are perhaps closest to fulfilling the idealised duty of democracy - of choosing the fittest contender, without prejudice. If free thought is a predicate of the democratic ideal, it is incompatible with committed party membership. That is democracy's dilemma.
There are some minor efforts to mitigate this. Websites, for example, that promise to suggest a favoured party based on one's answers to blind multiple-choice policy comparisons. Interestingly, reactions to this are of the genre “thank God, I turned out to be Green not UKIP!” - just like an adoptee into a Catholic family, on discovering their true parentage, expressing relief that they turned out not to be Jewish.
Democracy is a bloodless theatre in which rival tribes play out their battles. Churchill called it the worst form of government but better than the rest; an acknowledgement of our human impulses – imperfect, immutable, irrational, tribal. Adam Smith, talking more generally of enlightened liberalism, said a touch more pessimistically that the state contains its own ruin. But even though there’s something rather ugly and distasteful about elections, it’s better to see and accept them for what they are - manifestations of our basic nature - rather than rant that democracy doesn’t exist. Embrace the vulgarity.
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