As the Alternative Vote campaign dies its death, it's notable that few during it got around to asking the most basic question: what is democracy for? We assume we know the answer: to chose a leader by popular consent, of course!
That's certainly a part of it. Yet in our modern fixation with pluralism, representation, and minority rights, we escalate the multitude of competing voices while increasing the demand for each to be equally heard. Worthy perhaps - though there are limits. You can't double the size of a rowdy family, double the demand that they all agree on which TV programme to watch, and double each one's right to hold the remote control. It just gets silly. And noisy.
Meanwhile - amidst the demand for each last voice to be heard and each preference to be counted - there's something supposedly magical about "50%". Something crushing and decisive. If I have 50.1% of the vote, I'm allowed to tell approximately-half-of-everyone to go and stuff it. Whereas if I have 49.9%, it's outrageous of me to tell approximately-half-of-everyone to go and stuff it.
Why? There is surely nothing morally transformative about 0.2%. Its only possible value is in its symbolism. And symbolism can be a legitimate cause, but there's surely a more potent symbol in winning - than in a 0.2% advantage. When one sprinter out of ten finishes a fraction of a second ahead we applaud him - and immediately forget the nine runners up. We certainly don't add up their performances. Because if we do, we get the wrong answer (e.g. Ed Milliband.)
So it's not really the numbers that count. Much of Athenian democracy was in fact random, a lottery.
What democracy is really for is getting rid of leaders. The disposal of incompetents. Or of tyrants. The pro-democracy protesters in Egypt are actually anti-Mubarak protesters. In Libya they are anti-Gaddafi protesters. They don't give a fig about Proportional Representation or the Alternative Vote. They want a fair race, but more than that they want 4 year terms, not 40 year terms. Neither Proportional Representation nor the Alternative Vote offer a method to topple the unworthy. In a democracy like ours, they would only provide further opportunity for those who might gain power through lukewarm legitimacy and second-best mundanity.
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