07:37:05 am on
Monday 15 Jul 2024

Death of Democracy
David Simmonds

The tennis season has ended with a glorious victory for Canada. Now it is time to turn our attention to politics. We had a federal election here; the Democratic candidates for US president are having at one another and the field is narrowing; Boris Johnson got his wished-for election in the UK and won. It should be a great time for democracy.

According to Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all other forms.

A cloud has entered the scene, however. A report in Politico raises the troubling assertion that democracy is in for troubled times. This is according to a paper by American Political science professor Shawn Rosenberg and given to the International Society of Political Psychologists.

According to Rosenberg, the elites, which managed or advised on the tricky business of day to day democracy, have lost their influence; the floor turned over to intellectually uninformed and intellectually lazy administers. People have thus turned to simplistic right-wing solutions. The result is that “in well-established democracies, such as the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail,” also known as maladministration.

Rosenberg argues that to live in an effective democracy requires work, thoughtfulness, discipline and logic, as well as respect for others and their views. Yet, humans are wired with biases and look for confirmation of those biases. Social media allows demagoguery to make an end run around the moderating influence of elites.

What right-wing populist movements demand is the abandonment of critical thinking in favour of loyalty. Discontent replaces content. Ironically, it’s fulsome democracy that allows social media to spread its elite-bashing tentacles.

You don’t have to agree with his conclusion, that functioning democracy as described above is dying, in order to accept his assertion that democracy is hard work. Take Britain, where voters were asked a ‘simple’ question, “Do you want to leave the EU?”

Yet, implementing the result of the Brexit referendum is anything but simple. Who knew the prospect of a hard, Irish border and a second, successful Scottish secession referendum would be the prickly problems facing those whose job it is to implement Brexit, never mind the existential threat it presents to democracy? People take to the streets to yell, ‘We voted for it, now get on with it.” Yet “it has taken many possible forms, and if it were simple to get on with, it would already have been gotten on with.

Pinker points in the right direction.

It is beyond my pay grade to hold forth on the importance of elites in a modern democracy. I do like the approach taken by Steven Pinker in his book, Enlightenment Now. He frames the issue not in terms of class, but of expertise.

Pinker calls for a renewed respect for knowledge derived from the scientific method, which will enable addressing problems in a solvable way. How can the challenge be described? What is the evidence? What relevant solutions are known or can be identified?

Let’s experiment and record the results. Then, if the outcome is what we hoped for or unexpected and reasonable, let’s see if they can be replicated. The dogmatic approach is out of the question.

The interesting point is that people are quite selective: they will defer to the expertise they like and challenge what they don’t like. I don’t see many people challenging the ability of NASA to send a spacecraft to Mars, well, maybe Space X, yet, when a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tries to present a consensus model of the foreseeable future, its work is dismissed as a hoax.

If you do accept the fact that elites play a valuable role in democratic society, two other issues beg consideration. The first is: instead of blaming social media for everything, ask to what extent elites contributed to their own superfluity; by failing to ensure that government was government to benefit all and not just the elites. This was essentially the pitch that got Donald Trump elected, Vladimir Putin aside. Much history has yet to be written about their relations.

The second is: if elites are so essential to an effective democracy, but have been knocked off their pedestal, how do they get back on it? If we are hardwired in our biases, can you appeal to reason alone? Will it take a mass contagion of some sort to convince the average person to give elites another chance?

Inaction makes us complacent in the decline of democracy and freedom.

What are we to do with the political season now upon us? The simple answer is to do the heavy lifting of our democratic duty, as Rosenberg suggests; engage with the process, employing thoughtfulness, discipline and logic as well as respect for others and their views. To do anything less would make us complicit in a less than satisfactory outcome.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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