Defending democratic politics

“When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”

Matthew Flinders, the author of Defending Politics, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

If I’m completely honest, what I’m really thinking about is why so many people seem to have lost faith in political institutions, political processes and politicians. I’m not trying suggest that politics is perfect or that all politicians are angels, but the emergence, in the UK and most parts of the developed world, of huge numbers of ‘disaffected democrats’ worries me.

It worries me because I’ve spent time in places where basic democratic rights and freedoms do not exist, where politics is still based on brutality and intimidation; countries best described as fear societies rather than free societies. Seen from this perspective, democratic politics suddenly seems to matter far more – and deliver far more – than many ‘disaffected democrats’ are willing or able to acknowledge.

…Democratic politics is by no means perfect but let us not deny its benefits and achievements.

A far braver (and some might say more foolish) man than I might even dare to suggest that vast sections of the public have become democratically decadent. Decadent in the sense that their expectations of what politics should deliver have become to high; and their sense of their own personal responsibilities to contribute to society have become too low. I’m personally quite glad that Barack Obama turned out not to be superman after all. Too many people sidestep their own individual responsibilities as citizens by looking for a superhero to take control.[Guardian]

The same argument, made slightly differently by him, in an earlier blogpost.

Democracy generally succeeds in turning ‘fear societies’ into ‘free societies’. It provides a way of allowing our increasingly complex, fragmented and demanding societies to co-exist through compromise and co-operation rather than violence and intimidation (still the default approach to political rule in large parts of the world). To make such an argument is not to deny the existence of social challenges, or to suggest that all politicians are angels or that democratic politics in toto is perfect. It is to take inspiration from Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics (published exactly fifty years ago) and accept that democratic politics is inevitably messy, slow, and cumbersome due to the manner in which it works around squeezing simple decisions out of complex and frequently incompatible demands (Weber’s ‘slow boring through hard wood’). My message to all those ‘disaffected democrats’ who seem content to peddle ‘the politics of pessimism’ is simple. Democratic politics cannot ‘make all sad hearts glad’ (to use Crick’s words) but it remains a ‘quite beautiful and civilizing activity’.

Democracy is therefore not a distraction because it ensures that public pressure actually matters. Elections matter because they allow arguments to be made and pressures to be vented. Elections inevitably produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but at least the losers live to fight another day. If there is, however, a problem within American democracy it rests on the fact that some sections of society have arguably become what I call ‘democratically decadent’. Decadent in the sense that they seem to have forgotten that membership of any democratic society involves both rights and responsibilities; it involves listening and talking; giving and taking. No political system or politician can satisfy a world of ever greater public expectations.[Link]

To extend it further,

Democratic politics is hard and its tiresome. It revolves around squeezing collective decisions out of a range of competing and irreconcilable demands. It grates and it grinds and is, to some extent, always destined to disappoint. And yet it remains a quite beautiful social activity.[Link]

This brings us to the importance of citizenship and responsibility in a democratic polity.

Democratic institutions are always reflections of a far deeper truth. This still-hidden truth lies in the society’s accumulating inventory of private agonies and collective discontents. No institutionalized pattern of democracy can ever rise above the severely limited ambitions, insights, and capacities of its citizens. In short, it is not for elections to cast light in dark places.

…No democratic society and polity can ever really be better than the qualitative total of its individual human underpinnings. In a crudely trenchant metaphor, Nietzsche reminds us that, “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”[Link]

When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne. It is perhaps time for some self-reflection among discontented Indians too.


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One Response to Defending democratic politics

  1. captainjohann August 25, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    A timely post for those who think that Genral VK singh or Modi sitting at Delhi using dictatorial powers will solve all problems.Why is it Congress or BJP are not able to use the discontent against Mayawathi to get elected while they preferred corrupt Mulayam.Same is the case in Tamilnadu where Congress is not able to get elected inspite of public anger against Karunanidhi’s family rule and Jaya’s rule.The present BJP attitude of clsoing parliament is not being appreciated by thinking public while it may be a good propaganda tool.There are very good arguments for and against Coalgate or 2 g scam. Let BJP use arguments and logic in the parliament.

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