I once had a wonderful boss who at the end of several management meetings that involved reaching a decision would announce: “I believe in democracy, one man one vote.” There would then be a pause during which we would all reflect on how we would vote. “I’m the man, this is how I vote. This is what we will do,” he would announce. Meeting ended; there had been a vote.
Was he wrong? Technically, he was not being very democratic. In a true democracy each eligible citizen has an equal vote. There is no weighted voting.
But how many true democracies are there? How many votes are based on a transparent equality of voters? For many years, we should remember, slaves were not considered as equal voices in the United States. Women were not eligible to vote in federal elections in Switzerland until 1971 or until the Nineteenth Amendment confirmed their participation in 1920 in the United States,
Recent elections in Switzerland and the Democratic primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire give reason to pause and reflect on voting and democracy. How could 57% of Swiss voters reject a nationwide initiative to encourage and promote affordable housing? How could the Democrats botch the Iowa caucus while snapping at each other in the Granite State when they should be cooperating to get out the voters to defeat Donald Trump in November?
A recent op-ed by Yuval Noah Harari in the New York Times was helpful in my understanding perceived weaknesses of voting. According to Harari, noted historian, philosopher and best-selling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the politics of voting is merely the expression of desire. He contrasts the ballot expression of desire to scientific exploration to uncover truths. Truths are objective and scientific; desires are emotional and political.
The implication of this distinction is that people do not always vote what is true. How could anyone vote against affordable housing? There are certainly arguments to be made about who decides, density of construction and liberty of choice. There are also arguments to be made about who is the best candidate in terms of who best represents my beliefs. But there should be no argument that the Democratic priority should be who can win the next presidential election to unseat Donald Trump.
To me, affordable housing or winning a political election are true in principle. But, obviously, as truths, they are not necessarily what plays out as expressions of desire.
While democracy can exist as an abstract principle, as a political activity it is far different in practice. And that practice is very often a very different sphere from truth or truth seeking. The Washington Post has counted more than 15,000 lies told by Donald Trump up till now. Does it matter? Apparently not. His popularity has never been so high. Today, he is favored to win the November election with about 50% approval rating.
There must be some relationship between voting my desire and truth. Harari concludes by defending institutions. “No matter in which country you live, if you want to preserve democracy, vote for politicians who respect the institutions that investigate and publish the truth. Vote for a party that tells the people that they have the right to elect whatever government they like, but they cannot elect whatever truth they like,” he wrote.
If it was only that simple. We are seeing institutions becoming objects of desire. All is not what it was; all is not what it seems to be. The separation of the objective from the subjective went out with the German scientist Werner Heisenberg. When we look at something, what we are looking at changes. In political terms, Trump’s desire for power is enabling him to influence the Department of Justice. He sees no separation of desire from justice or truth.
The current political polarization reflects an inability to reach consensus, to have a collective decision that reflects both desire and truth. Consensus is general agreement on something. If we only vote our individual desire, there can be no true consensus. And political truths are the totality of collective action, the general consensus.
My wonderful boss never ran for political office. He was not a politician. He listened attentively to our opinions, but ultimately relied only on his judgment, which was outstanding. He was not interested in collective action.
Switzerland is held up as an example of a democratic country. Its system of initiatives and referendums gives power to the voters. What is hoped for is that the populations’ expressions of their desires reflect something realistic, if not true. Trump’s 50% approval rating after 15,000 or more lies reflect cognitive dissonance, not positive collective action.