The will of the people?

Politicians are usually depicted as unreliable. And that is not without reason. But at least as big a problem are the voters in a democracy. Voters come literally in all shapes and sizes. This diversity is in itself well and good. Diversity can keep us morally tight and ensures that along with their own qualities people can bring something about in society that would otherwise not be possible. If that diversity would not have developed over centuries, we would still live as nomadic hunters. In his book ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies‘ Jared Diamond offers a (seemingly probable) explanation of how complex societies arose.

At a certain moment democracy developed as a form of government. In a democracy it is all about the will – and the voice – of the people. So the population makes known by means of elections by whom it wants to be represented in the major body – the parliament, the states, the councils. Those representatives, the members of parliament, are deemed to reach decisions according to the will of ‘the’ people. And this already forms a problem.

There is no such thing as ‘the’ will of ‘the’ people. But there is something such as periodic elections in which the voters express a preference for a certain candidate or a certain party. But that does not mean that their ideas and ideology correspond with each of their voters, let alone fully. And apart from the fact that not everybody belonging to ‘the’ people has the right to vote, there is also a large group of eligible voters who for all kinds of reasons do not cast a vote. In addition, votes are cast for different candidates and parties, at a specific moment, whereas afterwards all kinds of further developments can occur which (by definition) are not taken into account in the voting behavior. A lot more can be said about this, but it is about determining that there is a ‘gap’ between – to call it still – the ‘will’ of the people (now, tomorrow, next month, next year) and what the elected politicians do (in the end).

Governing is done by us (the people) ourselves. This is obviously not really by ourselves but by people we elected as our representatives. This is power to the people. We then call this democracy. It is often said that this is the least bad of all forms of government. Although there are differences between the various democratically organized countries, the starting point is roughly that the majority has the decisive influence. This applies when the composition of the parliament (the representation of the people) is (periodically) elected. And that also applies when the members of parliament vote on certain proposals. Decisions taken in such a system with due observance of the rules, are formally legitimized. A formal or procedural legitimacy does not say anything about the substantive quality of the decision. In various aspects it can be a good or on the other hand a wrong decision or experienced as such. It can even be a morally reprehensible decision, in the eyes of some as well as in the eyes of the majority of the population.

The democracy as we know it assumes (implicitly) the idea that political parties differ ideologically from each other, have future visions based on their ideology and that their representatives primarily make efforts to serve the country’s interest or the general interest. However, the reality is different. Ideologies do not or hardly play a role at all. The general interest and the interest of the people are only dug up for rhetorical reasons: a cosmetically applied ‘legitimacy’ to make the pursuit of enlightened self-interest more saleable.

The question ‘What can this candidate do for me?’ will probably more often be asked than the question ‘What can this candidate do for my country?’. And the other way around the politicians will consider particularly by which favors and promises they could attract most of the votes. In a society with a relatively large amount of poverty and an average low level of education, this would lead to a large group of easily influenced voters. Politicians can also easily switch to another party or establish one. This also means a high degree of political instability.

In their turn (most) politicians depend on those who are prepared to invest money in their campaign. Indeed: not just put money in it but invest in it. Politicians are vulnerable and impressionable. The more someone puts into a campaign the more he would want to get something from it in return. In business terms this is called ‘return on investment’.

One particular aspect of the democracy is that parliament also takes all kinds of decisions for which, most probably, no majority of the population could be found. If referendums would be held about tax increases or big cuts directly affecting most of the citizens there is a good chance that such proposals would be voted down. So sometimes the members of parliament take decisions against the will of (the majority of) the people. They do this, I hope, because they consider those decisions to be in the interest of the people. Viewed in this light as citizens we elect the members of parliament who determine what they consider to be good for us or not.

Another aspect is that in a democracy, as we regularly experience, the power is not always put into the hands of competent persons acting in an ethically correctly manner. If they are members of parliament, this is in any event preceded by elections. And obviously it will sometimes only become clear after elections that the elected politician is no good (or less good than was thought).

Reference is often made to the gap between the voters and politicians: apparently it is too big. However, the opposite can also be said. Politicians and citizens are often so close together that politicians enter the level of micro-management. The citizens also expect that when they approach a politician because they have a problem, this politician will do something about it. Problems in the neighborhood or in the village become problems to which attention is paid at a higher level. And in many cases something could be said for this (a subject such as crime comes to mind), but in many other issues it is less obvious that these are at a politically high/higher level on the agenda. And it certainly makes a difference whether a relatively large country such as the Netherlands is concerned or a small country such as Curacao.

Democracy is a great thing and – as I said – the least bad of all forms of government. There is something to be said for this, because why would one citizen (including a dictator) be able to exert influence and another citizen would not? In a democracy the vote of the simpleton is equal to the vote of an expert. And the vote of a poor, unemployed or homeless person is equal to the vote of someone who is filthy rich.

Those who have no job, no food and no roof over their heads, will (strongly) consider these circumstances in casting their vote. They will consider which candidate they expect to change that situation. Other types of considerations also determine the voting behavior: a traditional connection to a certain party, religious considerations, the anti-establishment vote and so on come to mind. Education and social experience play a role, as well as the question of what values you were given as part of your upbringing and in your social environment (respect for others comes to mind) and how much you stand firm if you have been put (heavily) to the test in life.

I have difficulty understanding the popularity of certain politicians, who for various reasons I myself do not consider suitable to represent ‘the’ people. Why would you vote for a politician who is a notorious liar, is disparaging about the opposite sex, stirs up resistance or even hatred against people who are different (religion, skin color) or who has a serious criminal record (money laundering, bribery of civil servants, forgery)? You can think of all kinds of explanations such as the personal image of the candidate, other candidates who are even worse, the hope a candidate can offer for a better future, but perhaps you have to be in these voters’ shoes in order to understand how they consider all this.

I put the quantity of colored, misleading information spread by all kinds of people involved during a campaign to one side for now. When it comes to consumption of information, the level of education will have a significant influence. Just to give an example, someone with a higher level of education will be more able to estimate the relevance of a criminal conviction in first instance followed by an appeal that is still pending during the elections than someone without any education who assumes that a person has done nothing wrong as long as they are not physically locked up in a cell.

There is nothing systemically wrong with democracy as such. It’s the participants in the system – the voters and the politicians – who contribute (consciously or unconsciously) to results leading to great dissatisfaction. This reaches such an extent that the system itself is questioned. The call for a “strong leader” which you can hear in various countries, often sounds like the call for a dictator governing with a firm hand, who is going to sort everything out and who will ensure with forceful means that certain minorities are suppressed or are even deported. This is a worrying development threatening democracy. Just imagine how the situation would be if your favorite is not elected as ‘dictator’, but the favorite of your worst ‘political’ enemy. You would probably be one of the first to argue that the democratic state should offer you much needed protection.

It’s not populism that forms the biggest threat to democracy (I see populism more as the form than the content in which a message is put forward), but the opportunism of the voter as well as the politicians. And this opportunism has the chance to spread if there are insufficient common values in a society. These are the values which almost everybody thinks (ought to think) should be observed and protected. These are values which ought to reverberate in legal rules, regulations and other arrangements on the basis of which the behavior of people can be assessed by the courts but also for instance by a parliament if behavior of one of its members is concerned. Wrong behavior should be punished quickly and effectively so that everybody sees that ‘the’ (respective) system is self-cleaning. If the system as such is experienced as corrupt, over time this will have far-reaching consequences.

Please find below some general ideas which I consider desirable. People are intrinsically equivalent. A human is not alone on earth. I consider the existence and continued existence of humanity as a goal in itself. In other words: for me the goal of humanity cannot be aimed at self-destruction. Humanity cannot survive if insufficient people behave themselves as fellow human beings, in the sense that they also feel responsible for the wellbeing of others. Humans have weak sides and are exposed to various temptations which might prejudice the wellbeing of one or more fellow human beings. However, from ancient times onwards humans have been used to being corrected or adjusted and for many that is a duty (government, parents, social environment). You could summarize all this by saying that every person has the (moral) duty to be a respectful fellow human being. For many reasons this will often be quite a challenge.

What is also required to encourage this ‘being a respectful fellow human being’, is a proper level of prosperity and wellbeing for everybody. All people are entitled to live in dignity. Protection against violation of physical and mental integrity, sufficient (healthy) food and drink and proper healthcare come to mind. There is no right to wealth or power. All people are entitled to personal thoughts, beliefs and development. This relates for instance to (the freedom to chose certain) forms of education, religious conviction and cultural expressions. Nobody is entitled ‘by nature’ to control other people. People want to feel protected against what they experience as threats, but this should be without certain groups being put down as ‘lesser people’ for instance due to their skin color or beliefs. It goes without saying that this list is just arbitrary, it is incomplete and one can discuss all kinds of concepts endlessly, but it paints a picture of what I think is important and I think that it would be a good thing if these basic principles are not only expressed in legislation and regulations, but in particular if they would also be embraced and propagated by everybody.

Yesterday the elections for the next American president took place. The outcome of it made me sad and at the same time all kinds of questions played around in my head (How was this possible? What is going on? Has the voter gone mad?). Today I tried to put my initial thoughts down on paper. The above is the result. But I feel that we still have a long way to go (in our thoughts). I hope to meet others on the way who keep the questions I have raised as close to their heart. Stronger together!

Karel Frielink
(9 November 2016)


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