Often, it is the simplest questions that confound us. Socrates new this well -- and one of the reasons he was treated so harshly was because of how uncomfortable some people are made to feel when they are asked simple questions -- usually because the answers can be quite difficult to arrive at simply. Thorny issues, complicated and demanding mental exertion and stumbling at times to get there.
Recently, I went to a discussion where we were asked simply "What is Democracy?" Simple enough question really. An enormous amount has been written about it of course. Yet, especially today, it seems that is a particularly difficult subject, perhaps most so for western leaders who up until very recently have prided themselves on representing Democracy.
Indeed, there have been a series of interesting articles with commentators recently attempting to provide some clarity as to why they believe 'Democracy' today has taken a battering. So, in The Economist recently a long piece attempted to explain why Democracy is "going through a difficult time" currently. After quoting FDR's 1941 concern that it might not be possible to shield "the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism" -- it goes on to suggest that along with major interventions such as in Iraq and Afghanistan the combined impact of the most recent economic crisis along with China's expanded role has led to anxiety, pessimism and doubts.
Another article, some time ago in The Guardian by David Runciman points at the U.S. Government shutdown, petty squables and voter disaffection alongside some historical points quoting De Tocqueville and others while explaining that many leaders of what we used to call the western world secretly envy Putin and other such leaders for their ability to get things done (China in particular).
It seems to me however, that what all the recent discussions tend to do is have an overly technical evaluation of Democracy and essentially miss out on the most important thing. That it should represent the will of the people.
"We the people" every American school kid gets to recite of course... however it is noteworthy that on both sides of the Atlantic, the will of the people is increasingly treated with contempt and quite often simply ignored and at times over ruled.
Ukraine is a good case in point. We witnessed a democratically elected leader, Yanukovych who received almost 49 percent of the vote, get ousted and then replaced -- with the support and cheering on of the U.S. and UK leaders. Not only that, the interim government which the west enthusiastically supported had Svoboda with parliamentary seats who like to beat up journalists and are anti-Semites.
Ironically, in recent elections in Britain, Nigel Farage, leader of the Political Party UKIP has received an almost total harmony of attack from all sides of mainstream politicians and pundits. His crime? To be seen as having some connection with ordinary people. To be popular today -- to connect -- is the biggest sin. Farage was branded a racist -- for wanting to discuss immigration and the connection of migrants to resources, houses, employment and welfare. Whether one likes his views or not (and I strongly refute the notion that we have fixed resources; I am for open borders as it happens) -- it is gross dishonesty to pretend that he and UKIP are the only ones who believe too many people flowing in take away scarce "things". As pundit Brendan O Neill spelled out recently, it was actually The Labour Party that imposed particular restrictions back in 2007 on certain low skilled immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria despite being a part of the EU. Further, all those so-called anti-racist and friendly to immigration mainstream politicians and guys who support the EU, he points out in The Telegraph those EU officials let Africans die at sea. UKIP and Nigel Farage were castigated because they seem to have some kind of connection to the ordinary folk -- to talk to their concerns and on the level. Not as Gordon Brown was caught out doing, accusing them of being "bigots" because they want to discuss how immigration impacts them.
The recent trend seems to be to have contempt for the people, for citizens; to perhaps mock them in private. None of the courage here of a Coriolanus who was insulting yet honest when he declares "for the mutable, rank-scented many, let them regard me as I do not flatter". Rome the republic was a different place to Imperial Rome - and indeed Shakespeare's exploration of the soldier versus a man of the people and what that meant reflected his own changing times of rising nationhood and the beginning of new notions of freedom. We can see that many of the so-called Popular movements, more apparently "Right wing" - although this means very little today in our un-ideological age - are often votes that protest against the sense of disillusionment with mainstream all-the-same-in-different-suits politicians and lack of ideas. The quid pro quo comes to blame "stupid people", the dumb masses. Those junk food eating, Russian bear hunting, American SUV driving, European so-called "racist" masses who don't quite fit the elite view of how correct etiquette.
I would like to think that the Democratic impulse has not suffered as much in the U.S. However sadly it was all too evident during the Bush years. Countless dinner parties and events people would bemoan to me how "stupid" and "backward" all "those" Americans were (in the middle and in the South of course) -- and if only they could realize how idiotic they were voting for Bush (the stupid guy) -- then all would be improved. Aside from its utter contempt for the conscious decisions of autonomous adults to exercise their interests as they see fit; it also provided no attempt to win anyone over to a different perspective.
But, one may argue, all that was to change with the Obama Phenomenon. Sadly not. In fact, while that was exciting initially for the mobilization of lots of young people, it also suffered from the inherent outlook that the people should not be seen as a force of capability. Rather simply a stage army to vote emptied out of anything else.
However, nothing quite so dramatically epitomizes the blatant hypocrisy of American and British and other world leaders as the position taken towards events in Egypt. The bravery of ordinary Egyptian citizens going out on the streets to challenge the autocratic dictatorship of Mubarak was breath taking. Sadly, although not at all uniquely, there was a lack of alternative political ideas and organization -- and a vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood at least had some kind of organizing abilities and hence filled the space. What was astounding however, was that a military coup could take place and most western leaders and most commentary generally have been silent.
Compare that to General Pinochet in Chile -- and still now the debate rages on about how outrageous it was, regardless what one thought of Allende and his democratically elected Party. In fact, until very recently, the idea of the populace, the will of the people was almost sacrosanct. Like it or not, it was used to embarrass and pressurize governments across the world. From national liberation struggles in the African, Asian and Latin American former colonies to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, the idea of the will of the people, the majority's view, the attitudes of a Democratic outlook was highly regarded.
I would venture that very worryingly this is what has changed so profoundly. With no other competing "alternatives" to capitalism today, there has been an implosion of what people think is possible. In that context, a very instrumental attitude has been adopted by leaders and commentators. The people increasingly are now seen again as- the rabble - the "rank scented", those that had been called at one point "The Great Unwashed"; if you are white and working class in Britain ('Middle Class' in the US) - it is assumed more often than not that you are probably racist and have all sorts of nasty deep seated ignorant attitudes just waiting to spill over in to violent or gluttonous behavior. You are greedy and selfish, consuming the world up, gulping it, in denial, in need of therapy but certainly not competent to have an opinion that is outside the new elite consensus. Hence we get President Obama entertaining "nudgers" and the language of psychotherapy rules above interests. Likewise that attitude is imposed upon any sense of the people's voice across the world.
Over exaggerated? Have a think about what recently was said about the Indian elections. Many blindly repeated the assertion that Modi was simply a leader of a "fascist" BJP Party. The fact that hundreds of millions of people - citizens, adults, with rational brains - cast their decision based on what they wanted and thought best, was often seen very patronizingly. To call him simply India's Milosevic seems to capture it all -- the masses, are simply "mad, bad and dangerous" if left unsupervised to vote. All the complexities of India, of the demands of development, infrastructure, the challenges of localities versus the center and working through transforming the countryside, in a different context to how China can or does, gets left out. Left to their own devices, the story goes, people are stupid and can't really comprehend their own best interests. Even the idea of interests are seen as problematic.
This is an enormous shift and one that anyone truly interested in Democracy should be concerned about. It is true that often there were restrictions to the people, at first it was a small elite in Athens -- yet the aspiration that the will of the people should be heard over say that of a king was vital. Then, more recently, only certain men, then all men, then white women too and finally in many places true universal suffrage with black,white and all people having the vote. We need to curb and challenge the dangerous idea that the will of the people can simply be overturned and ignored, how ever much we may find it unappetizing or even despicable. Egypt points the way to what happens when the will of the people is ignored.
What is Democracy? It is the fundamental belief that We the People are adults that can decide how we want to live and can vote -- and sometimes do even more than that -- to shape the world in the way we want to see it. It involves having to win difficult and thorny and tough arguments, to come up with ideas about how we should live, what is meant today by The Good Life, why reason or Virtue is important, should development happen and why is growth important. We should not allow the essential heart beat of the people to be extinguished by snotty and snooty elitist attitudes about who we are.
Follow Alan Miller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alanvibe