Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy: Missing the woods of democracy for the trees of expediency

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”  Abraham Lincoln

Most folks, who voted for Brexit, worried about the costs of globalization, feared open borders bringing mass migration into Britain and agonized about ‘faceless’ bureaucrats in Brussels threatening their national sovereignty. Those who voted to remain in the EU, and others who were appalled at the eventual outcome, reacted predictably. Most blamed manipulative politicians, Britain’s infamous tabloid press, xenophobic Little Englanders or even the ill informed rubes who didn’t know any better. Pundits bemoaned the end of post WW2 internationalism; the downing of protectionist shutters; the resumption of nationalistic passions or even the return to the bad old days of European wars and collective bloodletting. Some political scientists questioned the use of a single referendum and said Cameron should have asked for three, spaced, so people would have time to consider the ramifications. Presumably having faith that after casting one (trial balloon of a) vote, we would reflect and make the second (slightly more deliberate one) after which, we would be in a better position to make the third (and finally intelligent) vote. Phew, third time lucky. Playing rock, paper, scissors for as long as it takes to get the right result. Does the democratic process have to look like a visit to one of Trump’s casinos to make it work for us?

Democracies are condemned to eternally balance the tension between popular sentiment, intelligent thought and deliberate action. Intelligence and deliberation are rarely as attractive as heightened emotion and sentimentality. Given a choice, emotion will almost always reign and in its’ wake, populism will win. Populism, usually innocent of reason or complex facts, can be both seductive as well as emotionally satisfying. Emotions generated by thousands marching for a just cause (or against an unjust war) are not wholly dissimilar to that of rioting football fans who believe their team was cheated by a biased referee or a murderous mob angered by a book that ‘insults’ their faith or leader. The presence of hundreds or thousands of others is an elixir that not merely motivates but also validates our choices. Nothing brings reflection and introspection to a halt quite as easily as the certainty that we are right and that multitudes of others believe us to be so. When citizens are unskilled in critical thinking and constructive dialogue, they easily fall prey to propaganda and mass hysteria. It is easy enough to blame Britain’s tabloids, Nigel Farage’s scare mongering or Boris Johnson’s machinations. The real tragedy is that we have partaken of the benefits of democracy without much awareness of how a democratic society functions or indeed our own individual and collective responsibilities in sustaining it.

Here is a critical difference between democracies and all other forms of government: A despotic state treats its citizens as uneducated children who cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions. A democratic state, on the other hand, trusts its citizens to take difficult decisions for the common good. However, here is the rub: A democratic citizenry that is ill informed cannot make educated decisions. A citizenry unwilling to stand up for democratic values leaves the public space open to despots and anarchists.

While not a political scientist, I can count at least five critical elements that are required to ensure a functioning and humane democracy.

  1. Representation: Citizens are able to freely elect their representatives in fair and open elections.
  2. Rule of law: The country is ruled by laws and not by the diktats and wishes of Gods, individuals or groups.
  3. Accountability: Effective checks and balances are built in to ensure that the government is held to the highest standards of probity and is accountable to the people.
  4. Political action: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions through political engagement in the form of advocacy, lobbying and protest.
  5. Dialogic thinking: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions and have them challenged through discussion and dialogue- not merely through representatives who debate or deliberate on their behalf.

Without all these five elements, if democracy were to be reduced to the circus of campaigning, electioneering and sporadic or endemic protest, H.L. Mencken’s belief that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance” would be proven beyond dispute.

Six conversations that should have preceded the Brexit referendum

Had Britain been a robust democracy and the British suffused with the spirit and skills of democratic citizenship, the legitimate question of whether they needed to remain in the EU could have been handled differently. The time between the announcement of a referendum and the eventual holding of it could have been used to inform and educate the UK citizens to vote intelligently. The national and local governments could have organized community level conversations about the issue- to learn about the ins and outs, the complexities and the nuances. These conversations would not be, initially, spaces for advocacy and campaigning, but for learning, seeking clarity and building understanding. Here are the six conversations that could have taken place:

  1. The first conversation could have been about the distinctions between nationalism and internationalism, the historical roots of and the political and philosophical basis of the European Project (that took the shape of the European Union).
  2. The second conversation could have explored the relationship between Britain, EU, US and other countries in matters of security, trade, immigration, culture, etc.
  3. The third conversation could have explored the advantages and disadvantages of staying within the EU and leaving it.
  4. The fourth conversation could have created a space for serious advocacy where citizens could listen to (yes, even impassioned) pleas from all sides of the spectrum.
  5. The fifth conversation could frame the issue not as a binary choice- leave or stay, but as a discussion about how best to address concerns about being in the EU. This could include the following questions- what kind of a EU could we, the British people, envision as worthy of being a part of; how could we help inform or change the EU to meet our distinct interests; and most importantly, what kind of a nation and society do we wish to be?
  6. The sixth conversation could have helped people make deliberate and intelligent choices.

But alas, even in the nation that gave us the Magna Carta and Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, democracy has been reduced to the mechanical action of casting one’s vote. Democratic discourse has now been replaced by screeching, emotional campaigning that reduces all complex ideas to simple, idiotic sound bites and bumper stickers. Voila Brexit!


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