Do you really believe in democracy?

Saying “I’d rather not live in a democracy” is one of those Opinions You’re Not Allowed To Have, and if you do have it, you had better not ever mention it in civilised company. However, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t really believe in democracy, and they’re getting worse and worse at hiding it. I am a member of the Labour party, and to me it appears that both sides of the current divide have a growing lack of respect for democracy.

On the one hand, you have Team Corbyn, who believe that following the democratic consensus on anything at all, rather than your own belief, makes you a sell-out and a ‘weather vane’. The general public believe the current system of benefits is too generous to those who do not wish to work. Instead of accepting this basic premise, and coming at it with a Labour solution and Labour spin, they reject it outright. To tackle the problem as I suggested, is now known as ‘trying to out-Tory the Tories’. The same is true of immigration. The majority of the electorate believe that immigration has been too high in the recent past. Instead of accepting the general principle, and thinking how we can slowly shift the opinion towards a more left wing attitude through a compromise and left wing solutions to the problem, we must insist that there are not problems with immigration, and to say otherwise is ‘to out-UKIP UKIP’.

On the other hand, you have Team Smith. Owen Smith has said that we need to have a second referendum on whether to accept the final deal on brexit or to remain in the EU. The fundamental idea is that the largest democratic mandate that was ever given in UK history did not give ‘an opinion with which I disagree’, it gave ‘the wrong opinion’.

Now, you may think, ‘wait a second, are you saying we should just take the average opinion on every issue and run with it? That’s just populism, not politics”. I am not advocating this. The difference between populism and my opinion, and what I see other people doing is respect for the democratic opinion. If the public says ‘we think X on immigration’, your starting point must not be that they only think this because they are morons who just believe that because the corrupt Mainstream Media (who we all know are both simultaneously filled entirely with lefty PC types who hate the right and have a right wing bias against anyone left-wing) told them so, and the real problem is that they aren’t an enlightened visionary like you, who is immune to such media spin.

I have repeatedly read articles and comments complaining that the public just didn’t understand the EU vote and so we shouldn’t listen to it. In fact, some of the more honest people will write that the public was always going to be too stupid to vote on such issues, so we shouldn’t have had the vote. Others will point to a poll that said that the general public thinks that immigrants make up 20% of the population, but it’s really 10% (both figures invented), and therefore anyone who has any problem with immigration must be ignorant and their complaints can be swept under the rug.

As I see it, there are two approaches to the public when they disagree with you: the first is to accept that people may have come to that decision because they have experienced things you haven’t, and maybe they’re not an idiot. You can treat them with respect and try and come to a compromise, or make an honest attempt to convert them to your opinion. The other is to treat their opinion as one of bad faith.

It reminds me of a psychology talk I once attended. The speaker pointed out that when we first meet someone with a different opinion, we assume that they haven’t got access to the information we have. No reasonable person who knew what we knew could disagree with us. If we find out that they, in fact, do have access to the same information, the second assumption is of their stupidity. The only way someone with access to the same information as you could come to a different conclusion is surely if they’re just too thick to process the information. Finally, when we realise that our ‘opponent’ is both well informed and intelligent, we go to option three: they’re a bad person.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the exact process that too many remain voters have towards leave voters. I voted remain, but I appreciated many of the leave arguments. That’s my bias announced. My experience is only anecdotal, but in conversations with friends and family, with people on the doorstep as I canvassed, and with people online, never, not once, did I hear a leave voter say “there are literally no reasons to remain”, yet I heard the opposite argument more often that I can count. Oh, this person wants to curb immigration? Oh, they mustn’t be informed, I’ll just tell them some stats. Hmmm, they’re still in favour of it, maybe they’re thick. Nope, they’re actually quite articulate in their opinions. Racist it is then.

There is too often this flat-out refusal on the behalf of many people from all along the political spectrum on all issues to accept that a smart, informed, and well-meaning person can come to a different opinion, and that you should respect it.

Now perhaps you genuinely think that it simply is the truth that people are uninformed on economics, immigration, benefits, etc, and that the general public will never be informed enough to make decisions on them. However, there is really no difference between the EU referendum and a GE on this matter, as I see it. Those who argue that the public shouldn’t have been given a say on the EU, like Richard Dawkins did publicly, should be fully honest that they don’t believe in democracy for GEs either. Let’s be honest, in 2010, the argument largely boiled down to “the economy crashed because Labour spent too much” vs “no it didn’t”. The public was arguably much less informed as to the causes of the crash than they were about the EU. If democracy isn’t a good method for decisions regarding the EU,  it shouldn’t be a good method for deciding public economic policy.

So I would ask that people diverge from this faux-position of simultaneously saying that they believe in democracy but that the public are idiots and you shouldn’t take them seriously. Either treat people with differing beliefs with respect, or honestly admit that you do not believe that democracy is the best system.

Some might argue that democracy can be awful and still be the least awful system there is, but I would argue that democracy only seems so terrible because they don’t see the wisdom in other people’s opinions, and refuse to treat their opponents with respect. If people can learn to respect that other people’s opinions might be well formed, they will find themselves angry at democracy a lot less frequently, and simultaneously find that they are suddenly convincing people of their own opinions much more effectively.


2 thoughts on “Do you really believe in democracy?

  1. “I would argue that democracy only seems so terrible because they don’t see the wisdom in other people’s opinions”
    *This assumes people can choose the best outcome in a choice.*
    I don’t know if that’s true, people are irrational and often have wrong interpretations of data, even if experience (direct or indirect) is considered ‘OK’ when forming opinions you still can’t be sure if the other person has made the right (most correct) choice given their own circumstances (beliefs,needs,wants and other things people might consider when making a choice), because of random factors in the inability to rationalize perfectly.

    Saying “If people can learn to respect that other people’s opinions might be well formed, they will find themselves angry at democracy a lot less frequently, and simultaneously find that they are suddenly convincing people of their own opinions much more effectively.” is misleading because it’s a hidden debate on who’s more rational (or has better operation settings) rather than this choice is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’


    • “*This assumes people can choose the best outcome in a choice.*”

      That’s precisely my point. Yes, the demos will occasionally get it wrong. But if you think that on average they will follow their best interests, then you believe in democracy. If you don’t think the demos is capable of doing that, people should be more open about not believing in democracy.


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