As I write, America and her international audience are anticipating an election that – regardless of how the numbers work out – is certain to decide nothing. Well, I suppose after some kicking and screaming and not a few riots (complete with gunshots), some old white guy will get to sleep in the presidential palace for four years, if he lives that long. And, there will be many more books published – and much hand-wringing on CNN – by the faithful who still believe in American exceptionalism and the oft-repeated mantra, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
The trouble, of course, is the people. In his 1953 novel In The Wet, British novelist Nevil Shute has a protagonist explain the following: “I doubt if history can show, in any country, in any time, a more greedy form of government than democracy as practiced in Great Britain in the last fifty years… The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long term interests of his children, regardless of the wider interests of his country.”
An ocean away, and not a century earlier, Abraham Lincoln delivered that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” mantra to an audience of dead neighbours at Gettysburg. And here we are, a century and a half later, watching the folly unfold once again. “The people,” we moan, “are letting us down! They are uneducated, lazy, greedy. They don’t trust the media, they don’t trust the science. They’re going to riot in the streets if they don’t get their way. They’re too stupid to understand…”
Excuse me: of course they understand. They understand all too well. They understand that at least fifty percent of the population considers them “the deplorables” and refuses to pay for the education they need to succeed, the health care they need to survive, and the environment and infrastructure they need to thrive. They don’t care to hear promises about searching for solutions and working to fix problems… they need their “government of the people” to cough up the damn money and actually fix the problems by enacting the solutions, one of which would be to train and pay them properly to work on the things that are important to our shared society.
Making it to the next rodeo will mean that we cannot adopt Nevil Shute’s somewhat nihilist view of “the common man” and allow our society to shrivel into at least an oligarchy or at worst a full-blown dictatorship. Democracy may seem to be an imperfect tool for governing a state, but for it to have any chance at all of success we must pay more than lip-service to maintaining a healthy, educated and prosperous common society.
Neither is democracy a meritocracy; embracing it means we must accept that every single human being has exactly the same rights and responsibilities as every other single human being at every stage of life. If we do not rise to that call, we will forever receive exactly what we deserve: government by the greedy.