Strange as it may seem, there was once a time not too long ago when the United Kingdom and the United States were held up to the developing world as exemplars of the benefits of democracy. Today, as the former hurtles seemingly inexorably towards a dreaded “no-deal Brexit” and the latter is in the throes of an impeachment inquiry, one question springs to mind: is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy?
The current state of the Anglo-Saxon world would certainly appear to suggest so. Steeped in an ever-deepening constitutional crisis, courtesy of its 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, the UK has installed a populist, Boris Johnson, as leader. On the other side of the Atlantic, the US is governed by a similarly incompetent populist, Donald Trump.
A famous quote from a 1920 article by US journalist Henry Mencken seems to adequately capture the situation: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Mencken believed that democratic competition would inevitably result in a race to the bottom and laid the blame on the ignorance and stupidity of the electorate. “The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself … filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
This rather pessimistic view of the nature of the average voter, however, does not necessarily capture the complexity of the democratic process and the day-to-day reality we live in.
Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola, offers a different explanation: “Democracy is hard,” she writes when discussing the Schadenfreude many in the third world feel at the chaos of Brexit. “It requires constant vigilance – something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.”
For many, life is already a soul-sapping constant struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over one’s head. In such circumstances, constant popular engagement with the issues of the day as well as keeping an eye on what the state and political elite get up to, as is necessary for any democracy to thrive, seem onerous. So voters take short-cuts which include relying on someone else to tell them what is going on in the democratic kitchen.
For example, in Kenya, during the 2010 referendum on adopting a new constitution, many people openly admitted that they did not bother reading the document. “Baba amesoma” (father has read it), a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best-known politician in the country, was a common refrain.
With little knowledge of constitutionalism and little time to get clued in, voters were opting to take their cue from him. Similarly, Brits were not necessarily fully informed before they headed to the polling booths to cast their vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Whether they take their cues from politicians, journalists or other self-appointed “experts”, one risk is the electorate may not know when they are being misled, as many say was the case with Brexit. But then again, voters may not care.
Seeking the truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics and politicians. Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans, less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins.
If voters do not care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? Much like going to a football game and cheering for your favourite team, voting allows people the vicarious satisfaction of participation without the hard work of getting onto the field and wrestling with the issues. And like their sports teams, many voters rarely pick political teams based on their ideas rather than on arbitrary considerations such as ethnicity or place of birth. If your family and neighbours vote for a particular side, the likelihood is so will you.
The media exacerbates this trend both in the content of their reporting and in which manner they do so. They report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. To attract larger audiences, the sensational is prioritised over the important, and anything that cannot be easily reduced to a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment is abandoned.
Brought up on this fast news diet, voters believe that, in Somin’s words, “the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. This leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and a preference for “plain speaking” populist politicians, like Trump or Johnson, who disregard complexity. After all, if the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge.
Populism is thus less a cause of democratic demise than it is a consequence of it. Western democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time as a result of the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites, where the former defer to the latter as long as they deliver economic growth and prosperity.
This has transformed democracy into a reality show, where elites compete over who gets a turn at the trough, while the media provides a running commentary and the public is reduced to watching on TV and casting votes for the winner. Is it any wonder that this model has produced a real-life reality show host as the leader of the free world?
Democracy is hard. That is not news to the societies struggling for democracy against tyrannical regimes which time and again have been ridiculed by the West as “banana republics” and “shithole countries” for their trouble. What is news, though, is the cost of trying to fake it as the West has been trying to do.
Plato warned that “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”. To that we can now add the lesson from the ongoing political debacles in the US and the UK: the penalty for reducing democratic participation to mere voting is that you will be governed by “morons”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.