After a year full of unexpected voter decisions, the other half of the western world is left wondering – why did this happen, and how did we not see it coming? We are diving into the idea of democracy and social behaviour and analyse the troubling problems of today’s politics. What could a solution look like?
Since Ancient Greece, democracy has created a place for people to speak their minds, to express their beliefs and construct their society to reflect their own selves. It has provided hundreds of thousands of people with tools to shape their political realities, to create their states and empower their people. It has allowed millions to live a better life, to create a better self and to form a better context for their future generations. Democracy has given people their well-deserved spotlight: it has acknowledged that there is no bigger fundamental reality than the fact that people themselves are free and equal, and therefore should be able to decide the course of their life. In recent times democracy has evolved even further. It has created a place for people to protest, a place for people to manifest their joy, a free forum for discussions way beyond political life and into the very small aspects of human life as we know it.
However, the year 2016 has taught us that this is a reality that is crumbling and may fall to the ground, breaking progress into numerous little pieces that our ancestors have so struggled to arrange perfectly. It has displayed a sad reality of the democratic world: people are often uneducated, hateful, and make poor decisions. This is the obvious truth, easy to observe and quantify.
Examples of this dangerous reality are everywhere, making this year be called by many scholars a horrible year for politics and development. The Brexit vote was supposed to be the wake up call that the modern world receives. It was supposed to be a singular, politically tragic event that marked the moment in which the ruling elites would have woken up and would have better arranged their discourse, would have tried to educate people and ultimately would have tried to avoid socio-economic and political disasters. However, the optimistic hope that Brexit was just a mistake, the desperate cries for a second referendum and the sad google searches on “What EXACTLY is the European Union” became the least of our concerns once the elections in the USA named Donald Trump the new president-elect.
It is important to understand that these two events are by no means the most outrageous display of why democracy has failed: they are just the two most mediatized. There are, unfortunately, many more examples of such failures in terms of progress, human rights, development, moderate rhetoric, and whatever else should be included in the long list of what a civilized world should have guaranteed in stone by now. There is no point in a depressing long list of bad elections and outrageous human right offences, but my hope is that this sentence will sum it up sufficiently: in the 21st century we are still discussing abortion. It is truly as bad as it sounds.
Now that we know that something is going terribly wrong, the next natural step is to try to fix it. However, my view is that unfortunately we are not exactly sure what the problem is. All the above-mentioned aspects are rather effects of a very deeply rooted problem that is hard to identify and harder to solve. But there is a place to start, and this place is asking us to analyze social dynamics.
First, let’s talk about “bad” political decisions. Oftentimes people claim that there is no such thing as a bad vote. However, we need to understand that there is such a thing as an uninformed vote, and most of the time it creates in turn a bad vote. There are many types of bad votes: votes cast for far-wing parties, votes that are inherently discriminatory and arguably worse, votes against the voter’s own best interest. It is easy to place these votes under the umbrella of “uneducated” votes, and while that holds true in most cases, the key issue that needs answering concerns the prevention of such votes. There are a couple of feasible solutions that include but are not limited to political education from an early age, political compass tests and even politics advisers, which are meant to direct people towards the part of the spectrum that best fits them in a non-biased way.
In term of the political class, there are several things that they ought to do in order to make their platform clearer: explain their agenda, have coherent stances and measures, inform the population through guided debates and so on. Furthermore, one idea would be developing a state-based and politically independent system that indexes blunt facts about a political candidate. The system would work as a data-gathering application that would incorporate information such as a candidate’s education, wealth declaration, political promises or legal processes that the person is involved in. This system therefore prevents the re-election of politicians that irresponsibly held office and contributes to a deterrent system that prevents further politicians to govern wrongly.
Secondly, it is also important to analyze the issue of social dynamics from the perspectives of radical votes. Empirically, people are moving towards the far-right in the context of the migration crisis that hit Europe. However, curiously enough, when observing pre-election polls in many countries with an arguably far-right political governance nowadays, we see that sometimes the winning candidate is not the winning-in-the-polls candidate. This begs the question: where are we wrong? There must be an incoherence that leads to these kinds of “unexpected” scenarios.
The first answer that comes to mind is the echo-chamber effect. It means that oftentimes, especially in social networks, people surround themselves with other people that only confirm their biases, therefore creating a segregation effect that prevents them from coming across different opinions and ideas. In a very simplified explanation, it means that socially progressive people don’t have a clear idea about the number of people that are socially stagnant or politically authoritarian people often don’t see very strong politically liberal people. This is particularly problematic in two aspects: it prevents people from having meaningful dialogues to ultimately change or shape their opinions, and it creates a false impression over what the majority vote will turn out to be.
The second answer that comes to mind in relation to wrongly conducted polls is even more intriguing. Based on empirical observation, there is an increasing degree of elitism when conducting political debates. While it is true that some things shouldn’t even be subject to questioning (again, human rights would fall under this criterion) the on-ground reality proves that there is still a need for persuasion and discussion even in this field. As such, when analyzing the Clinton-Trump debates for example, while most can agree that Trump was saying things that are, to say the least, absurd, Hillary wasn’t doing much of a job in responding or rebutting his claims. As such, a lot of voters remained within the grey zone and ultimately had to decide on what was more buyable on their own. In the absence of very solid explanations on any side, they fundamentally chose the person who was explaining absurd things in a facile and understandable way for the (below) average educated person. This is not to claim that there are any reasons for which you should ever vote for a wall to prevent immigration, but my guess is that clearer explanations from the side that has the moral high-ground are still needed in order to persuade people and maybe try to break their above-mentioned echo-chambers where there’s such a thing as an undecided voter.
Lastly, as a conclusion, a personal note that pains me: I have recently realized that there are many things that we take for granted. As an international relations student, I automatically assume that people know what I’m talking about when I mention the cosmopolitan view on politics I proudly identify with. However, most people have no idea what I’m talking about. And instead of blaming them, we all need to realize that elitism is still a bubble that needs to break. That instead of labelling people harshly and instantly as uninformed, we need to take some time to inform them. The whole point is not for people to brag about their knowledge. Democracy should never be about who is the smartest in the room but much rather, it should be about creating the smartest rooms possible. We need to create rooms where people can talk and learn, rooms that don’t marginalize but aim to educate. It is only then that we can achieve a truly valuable political decision, no matter where it is placed on our compass.