Perhaps it’s time for a re-frame. The world’s best attempt so far at democracy has been the subject of much criticism. We may have seen the best and worst of democracy in action.
Certainly, we have seen a massive turnout of voters, largely in a free and open manner, enabled to cast their votes as they wish. Of large nations which play an influential global role, there are not many where that could happen. We may not like the voters’ preferences but they have exercised choice. That the choice reveals a country with such apparently diverging views, so closely contested, is a remarkable outcome. But it points to one reality. That at least is a starting point. The question now is what to do about it.
That the result is so divergent should not be surprising. Voters have been presented with what is in effect a binary choice. Like so many decisions taken recently in Western democracies, there is little room for nuance, subtlety, paradox or complexity. It is Yes or No, In or Out, Leave or Remain, Left or Right, Trump or Biden. With such a limited range of options, and when social media and instant news breeds trivial responses and superficial understanding, it is perhaps inevitable that the arguments become polarised and the contests more adversarial. At the crucial stage of decision-making, we have denied richness and, perhaps, have got the outcomes we deserve. It is about winners and losers where, possibly, we all lose in the end.
More than that, the binary system provokes our more primitive instincts, including fight or flight and the primeval protective reflex of fear. Perhaps having an election during a pandemic, when our collective and individual fears have been triggered more than at any time in the recent past, accentuates this reaction. Fear of loss and self-protection may, paradoxically, lead to us all losing.
Even in a rights-based democracy, where adversarial debate, single truths and win/lose outcomes prevail, there is the risk that, when democracy appears not to be working, we revert to a more autocratic approach, especially if we are frightened. In that scenario, issues are simplified, complexity is ignored, unrest is provoked and fascism may loom. Or anarchy.
While some political strategists and academics will be fully aware of these effects of the binary system in the 21st century, most of us are not. It is surely time to open up this discussion and ask serious questions about how we make collective decisions in this era. That this is important for Scotland and the UK in the near future should be obvious to us all.
The task is surely to find ways to move towards a win/win culture, with dialogue as the means to build understanding and consensus in a highly complex, volatile world. This is hard work, as we seek to tackle problems together, collaboratively and with humility and mutual respect. It is perhaps more than good fortune that we have in Scotland, with our experiment in Citizens Assemblies, one serious attempt to do just this.
John Sturrock, November 2020