The art of democracy

It’s in action again. Democracy. The wheels are wheezing away as thousands of us read tiny writing on bits of paper and then scratch pens over the little bits we like.

It’s not the most triumphant of movements, the tick. Nor, for that matter is moving a pen over a name without making a mark. It doesn’t compare, say, to the unbearable courage of heading off to war as a young soldier where guns, not pens, are the tool of choice. Scribbling a tick onto paper doesn’t quite match up to the stirring songs about freedom that soar through our hearts and onto our lips, either. And it certainly doesn’t feel like the embodiment of ancient and profound tradition when you make little marks in blue or black that you learned first as a little child.

There really is no way around it, though. A thing which is the most unceremonious and mindless of tasks is, in fact, quite critical. You simply can’t deny that squiggling on paper is one of the most important things a human being can do. It is the high art of a democracy.

And the only thing that I can think of which is more important that squiggling, is not squiggling.

Yes, just leaving a little box on a tiny bit of paper empty transforms political kings into paupers, it takes the emperors of civic society and strips them of their robes, it casts certain members of our society from the delirious heights of power into the ocean of obscurity.

The ability to do that without even having to squiggle is what makes democracy truly unique. Asking dictators to kindly vacate their seat never worked without a gun, nor for that matter were monarchs disposed to stepping down and handing over power when people asked them to politely. And aristocrats aren’t the sort of people who think rabble can do better than them, so they have an embarrassing tendency to cling to power too.

The worst of them was Plato, biting his nails nervously as he looked out of the window of his lecture rooms, then writing frantically about who would have power in a democracy and what they would do with it.

He saw an uneducated and seething mass of fools out of that window, by the way, and the poor man really believed that giving them power was a bad thing.

He was right that democracy means dangerously dumb people must be trusted to make unutterably important decisions. But as far as I’m concerned in that simple fact lies not our doom, but our only hope.

You see, you and I are the fools Plato feared. We, who don’t have Oxford or Harvard doctorate degrees in law, and haven’t spent our lives learning the art of negotiation. We, who couldn’t list the various aspects of the perfect state as theorised by philosophers through the ages to save our lives and don’t have a clue about military manoeuvring.

But we do know what it is like to live in the real world, and that is a far more important thing. We know what it is like to bear the brunt of badly used power, and we don’t like it. We have tasted impractical laws as we go about business and we simply can’t stand another one.

Besides, life is already hard for us fools, and that makes us supremely qualified to spot anyone trying to make life even harder and to strip them very quickly of any power they may have weaselled from us. And we can do it with just a squiggle.

Any fool can do that.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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