Don’t Demonise: the one idea that can change our politics
Democracy is a precious and fragile thing. Only in a democratic system do the people get the chance to kick out rulers they no longer want. That is its great merit, and why it is superior to any other system of rule. It’s not perfect, and it is worth while looking for ways for more people to actively shape more political decision making. But the core is this idea that democratic politics is peaceful revolution.
Democratic politics is messy. It’s fractious and impure. At times it seems that it divides us in two: that far from being a people making decisions, we are two tribes shouting across a divide. Some people love this conflict. More sensitive souls shun away from political debate and the public sphere. Decent people are put off from entering politics and we all suffer.
Living in a democracy makes demands on us as individuals. We have to cope with the truth that we live in a society where many people radically disagree with us. They may espouse values we reject. They will have ideas we think totally mistaken. Too often we secretly reject this truth of democratic politics, that it means serious disagreements between people. We think, though we might not always admit it, that everyone should agree with us. That if they don’t agree with us it is because they are wicked or corrupt. The other side is evil and has only bad intentions. We are pure and on the side of the angels. Too often, we citizens of democracy secretly want to be dictators. We want to have everyone thinking our way. We cannot stand the fact of disagreement and demonise those who disagree with our ideas and values, which to us seem obviously pure and true.
If we give into this temptation it means disaster for democracy. To often these days, in the UK and the USA especially, we see this pattern of thought. The other side is evil, or they have been bought by vested interests. We cannot be friends with them. We don’t even have to consider their ideas as we already know they are evil. Teachers see their mission as ensuring that their students never vote for the wrong side (some even say this in public).
Why is this so dangerous? It means we no longer consider ideas on their merits. We never see the point that those we disagree with are making. We no longer test our own ideas against the opposing case, and lose the chance to learn and improve. We divide society into the saved and the damned, and smugly assume that only our side is the side of the angels. We make of politics not an arena of ideas but a morality tale of good versus wicked. We make public debate a morass of hysteria, suspicion, accusation, and unbridled partisanship. We no longer debate we shout shrilly across the barriers we have erected. We divide communities and families. We all lose.
And not only do we weaken society and damage ourselves. It is also all false. Of course in politics there are chancers and opportunists, those who are only out for themselves and their friends. Both sides have them. Perversely, the political culture we have created only makes it more likely that such interests will come to the fore. But while we still have democracy the truth is that what really divides opposing parties is not good and evil but something more prosaic but really important: different ideas about what is best for us, about how to organise society so as to create the best conditions for human flourishing. Those people with whom we disagree have a different conception of how to do things for the common good. Well, let’s have a look at what they think and see what merit there is in it, and where are its weak spots. And in so doing we might identify the weak spots in our own ideas, and test the evidence and assumptions on which they are based. If we stop demonising the other side we can grow as a society and as individuals. We can begin again to attract the best candidates to take up political roles. And we can build a community based on assuming that others, for the most part and for most of the time, act in good faith, as we hope they will also assume of us. And that can only help improve the common good.