Democracy as a political objective

French Women's Suffrage poster

Democracy – a political end in itself.

In my last couple of posts, I’ve summed up what I think is a reasonably logical argument in favour of the politics of compromise, and limited expectations, at least when it applies to citizens who are dealing with political parties or politicians.

To add an important caveat, this is not the same thing as having limited expectations or a lack of radical political ambition. I would argue that it is the opposite.

I’ve argued that limiting our expectations when dealing politicians achieves a great deal more than standing on principle and being reluctant to compromise, and that people who may not be inclined to compromise (because they see themselves as being very principled) are actually being very self-defeating in doing so.

I can think of one very obvious objection to my position. It’s one that I’d call a political, rather than a democratic objection. Politically, there’s an obvious case to make: Other parties win elections and then impose their programmes on us. Why shouldn’t we?

It’s an argument for soft-pedaling your principles before an election and then implementing your programme in the hope that the voters will realise your wisdom, or that you will get away with it and avoid any kind of repeal (or worse, a backlash).

If you are confident that the voters will understand the benefits of a particular policy once it’s been implemented (and, personally, I’d want to see your working out on that assumption), then there is a democratic argument for winning power and trialing an idea. Democracy is about giving people the governance that they want, and it’s reasonable to insert the word ‘ultimately’ into that sentence.

But, in principle, I’d argue that we have a moral duty to avoid any kind of blatant imposition of policies on an unwilling electorate. In a very simple world, it wouldn’t make political sense and policies that have the support of voters are much more likely to work anyway.

Also, if you impose an unpopular policy, the other lot can use it as a stick to hit you with, repeal it or route around it once they return to government.

If it’s unpopular, it’s very likely that it will be imposed in a compromised way, in the teeth of opposition, in a way that stiffens resistance to the underlying idea. It will help your political opponents build the support that they will need at the next election.

As an advocate of unpopular policies, I’d also like to focus on how counterproductive it is for us to expect a politician or a political party to adopt a position in support of something that voters don’t agree with.

If we allow ourselves the ease of treating ‘political support’ (i.e. support from a political party or politician) as the same thing as ‘the kind of support needed to implement our policy’ then we are deluding ourselves and damaging our case. We are hanging a very heavy handicap around the politicians that are supporting that subset of politically acceptable positions that you are prepared to compromise on.

Worse than that, you are helping their rivals – the ones that share none of your values or aspirations.

So, as the options narrow even further, what can the principled politician actually do?

I promise that I will finally answer this one very soon. But before I sign off here, I’d like to repeat one thing.

I think that democracy is a political end in itself. I would like to live in a very democratic society even if it’s one that has policies that I don’t agree with. I’d rather live in a society that was very democratic, whilst having policies that I dislike intensely than live in a society in which people like me were able to impose things on everyone else.

I think that democracy has huge upsides. It has been a fantastically successful experiment.

Pedantry aside, no two democracies have ever been to war with each other. Democracies have an incredible track record for innovation, civil liberties and social justice. There have never been famines in countries that have good democracies.

Obviously, they all have their flaws. We could all find undemocratic features in even the best liberal democracies. But we also often forget just how successful this is as a project, driving prosperity, fairness, peace and security.

Everything I write here will, therefore, be from the position that democracy, and not any of the political targets (Conservatism, Socialism, Liberalism etc) is the best political objective of them all.