Posting here has been light due to a catastrophe that I cannot yet bring myself to discuss. Don’t worry, no-one has died, but its a bereavement of sorts.
The political crisis in Kenya, and the US Presidential Primary season, remind me of some old thoughts on the nature of democracy. First, is voting along ethnic lines really democratic? Apparently the Kenyan crisis has an ethnic element, with supporters of Kibaki and Odinga dividing along tribal, rather than ideological lines. As I said before, such voting seems to be nothing more than a count to see who has the bigger gang, and undermines the rationalism on which democracy is supposed to rest.
Meanwhile, a race row circles the Democratic Party like a vulture. “Is America ready for a black president?” squwark the commentators, comfortable with their cliches. Just under a year ago, I wondered whether a good indicator of a mature democracy is when someone who is not from the traditional ruling elite is elected. I admit this is a rather optimistic stance when Hillary and Barack are mudslinging, but I think there’s a kernel of truth here. Voting for someone who is different, be it gender, colour or ethnicity, requires a certain confidence in the system. It is an acknowledgement that you have certain things in common with someone from a different background (this is what the Dalai Lama calls multiculturalism). And of course, it means there is a high level of political equality.
The counter argument is that, in a democracy, we don’t get to set the terms on which people vote, and that a citizen can vote based on whatever criteria they choose – including racist or sexist considerations. Attempting to stamp this out would be ineffectual and illiberal. This may be true, but I think the point about the relative health of a democracy still holds. If you’re voting for someone purely on the basis of ethnicity or gender, then I’m sorry, but you’re not doing it right.
Other countries are not immune. I recently read that Jacob Zuma will probably become “South Africa’s third black president“, as if his ethnicity was politically interesting in that country, with its very particular history. A white president in modern South Africa is currently impossible, but that would be the more politically significant milestone, because only then will politics be blind to race.
Here in London, Rushanara Ali is the Labour Candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, and therefore stands a good chance of becoming the UK’s first female Muslim MP. If she is elected, it may count as a contrived first, but I understand that the campaign against her is likely to centre around her religion and gender, rather than her ideas or achievements. Not very mature at all.