Is Democracy Making Us Stupid?

Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland (UNSW Press, 2007).

Democracy, despite having generated the most fertile cultures of modern times and the most successful economies ever, may yet prove to be an own goal. Not only are its cities extraordinarily unlovely, even to their own inhabitants, but its societies suddenly seem as incapable of real adaptation as were the Easter Islanders, felling the last trees to erect the great stone idols that would outlive them.

Democracy, long regarded as supremely responsive, has actually been the great guarantor of stability. But when the environment itself begins to change, stability becomes inertia. And when the ship of state is heading for the rapids, inertia is a problem. Democracy’s greatest strength, in other words, is also its greatest weakness.

Like its ally capitalism, democracy operates from desire. This is its great strength, since desire beats willpower every time. But it is also a potentially fatal weakness. Like capitalism, democracy is about what we want, and fosters the idea not only that we can have what we want, but that we should have it. That we have a right to it.

This comfortable elision between wants and rights is nurtured by advertising (‘because you deserve it’), by litigation (‘who can I sue?’) and by the prosperity that, in installing physical comfort as a daily premise, underpins both. It is sustained by the Nanny State, which fosters quotidian blame-shifting, and by modern medicine, which has relegated death and even disease downstage left, whence they play the nasty reminder, not the constant presence.

Now, this very compulsion to desire-fulfilment has democracy in a trap. If we want to eat meat, with its huge eco-footprint, we do it. If we want to sprawl our cities across the landscape, live in a McMansion, drive an SUV, leave the lights or the hose or the TV on all night, we do precisely that.

It may cost, us or the planet. But it’s our right to make that choice. Even governments are intimidated to the point of being frightened to regulate. If it can’t be achieved by the market, they weakly presume, it can’t be achieved. If electricity other than coal-fired electricity is to be an option, it can only happen through carbon-tax, not through any sort of outright control.

Government is like parenting and what has gone wrong with contemporary parenting is pretty much what has gone wrong with government. Just as today’s parents are reluctant to discipline for fear of causing negative feelings in their offspring, governments are reluctant to govern for fear of alienating their ever more demanding, ever more petulant electorate. We behave like a world full of spoilt babies so monstrous that even our politicians won’t gainsay us.

In theory, democracy only guarantees such ‘rights’ insofar as they do not negatively impact our neighbours. But the reality is not so simple either for the voter or for the politician-cum-decision-maker.

For the voter, there’s not only the old conflict between the self and the herd, but the fact that even this conflict is murky. In modern democracies, anything that smells of the collective, from communism to harmless flower-power hippiedom, is still seen as dangerous. Democracy runs on the pretence that we are not a herd at all, but a loose collection of log-cabin individuals, wilderness dwellers driven mainly by self seeking, like a big family of only children. If this call it collective solipsism sounds like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ it is. Which is why capitalism and democracy are so much in love.

But even the constant struggle between selfishness and altruism isn’t simple, since each of us is both self and as herd-animal. It’s like agitating for more pedestrian rights and then getting frustrated, as a driver, at the traffic-calming that results. Like voting for lower taxes then getting fed up at hospital waiting-lists. In most such conflicts, most of us are on both sides; drivers as well as pedestrians; patients as well as tax-payers. So the conflict is less self-versus-herd than between competing self-interests; between selves.

The irony is that democracies, however individualising, reinforce our herd nature at every step. Just as capitalism pretends to enhance choice but actually reinforces sameness in everything from health insurance to fashion to lifestyle, so democracy enforces the lowest common denominator of mass-culture and mass-opinion even while appealing to each of us as an individual.

This dumbing-down afflicts our culture across the board, from television to architecture to universities, which have abandoned education (it’s elitist) to become cathedrals of customer service. But the tragedy goes further, since the one aspect in which we still enact our individual desires if not our individual minds is voting. As electors we limit our horizons to the back fence, reliably voting on self-interest alone, and economic self-interest at that which is what gives pork-barrelling its power. Thus a terrible paradox has emerged: democracy as a form of mob rule that seems incapable of acting in the mob’s best interests.

This is a form of miswanting, but one that is seldom recognised. And once again, it is driven by the salience syndrome; by our consistent failure fully to imagine the results of our actions, so that what is available, now, for me is always more desirable than what is distant, abstract or collective. Where the impact is attenuated by the ‘it won’t affect me’ attitude as with CO2 emissions and dam levels even self-interest is unreliable.

So we elect the wrong people for their eyes, their teeth, their promises to our hip-pockets then force them to do the wrong thing. Force them do what we want.

And what we want is, it seems, more, and more, and more. An embarrassing factor in our current predicament is that it has arisen less from rising human numbers than from our steeply climbing impact-per-person. We consume more, pollute more and waste more than ever before, and we believe, deep down, that this is our right. We believe, to a degree that no society before has been privileged even to contemplate, that we can have our cake and eat it; that however much we consume there’ll always be more in the tin. More energy, more air, more water, more space. We believe it because we want to believe it and, in the elision of want and right, we’ve forgotten there’s a difference.

Governments kowtow to this belief. If they don’t, we dump them. And so mass-wanting becomes mass-getting. Lifestyles that were once the privilege of the few are now available to the many. And this shift changes everything.

For the politician, as the election partying subsides and the role shifts from baby-patter to decision-maker, there is a morphing process comparable to first-time parenting. Initially, the elected person expects a degree of control, if not outright power. She expects efficacy to issue from her fingertips as lightning from the hands of Zeus.

Gradually, over two or three trimesters, she realises that what it’s really about is not doing right, but doing deals. That most of democracy’s decisions are made not in its debating chambers or parliaments but in backrooms and restaurants and the narrow corridors of power. Not on the basis of principle or conscience, but as handshakes and horsetrades. That the only opinions that count are those of the shock-jocks and (to a lesser extent) editors. That public consultation is carefully designed to change nothing, while giving the public a fleeting illusion of engagement. And that justice is like a game of rock, paper, scissors; spin wins over fact every time. Postmodern government has become, like its critic Baudrillard, a simulacrum of itself.

Climate change like fat, consumerism and sprawl is essentially about discipline, or its absence. But as the issues become politicised, Right-wing lobbyists present any call for discipline as a barely disguised socialist revival. Words like ‘hair-shirt,’ ‘self-hating’ and ‘doomsday’ figure largely; many even argue that the entire climate-change scenario is a concocted Leftist ruse. This is crazy and paranoid, but it is serious. And it rests on the assumption that anything other than pure self-interest any call to decency, far-sightedness or even, heaven forbid, altruism is totalitarianism in disguise.

The temptation is to point out the horrible irony that both the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ of politics are stacked full of soi-disant Christians, who see no conflict between lip service and unbridled self-interest.

The real issue is no longer one of Left versus Right. Those old tribal divisions are so not it. The real choice is between the business-as-usual coalition (call it BUCK) and anyone pushing survival with that thin but priceless veneer we call civilisation roughly intact. Which means a green and clean energy future, with just a touch of altruism. Call it GRACE. And the tragedy for the world is the diehard notion that there is a choice, that BUCK is a genuine option, that the next hundred years can continue just like the last hundred, that we can have BUCK without GRACE.

This is an edited extract of Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness, UNSW Press, $29.95.


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