Voter responsibility

Democracy is a bizarre thing. We are encouraged (especially immediately after an election) to ascribe the policies of certain sections of the population, to everyone within that population. In actual fact, we know next-to-nothing about the particular individual at the other end of our finger, other than where he lives.

Last week we heard that a large proportion of voters in the UK are considering voting for the BNP (as many as eighty percent in Margaret Hodge’s constituency, she warns us). This prompted the following quip from the highly entertaining Pigdogfucker:

25% of English voters “might be” terrible cunts.

Meanwhile, Tim Newman comments on the nature of democracy in Palestine, and suggests that the Palestinians are stuck with their choice of government. If that has negative consequences for their international funding, as a result of electing a terrorist group to power, then that is their problem. (Via Devil’s Kitchen, who agrees.)

Whenever I hear someone make a throwaway remark of the format “God, I hate Americans,” I point out that actually, they probably don’t. In fact (I say), what they mean is that aspects of American culture annoy them. Those aspects are probably caricatures (gas-guzzlers, homogenising fast-food chains, the NRA, preposeterous statistics about how few Americans have passports) that are not representative of most citizens. At worst, I tell them, they actually hate exactly half the people in America (usually but not exclusively those who voted red). And moreover, they have no way of knowing who those people are, so to hate them seems rather counter-productive, not to mention a bit racist.

Surely the same applies to extreme national or local governments that may be voted in elsewhere. If the BNP do win council seats during the UK local elections, few will follow the Pigdogfucker lead and say “well obviously the people of Barking are… barking,” because for a large proportion of the population that will simply not be true. Not only will it definitely not be true for those who voted for someone other than the BNP… but we will be inclined to extend the courtesy to many of those who did. Rather than blame the voters for being generally racist and ignorant of what is actually good for them, we will instead cite the rise in racist politics as somehow a failure of the incumbent parties on a national and local level.

We do not extend this ‘courtesy’ to the Palestinians. Instead we write them off as people not interested in peace, forgetting that there are plenty of their number who did not vote for terrorism (only one third of the total electorate voted for Hamas, for example). Nor do we seem willing to appreciate any subtlety or difference of opinion within American politics: “God, I hate Americans…”

Remember the old saying, about how an Opposition never wins an elections, but Governments lose them? This is important with regards to how much responsibility the electorate must take for their government. The adage above implies that people vote retrospectively, casting their ballot not on what they expect the new government to do, but on what the old government has done. If extremists are elected to power, this analysis would place a much of the responsibility on the shoulders of the outgoing government! Only when we consider the electorate to be voting prospectively and not retrospectively, does the balance seem to tip in favour of blaming the voters themselves for a poor choice.

Clearly, people vote for a mixture of prospective and retrospective reasons. But the notion of blaming an electorate for the government it has chosen remains problematic. Personally (and I suspect, in common with many others) find it difficult to take any personal responsibility for the recent actions of my own government, because I did not vote for them. Likewise, pointing at a random Palestinian and saying “sorry mate, you brought it on yourself” seems spectacularly unfair, as is calling anyone from Barking a racist.

Democracy is a bizarre thing. Because governments take their legitimacy from the voters, we are encouraged (especially immediately after an election) to ascribe the policies and beliefs of certain sections of the population, to everyone within that population. In actual fact, we know next-to-nothing about the particular individual at the other end of our finger, other than where he lives. He is damned by the tyranny of the majority, and suffers our prejudice as a result.

8 thoughts on “Voter responsibility”

  1. Likewise, pointing at a random Palestinian and saying “sorry mate, you brought it on yourself” seems spectacularly unfair, as is calling anyone from Barking a racist.

    I’m not sure who you are referring to with this sentence, but I hope it isn’t me. My position is that the Palestinians (meaning the electorate) elected Hamas into government, and like it or not, they are stuck with them until the end of their term of office. I understand that not all Palestinians voted for Hamas, but collectively they voted in such a manner that Hamas has been elected.

    My point is that no Palestinian, having collectively voted in such a way that Hamas is now their government, has the right to demand international aid to assist Hamas in implementing its policies. The fact that not all Palestinians voted for Hamas matters not one jot in this instance.

    If Palestinians collectively want international aid, they are going to have to learn to collectively vote in such a way that Hamas does not get into power – in much the same way that the UK votes collectively to ensure the BNP does not get into power, i.e. by isolating the BNP politically and voting for more moderate parties. If the British public show apathy or recklessness to the point that we collectively manage to elect a BNP government, then we will deserve everything we get.

  2. Tim, I do not know to whom Robert is referring either, but I feel you are a bit harsh to say that I deserve whatever may happen if a BNP government is elected even if I vote for another party. I may have done all in my power to make sure that the BNP do not get enough votes, so I may have to suffer the consequences but do I deserve them??
    We are into the realms of collective responsibily.

  3. I feel you are a bit harsh to say that I deserve whatever may happen if a BNP government is elected even if I vote for another party.

    You personally will not deserve whatever may happen. But “we”, as in the electorate, collectively will.

    We are into the realms of collective responsibily.

    Exactly. And if an electorate are not collectively responsible for whom they vote into office, then with whom does the responsibility of electing a suitable government lie?

  4. Very good Rob.

    But the whole point of democracy is that it IS a “tyranny” of the majority. I’m not sure that “tyranny” is quite the right word though, since that implies an arbitrary use of authority, whereas a democratically-organised set-up is by definition not arbitrary. I think, as Kathy says, the question is whether the majority of the electorate are well-educated, well-informed and well-motivated to vote for an ethical government – and the answer to that in any given instance is a product of previous government policies.

    Also, I don’t think hating Americans really counts as racist – which race exactly is being hated in such a situation?

  5. Also, I don’t think hating Americans really counts as racist – which race exactly is being hated in such a situation?

    Prejudice then. Assuming that all people are going to be similar, when they’re not.

  6. Yes. I can see why voting should be anonymous, but I think that removes responsibility from the individual. There should be consequences in the form of personal punishments for voting stupidly, or in a reactive or ill-informed manner. People shouldn’t be able to say “*I* didn’t vote for them” without being able to prove it. And if they can’t prove it, then they should be able to justify why they voted as they did, or face punishment.

  7. “Instead we write them off as people not interested in peace,”

    No we don’t. At least I don’t. I write off the *Government* of the PA as not being interested in peace.

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