Wednesday, 14 December 2011
Arab Spring: democracy (a very brief note)
Ask people what they want and they'll either shrug and ignore you or tell you. What they tell you might not be what you would prefer them to tell you. They might tell you they want public hangings or stonings, blindings, strict sexual segregation, burning of Catholics (or Protestants), institutionalised corruption based on terror, and endless re-runs of the X-Factor. If you promise them these things they are more likely to vote for you.
In what we call advanced democracies you present people with a programme they know, and you know, you won't deliver, not entirely. This is not so much a plan of action as a way of telling them who you are. Then, once you are elected, you set about what you want to do, or that part of it which is possible to do, and launch on a programme of education to persuade them that they want it too. They don't, not really, but they never thought they were going to get it anyway. They'll vote for you because of who you say you are and who they think you are. That is what an advanced democracy is. It is, in this way, tolerant and humane because it behaves the way most tolerant and humane human beings behave. Every so often you can pretend to be scandalised, and may well feel scandalised (being scandalised is a great feeling, just like being wronged) and it satisfies the need for what you yourself recognise is a personal psychodrama. If you don't recognise it you are an obsessive or, possibly, a Guardian contributor to Comment is Free.
It won't be much use expecting the less advanaced democracies to behave like you. They haven't internalised scepticism the way you have - they haven't had the chance - and, as a result, are less tolerant of other people's scepticism. You think democracy is a nice easy-going tolerant system where everyone gets to watch a hundred TV channels, shop on e-Bay and talk about justice in a properly sceptical way. The non-advanced democracies are more likely to say: more of us want executions than those who don't therefore we want executions. Executions lead to strong leaders who don't go for democracy in the way you do, or in fact any recognisable way at all.
We have to get over this and then consider our options. What to say to new democracies that are serious about fulfilling their properly elected absolute programmes? What does it mean to have aspirations to democracy?