Why democracy is more than just casting a vote

There’s a common perception in The Bahamas, and perhaps in other parts of the world too, though I can’t speak to them, that democracy flourishes during election seasons, when the citizenry is given its chance to elect the people that will govern the nation in ordinary times.

According to this perception, the power of the Bahamian people (in our parliamentary system) is limited to one moment in time, generally falling roughly every five years, when the citizens of the nation indicate their approval or disapproval for the way in which their affairs have been handled by voting for or against the group of people who have handled those affairs. Once that moment has passed, though, the people’s power subsides, and the elected officials assume it.

But that is not all there is to democracy. Not at all.

What democracy is

The idea of “democracy”—at least the idea that the western world holds about democracy—is said to have originated in Ancient Greece, in Athens. Rather than being ruled by a monarch or an aristocracy, the government consisted of the Athenian citizens themselves. These citizens would gather in public spaces to discuss the affairs of the city-state, and vote directly on important matters.

But that was ancient times, and only a handful of people living in Athens were considered “citizens”: men who owned land. This limited the government to a small group of people who had decision-making power, and excluded from this process were women, servants, people who owned no land, and slaves.

Later manifestations of democracy, those that found their expressions in the Americas, initially adopted this model. But this was expanded in the nineteenth century to include all free male citizens of a particular nation-state, and then in the twentieth to include women as well. By the time we entered the twenty-first century, the idea of “democracy” included the right of all citizens of a nation-state to have some say—usually through voting for representatives—in their government.

So we can say that what we understand democracy to be is government of the people by the people. How that actually works itself out, though, is a matter of some difference the world over.

Here in The Bahamas, it’s worth thinking about the way we have so far engaged in the process, and it’s time to ask ourselves whether the democracy we have become used to—casting a vote every five years—is still meeting our needs today.

Bahamian democracy—direct or representative?

What we practice here is representative democracya form of democracy which depends on the sovereign (i.e. the citizens) choosing individuals to represent their wider concerns in a place of government. The election of those individuals is a matter of trusting them to work not only for the general good but also in the interest of those people they represent.

This is a different form of democracy from that practised in ancient Greece or in ancient Africa, or even in Switzerland until the twentieth century. In those societies, democracy was direct: citizens gathered in public spaces to vote on matters that pertained to them.

Direct democracy works well in situations where the society is relatively small, where issues can be brought before town meetings and discussed by the populace, or where democracy is limited to certain sectors of the population—say land-owners, or men, or members of a certain race or class.

Representative democracy works better when populations grow too large for individual citizens to have a useful perspective of the needs of the whole society. It also is useful in situations where a minority of citizens have the education, the means, or the information to comprehend the bigger picture. It is a very practical way of running a society. Good government, after all, is time-consuming and requires a lot of effort.

The benefits of representative democracy

When populations grow too big and issues are pressing, every challenge cannot logistically be brought before every citizen to be voted upon. Further, ordinary citizens tend to be driven primarily by their own self-interest, and are not in the habit of considering the common good, especially where that common good might infringe upon their own needs or desires.

Take the question of New Providence traffic, for example. The source of the problem is simple: there are too many cars on the island. The solution is also simple: to reduce the number of cars on our roads in one way or another—by restricting the number of cars that can be imported, or by limiting the number of cars that a household can own, or by creating an efficient public transportation system that makes it unnecessary for individuals to have to drive everywhere.

But which individual is likely to opt for any of these solutions? Some of us may voluntarily choose to limit ourselves to one car per household, but the probability that all of us will do so is slim. In a case where we voted directly on this issue, most people would probably choose to benefit themselves and their families and ignore the common good.

In this situation, representative government is a valid option. Individuals are elected to take the difficult decisions on behalf of the state as a whole. And by voting for those individuals, most citizens agree to have a single person represent them at the decision-making levels in society.

The dangers of representative democracy

The issue facing us now in The Bahamas is that our governments are only as good as the people who represent their constituents. Our form of representative government is not very extensive. In a country of 400,000 odd people, we have the equivalent of one representative for every 1,000 citizens. This representative is expected to do many things: serve as members of the cabinet, chairs of government agencies, legislators, and representatives of their constituencies. They are expected to handle the most mundane annoyances—like the collection of trash and repair of potholes—as well as national and international issues, like foreign investors’ project proposals and avoiding financial downgrades.

Unfortunately, the majority of representatives that we elect are ill prepared for these responsibilities. Our system of government is also poorly structured to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. The fact that we have only one single tier of government—people who serve at the national level—is also a drawback. It does not allow people who wish to serve their nation to gain experience in thinking and planning collectively, with the result that bad decisions are routinely made.

Our system is also overly partisan. In the normal scheme of things, the citizenry is given a say only at election time, and the ordinary citizen has no say over the people who are brought before them to elect. The vast majority of these individuals are selected by political parties in closed-door sessions with no public oversight and no accountability to the citizenry. Candidates are presented to the electorate in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, in the confidence that the electorate will simply vote along party lines.

Once elected, the MPs are no longer accountable to the people who elected them. There is nothing compelling them to keep their constituents informed about the legislation that comes before them as MPs; they are not obliged to consult with the people they purport to represent before voting on any particular matter. Indeed, their primary loyalty is expected to be to their political party, not to the citizens they represent. What this creates is an oligarchy rather than a democracy, and defeats the principle of government for and by the people. What we get instead is government for and by the party, a distortion of the very idea of democracy.

We need a new approach

The democracy that we practice here in The Bahamas, this voting for people who represent parties, not the citizenry, is not serving us well. The people we send to the House of Parliament are not our representatives at all. They are not there to serve us. They are there to serve their political parties, and we, the citizens, have no say within those entities unless we decide to declare an affiliation with one or the other, become an active member, and get to a place where we can vote for prospective candidates. But this state of affairs defeats the purpose of one person, one vote. Those people who choose the candidates do so behind closed doors, and are not accountable to the citizenry for that vote. The citizens, on the other hand, are at their mercy when they are faced with their choices at election time.

So what can we do about it?

Democracy: more than just casting a vote

In the first place, we have to get past this idea that democracy is something that happens once every five years. We have to get beyond the concept that the people we send to the House of Assembly are our “leaders”, and remember they are our representatives. We have to start exercising the rights that are guaranteed us in our constitution, namely the freedoms of conscience (to believe what we want to believe), of expression (to say what we think) and of assembly (to gather together in large groups) to make our voices heard. When we are not happy with the way in which we are being represented, we have the right—indeed, because this is a democracy, we have the duty—to let our representatives know we are not happy. And we have to be prepared to do this whether we have leaders to follow or not.

So when we are unhappy with the way in which our representatives are serving us, we have the right and the duty to say so, and there are many legal channels available to us. There are certain limits on our freedom; we are not guaranteed absolute freedom of expression, for instance, and certain forms of speech, certain things we say—or the way in which we say them—have consequences. But we do have the right to say what we think, and we should. One of the slogans used by the We March movement of 2015-2016 was this: the power of the people is greater than the people in power. We would do well to remember that.

There is one last thing I need to say about democracy. One thing that is intoxicating about the idea that democracy is the government of the people by the people is the sense that it is the majority that makes the critical decisions. I frequently see discussions of democracy lead to this point: that whatever the majority of the people in the nation want is what must happen.

But that misses the point of democracy, which is that each individual member of a society is equal to every other individual member. The mob (the unthinking majority, which reacts based on emotional, often selfish, impulses) is not greater than the individual; democracy is an aggregate of individuals. What that means is that in true democracies, the rights of minorities are guarded and protected.

The place of the minority

In our system, which elects people based on a simple majority of votes (the first-past-the-post system), we tend to hold the idea that if a citizen is not part of the mainstream, their rights are not valuable. But this is called the tyranny of the majority, and it is a danger that goes along with democratic systems that rely on the will of the majority. The tyranny of the majority is as dangerous a form of tyranny as any other, and must always be guarded against.

It’s not easy for individual citizens to think about the rights of others. After all, it’s human nature to look out for one’s own self-interest and seek to maximize it. But if we believe in democracy, this is a principle to which we must adhere, and it is a practice that we must exercise.

So as we move to hold our representatives accountable, as we move to make them aware of our will, as we move to ensure that they represent the citizens of our nation and not just their political parties or their own personal desires or benefit, we must also remember that the nation is greater than our own individual interests. As co-governors of this state, we have to recognize that we are and must be our neighbours’ keepers, and it is our duty to look out not only for ourselves but also for all the others whose rights may have been overlooked because they are not part of the majority.

Democracy is not an easy thing! But it is worthwhile. We must never stop thinking about it, questioning it, and finding ways to expand it. So I challenge you, my fellow Bahamians. What are you doing to make our Bahamian democracy bigger, stronger and better?

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