Our diminishing tolerance for difference is bad for democracy
The French have been in panic mode. After the first round of voting for new regional assemblies the right-wing Front National had a remarkably strong showing. They could win a significant seat of power and a year and a half out from the Presidential election this was significant. It didn’t happen. Not because the FN vote collapsed in the second round but because the two incumbent parties colluded to withdraw candidates and support each other to ensure that the FN were held off.
And as the FN’s hopes collapsed to dust, my social media stream was filled with the cheers of the British liberal middle class. During daylight hours, professional proponents of strong democracy, by night cheering on the manipulation of a political process because their liberal minds cannot contend with the alternative. Cannot contend with the idea of someone they fundamentally disagree with holding power. That’s understandable, like our own home-grown UKIP, the FN are a nasty echo of racist, nationalist evils. But this reaction still worries me.
It worries me because I don’t see how conniving to subvert the democratic process is a winning strategy. The rise of a new right in Europe is a reaction to cultural and economic circumstances as well as history. It won’t be addressed by political incumbents working together to obstruct them. Second, what signal does this send about the true strength of democracy? Is it a democracy only within the parameters defined by an established elite? Is it telling us that some people aren’t to be trusted to vote ‘properly’?
And what if this were a new, progressive left wing party that was being blocked from power? I suspect that many of those same voices would be crying foul, not cheering the outcome.
Mostly I’m alarmed that this response fails to address the problem. All it really does is demonstrates the arrogance of the political incumbency to an increasingly disenfranchised electorate. How can that be good for either democracy or civic cohesion in the long run? And it risks emboldening and empowering the outliers and extremists. It risks further alienating those on the margins, pushing them into the arms of those extremists. It feels short-termist and about as likely to succeed as King Canute.
This is part of a wider problem in which it seems that we’ve lost our tolerance for difference and given up on the ideal of reasoned debate. This might suit some in a morally mediocre liberal democracy, it definitely works in the interests of political incumbency (and is being used as an explicit strategy by some) but it alarms me.
It’s there in the baying of the British press criticising Jeremy Corbyn for everything he does, or doesn’t do, from disavowing war to wearing a track suit in public. It’s there in our increasingly social media led, knee-jerk democracy-by-petition culture; ban the idiotic buffoon that is Donald Trump or a boxer from some sports awards because it turns out his mind hasn’t left the 17th century. Now add cheering the corruption of the democratic process to keep out something that seems, well, a bit nasty and unpleasant.
A diminishing tolerance for difference. For disagreement. Worse still, a creeping normative condition where the default position of the political class is to block or ban, rather than engage, debate and refute. But to ‘win’ the argument through obstruction rather than legitimate debate is surely a misuse of power. I don’t see how we can claim to have a strong culture of democracy if we cannot debate not just at the centre but on the extremes too. Yes, I detest what the Front National stands for but this isn’t the way to overcome it. Poor old Voltaire will be “burling in his grave”, to borrow an expression from Alex Salmond.