#118: The Voter is Always Right: The Meaning of Democracy

When you lose an election, the impulse to insult the voters appears highly appealing. They just didn’t understand your great plans. They don’t know enough. They are easily misled by misinformation. Maybe they are wicked, immoral, and deplorable. The enemies are strong and devious. We are righteous warriors for truth and justice, and those who voted against us are an example for what’s wrong in this country. We stand for democracy, but these people apparently are too stupid to understand it. We must lecture to them, explain their deviancy, make them understand and repent, and we must punish them and our enemies for not understanding our brilliance. Anyone who disagrees with this is also an enemy, and especially those trying to understand the enemy.

Or so it goes. This happens in many variations. If the “Progressives” lose, the enemies are right-wing extremist fascist racist Nazi dog-whistling homophobe women-haters etc. If the “Conservatives” lose, the enemies are left-wing fanatic Marxist Communist lunatic freedom-hating country-hating cancelling people-hating tree-hugging arseholes. If the “Greens” lose, the enemies are planet-killing meat-eating gas-guzzling home-owning flying CO2-making space-flying monsters. If the “Libertarians” lose, the enemies are Orwellian freedom-hating manipulating Fascist Communist religious extremist drug-banning gun-banning idiots. Or a combination thereof. The list of insults is endless.

These are just insults, they do not capture the interest of voters.

Ideology is the domain of academics (like myself!), journalists, media pundits, political party officials, religious leaders, students, some university administrators and a few others. They have to care about ideas, history, culture, politics, society, etc.

But it is easy to get lost in the weeds. As (the early) Marx himself has reminded us, philosophy needs to be worldly – we need to focus not in interpreting but changing the world. That is what democracy needs. But many Marxists, like many other theoreticians, too often make the mistake that the interpreting is seen as the focus of the elite – and the population as the recipient of the decided change.

Yes, we need experts and elites to think through the problems of our time. That is what they are paid for. The average voter does not have the time to do that as thoroughly as the paid thinker. But positionality and discourse embeddedness matters. To a theorist, many things matter that have little relation to reality. You want to have more immigration, because it is the moral thing to do? Yes, that is certainly correct, but you need to make sure the population is on board with this and does not feel sidelined. Your first priority is your own country. Create sound policy, and it will be accepted. You want to fight climate change? Certainly, it is the most important problem currently. But make sure that your constituency can still access and pay for housing, transportation, food, etc. You want to fight for minority rights? Of course, democracy means that everyone’s voice and dignity matters. But you cannot do this at the – perceived or real – demonization of the majority.

Voters may not be experts on everything, but they are experts on their own interests, on their own communities, on their own resources, on their own future. They are not stupid in that area. If they don’t understand you, you have either not explained it well, or your previous or proposed policies do not align with legitimate voter interests.

Do the work, do it believably, and they will vote for you. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both found out that voters do not appreciate being demonized or pandered to. Obama understood that, and he was elected president twice. If you love democracy, you love your electorate, and treat them accordingly.