Well there you have it: in the space of six months, three electorates that did not feel part of a trajectory towards one big happy global family have registered overwhelming protest votes. Three electorates have said an emphatic “No!” to relinquishing isolationist attitudes and embracing a prejudice free future.
Of the three, the electoral outcome least likely to have an adverse impact on Northern Ireland is the one that took place here, on May 5th; and of course, unlike Brexit and the election of President Trump, its result came as no surprise.
Which may in fact put us ahead of the head of the game: we are well down the road of acknowledging that we don’t all share a common vision of the future, but for now at least we’ve agreed to abide by the outcome of a democratic election, and theoretically no longer exclude large sections of the population from the political process. Quite how we managed that, when there was fundamental disagreement on the legitimacy of the democratic unit itself, I’m still not sure, but I think, amongst other things, it was a triumph of political pragmatism.
I’m afraid that I’m coming more to the view that pragmatism rather than principle is the best that we can expect for human society, other than that the principle of a democratic election itself is upheld. The triumph of brute farce and ignorance over political sophistication that we have just witnessed across the Atlantic indicates to me that there are an awful lot of people who are fed up with being told to be respectful towards fellow citizens who are superficially different.
Donald Trump has provided a role model of political incorrectness that I suspect a host of straight white males will be more than happy to emulate. Here in the statelet of the comarooned, those lucky enough to have a public sector job are bound by Section 75 of the Equality Legislation to reign in their prejudices in the workplace; but if you’re a laid off Pennsylvania steel worker, why bother?
If people were more free to say what they really think, does that not mean that at least you would know where you stand, that every encounter wouldn’t simply be mask-meets-mask? But I guess mask-meets-mask is preferable when the alternative is naked bigotry and prejudice, and this year’s polls suggest there’s plenty of both about.
Liberal democracy seeks to highlight what we share in common, beginning with the common ground of agreeing on an inclusive and nonviolent means of establishing a government, but elections themselves can and do generate new divisions, not least the danger of political or even moral bigotry, where anyone who doesn’t share our opinion becomes viewed as being suspect, a new “us” and “them” to supplant traditional prejudices.
Liberal democracy can also be frustrating: no matter how deeply considered well informed and communally orientated you think your opinion is, your vote isn’t worth any more than that of a mouthbreathing couch potato who’s unexamined life Socrates would declare not worth living (unless, of course, they can’t be bothered to cast theirs). You may conclude that the majority of your fellow electorate are irredeemably selfish or stupid or sheeplike, and incapable of making a decision for the common good, but we all have to share the same space and giving everyone a vote seems the fairest way to respect that. For what are the alternatives? – benign dictatorship might sound like a better option, but good luck with finding one.
Even if a liberal democracy makes progress in overcoming prejudice, perhaps the most divisive factor in modern society is wealth inequality. When elected governments take the brakes off capitalism, economic injustice becomes rampant and community mindedness deteriorates or is lost altogether. It’s a reasonable thesis that the man whom white workingclass America has just elected President made his money from the same system that left them on the scrap heap, and once his conciliatory honeymoon is over, he may yet repeal the best chance they and their children will ever have of decent healthcare.
Life will remain brutally hard for many people in the U.S., and made harder by having to live in the full knowledge that some of their fellow citizens are having a great time without a thought for them, perhaps even at their expense. No wonder they used their vote to give the Establishment the fingers – but what a triumph of political evolution that they have the mechanism to do so! At least on polling day, in a democracy each citizen still matters, and that is something to be proud of during every election, even if like the Tory MP who lost his seat in Blair’s 1997 landslide we cry “I can’t believe the electorate got it so wrong!”