We put almost total trust in the principle of democracy. If something is democratic it must be good. The primacy of the ‘will of the people’ is a necessary result of a humanist atheist perspective. We have nowhere else to put our trust – we must put it in ourselves. Democracy was birthed in the fundamental recognition of human rights as a response to their negation in both feudal and capitalist society. It is the applied expression of human rights. It therefore excels compared to theocracy, feudalism, fascism, and communism which suppress individual rights in favour of the rights of an elite. Democracy correlates well with economic progress, the flourishing of the arts, freedom of expression, freedom in life generally, a just legal system, and a concern for social justice that sees greater opportunity spread to more people. But is it the cause of these benefits? We become evangelical about democracy and take it for granted that its spread in other societies will be advantageous. This belief is often twinned with belief in so-called ‘free’ markets, which is the other component of the contemporary secular creed.
However there are some important reservations and qualifications which need to be borne in mind in our advocacy of democracy. It might be a good thing, but it also needs to be used well. Democracy is only a very general idea which has to be translated into specific practice. Is the ‘will of the people’ always a good thing? How is the ‘will of the people’ to be ascertained? In western societies, democracy operates through political elections. Usually this is presented by competing political parties canvassing for electoral support. Here is a combative ‘partisan’ adversarial tribal model. Is it either true or helpful to represent society in this way? Do we have to be in favour of one party and against another? Many of us would think not. We do not live other aspects of our life in this way, so why should it characterise our national political life?
There are further questions. In very common democratic practice, why should the will of 51% prevail against the will of 49%? We might ask ourselves what kind of society we have where such dismissal of minority preference is accepted, and is even deemed to be good. Proportional representation offers higher moral promise, but is more complex to implement. It produces frequent unstable coalitions, because it recognises the truth that ‘the people’ does not have a clear point of view. Commentators frequently claim that coalitions are what the people have chosen, whereas in fact no one person has chosen a particular coalition.
There was a time when political parties represented distinct competing social interest groups. Socialist parties represented working people, and conservative parties represented privileged people and the institutions who had for centuries supported a privileged society. However to some extent democracy has eroded the need for itself. There is more common, though not total, agreement on the elements of a just society we wish to pursue. Political party claims then become ones of competing managerial competence. This may in fact be a more acceptable definition for contemporary democracy.
However it still leaves the party in control of the process. The majority truth is that candidates are selected by political parties before being able to stand for election. The selection committees who make these decisions are very unrepresentative groups with immense control. Once elected, the politician has to obey the control of the party machine in government or opposition. The ‘will of the people’ has become obscured. The media, the great ‘free’ press, which is often no more free than the free market, then takes the role of critiquing political parties and governments. But since access to the media is very tightly constrained, once again an obscure elite is determining the agenda. The media never ask ‘the people’ before taking some position, in fact on the contrary, the media hugely influences public thinking. Our celebrated democracy is beginning to look rather tarnished.
So much for representative democracy. But we see increased calls for democratic referenda. In the UK there is pressure for a referendum on membership of the European Union. In Scotland there will be a referendum on secession from the United Kingdom. Curiously there are some who favour the first and oppose the second. Is democracy by referendum the ultimate good? In fact do the people know best? There are technical and moral objections to this supposition. Technically, many people may simply not know enough about an issue and its implications to be qualified to cast an informed vote on it. A universal franchise in a referendum may therefore prove dysfunctional, including the possibility of people voting against their own best interest without realising it. It would be very difficult to find any international treaty which people would support in its entirety in a referendum.
Morally, it is for example very likely that a referendum on capital punishment would in several countries restore it to the statute book. Are the people always right? There are historical occasions when they clearly have not been, and there is no compelling logic as to why they should be, unless we simply define morality as what the majority of the people thinks. Herein lies a great conundrum for atheist humanism which we need to address. Atheism has only humanity to define morality. We accept that one human being can act morally wrongly, as defined by other human beings, but do we think that the human totality is always morally right by tautology? If 100% of a society voted to legalise infanticide, would that make it right? To them, presumably yes. But if one remaining person disagreed, we have a moral ambiguity that cannot be resolved by quantitative vote. The same applies to lesser but still important issues.