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Please Advise! Is the World Voting Its Way to Ruin?

First Trump, now Brexit. Democracy is leading us into a world of madness and lies.

By Steve Burgess 5 Jul 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

Winston Churchill once observed that "It has been said that democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

I always thought Churchill was being glib. But I am beginning to think he wasn't kidding. Machiavelli thought democracy was just one stage in a cycle that eventually leads to anarchy and then tyranny. Socrates was no fan of democracy either, and that was before he was condemned to death by a popular vote. In this year that has seen the rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum, is the world voting its way into ruin?


Vox Populi

Dear Vox,

It is hard to say who has had a worse 2016 so far -- democracy or music. Bowie, Prince, and rational electoral behaviour, all apparently dead and gone.

But music and democracy go on regardless. All the same, balloting hasn't generated this much bad PR since the days of the hanging chad. We were all so busy watching Mr. Clown-Hair Shitshow win the GOP race that we weren't ready for the Brits to take the lead in the Crazy Steeplechase. One day the U.K. is the financial centre of Europe, next day it wakes up with a killer hangover, a Brexit tattoo on its ass, and a Nigel Farage-transmitted disease.

Putting aside the ramifications of the Brexit vote, which has been analyzed with an intensity that rivals Deflategate, this seems like a good moment to pause for a delicious, ice-cold drink of schadenfreude. (Can Brits even use the word "schadenfreude" anymore? They may have to pay tariffs on it. And just try arranging a menage a trois in Sheffield now -- by the time you've filled out all the Customs forms, the moment will have passed.)

Apparently the typical Leave voter yearned to bring back the England of old. If Scotland holds another independence referendum, they could end up with the England of 1705.

Politicians are often tagged as liars -- it's about as original as snickering at papal haberdashery -- but has there ever been a display of bald-faced political fraud to match the Leave campaign? The day before the vote, the Leave campaigners were riding around in buses emblazoned with the promise of 350 million pounds in bonus money for splitting with the EU, money they would spend on health care -- but not for nasty Polish people or Arabs. Only for the sort of folks you see on Coronation Street. And the very next day, with the votes counted and the suckers safely in the bag, Farage popped up like the original Whack-a-Weasel to say that it was all a big misunderstanding and there wouldn't be any big Leave bonus after all. Sorry, Humpty Dumpty, your surgery has been cancelled.

Leave champion Boris Johnson then announced he would not stand for the Conservative leadership (which would make him prime minister). Having helped make the mess, he declined to lead the clean up crew. It was like a new version of The Cat in the Hat where the Cat shows up with Thing 1 and Thing 2, trashes the house, hightails it out the door before Mom comes home and never comes back. And leaves blonde hair all over the couch.

At least it seemed that way until it emerged that Johnson wasn't really trying to dodge the trouble he'd helped create -- he had in fact been stabbed in the back by his Leave ally Michael Gove, who wanted to become PM himself. Poor Boris. I haven't felt so bad for a politician since anti-gay Idaho senator Larry Craig got caught playing footsie with a vice cop in a men's washroom.

Farage then decided to bow out too, resigning as leader of the anti-European U.K. Independence Party. "I've done my bit," he proclaimed. Yes you did, Nige. Vini, vidi, and whatever is Latin for "I fucked shit up."

It has all been such hilarious fun that they may have to take away my belt and shoelaces. Among other aspects of the Brexit campaign, it was instructive to watch Fleet Street newspapers decide that the role of British journalism should be to figure out the ugliest, most outrageous lies about the EU and the U.K. immigrant population and flog them into a frothy red lather. It's enough to make one stop worrying about the much-predicted death of the newspaper. At the very least there are a few British editors who wouldn't be missed.

Add in Trump and any number of right-wing nationalist movements across Europe, and you have Democracy 2016.

Not a pretty sight. Sometimes it isn't. Platitudes about the people's voice notwithstanding, the ballot box can be a tool of oppression. If it were truly possible to realize Socrates' ideal of philosopher kings who reluctantly take the mantle of leadership and guide the state with impartial wisdom, that would probably be preferable. In the meantime, Churchill nailed it. This is the best option we've got.

Those who make a case against democracy have at hand the very best of bad examples. It's true that Hitler and the Nazis took power democratically. But it's what they did next that was key -- a staged Reichstag fire to burn down the seat of parliament, followed by the establishment of tyranny. Democracy may have created Chancellor Hitler, but it was the end of democracy that created Der Fuhrer.

That's why one of the darkest periods in recent American democratic history can also be cast as one of its finest. The disputed presidential election of 2000 still leaves a bitter aftertaste. George W. Bush might have won the electoral college fair and square -- it was certainly possible -- but we'll never know thanks to the Supreme Court decision to hand him the victory. The constitutionally impartial judicial branch of the U.S. government took on a distinctly political odour that day, one that it has not yet fully shaken off. It didn't help that their decision led to arguably the worst presidency in modern American history.

But Al Gore and the Democratic Party accepted the decision. Forty years earlier Richard M. Nixon accepted his narrow 1960 defeat by John F. Kennedy despite significant evidence of electoral fraud by the Democrats in Illinois.

In the end, it isn't the winners who make democracy work. It's the losers. You wait for next time. As long as the system survives, there will always be a next time.  [Tyee]

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