“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” This is supposedly a quote from Winston Churchill. Whether it is a real quote or simply a quote birthed from the internet, the statement holds true.
When it comes to mass governance the sad truth is that humanity is kind of bad at it.
We will vote along strange and incomprehensible lines that will make no sense to future generations or even ourselves in a few months or years. We will vote with our wallets, our ethnicities, races, the bedtime stories of our grandmothers and the strange ideas on how we envision the future.
Recently, the United States voted in someone who no one ever thought would become president. When the shock subsided, we all bemoaned how they had showed us their true face; how they had electorally failed the world as the most powerful nation in the world. They may be powerful but they are filled with average joes voting. Americans are not special voting unicorns. Like the rest of us, they shall and will make a hash of it sometimes no matter how much we evolve in terms of our ideas. Historically it is what we have always done and continue to do.
In Kenya, the post-election violence in 2007 showed the world how the country was divided along tribal lines. It showed us our propensity to violence based on skewed beliefs. Many pretended that they wanted change, different policies and all sorts of other arguable things, but what most really wanted was a president that reflected their face; one who they could identify with. In Zimbabwe, there are still people who love Robert Mugabe, even without the threat of violence or the promise of a few bags of maize meal during election time.
At home, in South Africa, the ANC are voted in despite their multiple failings because the heartstrings of the anti-apartheid movement can still be plucked to play a beautiful Pied Piper-esque tune. The residual emotions, memories and sentiments are simply too strong, no matter how much the Democratic Alliance procures people’s cell phone numbers and SMSes people. No matter how many anti-Zuma protests happen or young fallists are hunted and students teargassed. And before the ANC, there was the apartheid government that was not so much voted out as forced out by adding some colour to the voting pool. Had it not been for that, we would still be voting 10 white guys into the top 10 positions in a predominantly black country.
And one must not be all high and mighty and think this is an African problem.
With Brexit, it goes without saying. Watching BBC, one would think those voting “leave” knew what they were doing only to find that the most Googled thing in a post-Brexit world was “what is the EU?“. Within Europe there also seems to be a push away from old ideas of unity and coming together, liberal ideas and all that sexy 20th Century post-world war stuff. There are numerous think pieces about “the rise of the right” within Europe. A piece by the New York Times speaks about how, amid a host of factors including the migrant crisis, slow economic growth and disillusionment with the European Union, there have been political gains by right-wing parties within the region. To put the Europe progression into context, Hitler was once voted into power (and featured in the US version of House and Garden) before his name would later be used as a slur. Now there is a new rise of neo-Nazism, albeit still in toned-down forms.
Things shift back and forth, according to the whims of humans and these whims we apply to our beloved democratic processes.
The “Overton window” is a political science term that references “the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment”. It speaks to what is “politically popping” within a certain context and the shifts back and forth in history show how this window can shift at any given moment. The examples above were all political shifts in themselves, from vowing to never draw on race, nationality, religion and ethnicity in the 1900s to running entire campaigns based on the categories in 2007, 2009 and even 2016. From forming the United Nations and the European Union to nationalist movements, telling Europeans to go back home and even throwing rocks at your fellow Luos.
With the avalanche of “information” open to people in today’s world, the ability to form a completely different viewpoint based on a whole host of “irrefutable pieces of information” and the echo chambers we inhabit, instil and solidify these ideas. So at any given time you shall always be on the right side of history according to your personal views.
As humans we are fundamentally flawed and, despite our logic, can shift and accommodate any form of lunacy.
This means that, at any point, any of us can be be on the wrong side of history. Or what we perceive as the wrong side. There are millions of people in America and the world who now see a new dawn while others see the apocalypse. Sometimes it’s about the facts, most of the time it is not. It is about the gut and then throwing the facts behind it. The shock and awe that the US could vote in Trump speaks less to the failure of Americans and more to our own general failings. That pendulum will keep on swinging and we shall keep getting it wrong because, at the end of the day, we are human. We have all had our Trump moment and we shall all have another because human nature means we suck at this democracy thing.