What Madrid Tells Us About Democracy

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We
are told that representative democracy is the form of government
where those who govern are held accountable to the governed. This
is a modified truth at best. In a representative democracy the people
rule, at least in theory. However, it is the majority that rules.
Moreover, in practice, it is mostly the representatives who rule.
The representatives, at least to some extent, are held accountable
to the electorate. The electorate, however, is held accountable
to no one. Or perhaps not?

Neither
the legal nor the political system provides accountability for the
voters, who do their acts in total anonymity. However, consequences
of their representatives’ acts and hence their own collective choices,
must be taken collectively, as the choices are made collectively.
Sometimes the consequences must be faced in the total arbitrariness
and in the most gruesome way. I am not saying that this is morally
right; I am just saying that that is the way it is.

It
is quite obvious that the Madrid bombings were strategically placed
in time before an election to bring about a wanted result. Of course,
everyone up-to-date on popular Spanish opinion knew the popular
position on Spanish involvement in the Middle East. However, this
involvement was not a deciding issue in the election campaign before
that fateful Thursday morning. Of course, anyone uninterested in
this preelection situation would like to see the agenda change to
their advantage. This happens all the time. Incumbent politicians
try to manipulate the agenda all the time, and they often succeed.
Political challengers also often try manipulating the agenda. In
Britain, the party in cabinet office tries timing the next election
so it is most beneficial to the ruling party.

The
principle of democracy demands that the electorate makes the decisions,
however uninformed, misinformed, or manipulated the electorate may
be. Of course, this principle will stand no critical test. However,
if one accepts the principle, one must also accept what it stands
for.

Now, the terrorists want the West to get out of the Middle
East. They have probably succeeded in getting the Spaniards out.
However, we do not know if the Spanish government will do as Zapatero
has said it will. It may perhaps be so that this incident shows
that terrorism pays, and that the result it gave will cause more
terrorism. Had the Spanish government said that this incident would
not change anything, however, that had probably not stopped terrorism.
Manipulating the sentiment of the electorate, however macabre or
gruesome the means for it, will be around as long as we have mass
democracy.

When
coup makers not long after Franco’s death tried taking over the
Spanish government, King Juan Carlos told the coup makers to go
home. The Spanish government was not to be run at gunpoint. If the
guns are pointed at the representatives in a representative democracy,
this is contrary to the principle of democracy. In a democracy,
the people – or rather the popular majority – rule, not the guns.
However, if the guns are pointed at the electorate, this is not
contrary to the principle of democracy. The majority rules. Whatever
may be behind its decisions is irrelevant for the principle of democracy.
This holds whether you are against or for the turn the Spanish government
seems to be making. I am not making a case either for or against
Zapatero’s stand. I am just stating the obvious; that democracy
is about who rules, not how it is ruled.

We
hear demands that innocent civilians should be left alone. This
is a highly reasonable demand. The problem is that in a democracy
the population collectively has the final say in who holds office.
The divide between those who govern and the governed has almost
been erased. There is very little left of this divide. The principle
of democracy tells us that the people are the government. In light
of this, is it surprising that an enemy would target randomly selected
individuals? Is this not natural in this age of collectivism?

The
masses are easily swayed. They seldom make decisions based on sound
principles. One day they are in a good mood. The other day they
are in a bad mood. One day they can believe that the family should
be responsible for its own well-being. The next day they criticize
the government for not providing enough health care for a sick kid.
One moment they can believe in liberty. The next moment they let
a "Patriot Act" and a "Department of Homeland Security" pass practically
without batting an eye. Democracy provides no stability. It is a
shortsighted form of government, and it nurtures shortsightedness
in society. The last weeks have shown us that a party in power certain
of staying in power due to popular satisfaction with the economy
suddenly finds itself soon to be out of cabinet office due to the
loss of about 200 lives and the sudden shift of the agenda from
the national economy to the war in Iraq. This is a general problem.
People seldom make decisions on what to vote for from the complete
picture. More often than not they make these decisions based on
issues that are not necessarily representative for the complete
picture.

Why
should a voter invest a lot of time in making a very informed decision?
The probability of one voter having influence on the end result
is minimal. I have humorously illustrated this before.
The consequences of the collective decision of the masses may be
quite severe. However, the responsibility of the individual voter
is practically zero.

March
22, 2004

Jørn
K. Baltzersen [send him mail]
is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.


        
        

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