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Democracy Bites Back


new internationalist
issue 188 - October 1988

Democracy bites back
To a lot of people democracy is a sham: just the West's cosy word to describe its own beauty.
But Jan Simon argues that the best way to beat the New Right is to take it at its word.

Take four words: 'I believe in democracy'. Now imagine them issuing from the lips of your country's leader. And from your Leader of the Opposition. Now from the leaders of your country's strongest ally and its most notorious enemy.

My guess is that this barely takes any imagination at all. The words probably fall most glibly from the lips of Ronald Reagan. But everybody from David Lange to Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney to Bob Hawke, falls over themselves to be seen as champions of democracy. Even Mikhail Gorbachev is now nailing his rather different colours to that mast.

I must admit that up to now I have never had much inclination to join in this chorus. The word 'democracy' was always too tainted. Hijacked by successive White Houses to describe anything that corresponded with US interests, democracy became a sick and twisted concept, oozing with hypocrisy. Democracy became Park of South Korea, Somoza of Nicaragua and Marcos of the Philippines - corrupt, autocratic leaders of regimes that bore no relation even to the US model of democracy.

Meanwhile, in our own backyards, democracy meant people being pulled out of their torpor to vote once every three or four years but having little or no say at other times on any of the issues that most affected their lives. The people who most needed a change in the system - the poor, the blacks, the Hispanics, the unemployed - didn't turn out to vote. Successive governments came and went, whether conservative or socialist, Democrat or Republican, and very little changed - the same kind of white men remained at the top.

People developed a healthy cynicism about politicians: 'You can't believe a word they say': 'There's no difference between them'; 'They're only in it for the power and prestige'. Above all money bought votes, especially in the US, where a candidate has to be a millionaire even to conceive of running for President and pretty damned rich to seek elected office anywhere in the Union.

Faced with all this, how could any radical worthy of the name be enthusiastic about democracy? And the 1980s have presented us with even more galling expropriations of the idea than those that went before. Ronald Reagan called it to arms, inscribing its name on an insane number of new nuclear missiles. Margaret Thatcher demanded more democracy in trade unions while at the same time simply disbanding those popular local councils which presented the greatest threat to her interests. Bob Hawke came to power amid high hopes but then promptly turned his back on a promise to stop uranium mining and Aboriginal exploitation.

Yet after all this I find I can say with more conviction than ever before: 'I believe in democracy, too'. That's partly out of tactical awareness. The values and politics of the Right are so dominant at the moment that those of us who don't share them can't just hang around patiently waiting for a sea change - especially those of us in Australia and Aotearoa (NZ), where there no longer seems to be an alternative political party. We have to find some way of regaining the high ground. And the best way to do that is to turn the Right's guns back on itself. They want democracy. Then that's what we'll give them - and in spades.

This may sound cynical: the use of democracy as an electoral weapon, the most expedient battering-ram to hand. And, to be honest, maybe it started out that way in my own mind. But the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that democracy is the key issue of our time.

Let's go back to a famous definition of the word, that by Abraham Lincoln: 'government of the people by the people for the people'. A true democracy would not bear much relation to current Western political systems. It might take something from one or two of them - the US's election of many public servants, perhaps, the Australian idea of compulsory voting or the West German model of proportional representation.

A real democracy would allow people to determine not only which party held power but also how their workplace was run and what services were available in their local community. A real democracy would make State funds available for political campaigning - and allow no private contributions. A real democracy would ensure that control of the print and electronic media did not rest entirely in the hands of those individuals rich enough to purchase them as playthings - who naturally have a vested interest in resisting social change. A real democracy would have freedom of information at all levels of government so that people knew what outrages were being committed in their name.

And, yes, it would have a fairer voting system. At the moment even the democratic socialist parties in the English-speaking countries accept the first-past-the-post electoral system whereby a party with a minority of votes can achieve absolute power. They continue to resist all campaigns for proportional representation on the grounds that they would find themselves restrained in government by tiny parties holding the balance of power.

I went along with this for many years: given the choice between a fairer society and a fairer voting system, I said, you obviously have to go for the former. But I've changed my mind. Again the first reason is strategic: the first-past-the-post system seems in practice to have made it impossible for a Leftist party to step outside the consensus and present radical new ideas and initiatives. Look at the way Michael Dukakis is forced to compete on the same ground as George Bush, trying to prove his toughness'. Look at the craven submission to right-wing economic policies of the Labor governments in Australia and Aotearoa. And look at the parallel abandonment of an alternative vision by Neil Kinnock's Labour Party in Britain.

In a first-past-the-post election progressive parties end up sacrificing everything to the middle ground in the hope of winning power. Proportional representation would make that pointless: each party would have an interest in demonstrating its difference rather than its similarity. Radically different parties such as the Greens and perhaps a feminist party would gain a foothold and an influence in parliament. Left-wing socialists would at last be able to vote for a party which represented their views. Voters would have real choice and there would be much more meaningful debate.

It would certainly mean that a single party would have little chance of absolute power. But in these days of New Right dominance that doesn't seem like such an awful thing. Frankly the idea of a left-wing political party winning an election and implementing revolutionary changes in society seems more like idle fantasy with every passing day. And what left-wing government would not have been improved by having to come to terms with the demands of a Green or a feminist party anyway?

There is another vital reason why we should all be reclaiming the concept of democracy. This is because it may be the shortest possible route to social justice and equality. What we seek is a society in which people have more say, more control over what happens to them. It is at least worth considering that the best way to move towards such a society might be by winning people a little more say here, a little more control there by means of a campaign for more democracy. Each piece of classified information that we force governments into releasing, every ounce of participation that we wrench back from the central State,will tend to empower and politicize people - give them more understanding of the forces that shape their lives. And every tiny change will add to the momentum. Democracy as revolution: this is a dangerous idea.

And the best thing of all about it is that conservatives would tie themselves into knots trying to oppose our campaign. Because, you see, we all believe in democracy, don't we?

Jan Simon is a writer and lawyer currently based in West Berlin.

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New Internationalist issue 188 magazine cover This article is from the October 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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