An individual holding back a red fist. | Photo Credit: IE University

The Paradox of Democracy: Goldilocks and the Happy Medium

Should the people be the greatest arbiters of political decision-making? Here I discuss the inherent paradox of both direct and representative democracy. How the rise of folk politics impairs the processes of the former and threatens to alienate the electorate from the political decision-making process in the latter.

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Political duality 

Renaissance philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the General Will serves to place public sentiment as the wisest arbiter on issues. However, the average person in the general population will not necessarily be well-informed about the global political structures that influence affairs. So how can the general will be the most sensible arbiter?

Therein lies a paradox at the centre of content political life. In a polity, one’s desires are simple. They seek a quiet, happy life, tending to their careers and their domestic life, uninvolved in the political realm. Even today, most subject themselves to the rat race in hopes of a comfortable life. To me, this might signify that the ideal political life is almost none at all.

Two individuals in dialogue. | Photo Credit: Ahmad Safarudin

Even the most politically involved and aware individual, will inadvertently crave a moment disassociated from the polity and politics. From this, we can observe how even the greatest proponents for political activity, who oftentimes stand for progressiveness and change, have within them an inertia to change fuelled by the paradox of contented political life. On the level of an entire polity, the momentum of a global upheaval that would benefit them as an individual is counteracted by their want to lead a simple undisturbed life.

The solution or the problem?

The answer to such a predicament lies within a representative democracy, which can be best understood in a Singaporean context via the election of representatives in a group representation constituency (GRC), or a single member constituency (SMC) during the general elections. It seeks to alleviate the burden of constant exposure to political affairs (that is at the same time, not alienating), and thrust them upon individuals who are elected by the populace to make the decisions on their behalf. This accords them their peaceful quiet life, in exchange for holding the power over their elected representative.

Voting ballot illustration. | Photo Credit: Bearsky23

However, just because one doesn’t need to concern themselves with matters of international affairs and politics, as it is so far disjointed from their daily lives, should they continue their prolonged ignorance? Here lies the crux of the matter: If one cares and has concern for their state, they shouldn’t willingly give up the disposition to make informed decisions.

Here we see the central problem of representative democracy. More often than not, it relies on intentional ignorance of the population while giving them a sense of agency in selecting officials to control the system. When one bestows the decision-making power to an authority, there is a transfer of political power which creates a loop in which the power concentrates in the hands of a select few. 

This alienates the political community and puts in place a culture of unchanging political activity. I am of the view that people should care, but the systems in place sometimes incentivise a populace not to. 

The space between the lines 

Concurrent with the notion that individuals are disjointed with international affairs and merely seek to live quiet, peaceful and happy lives. I find myself unable to reconcile with the idea that the median individual who is “content with a simple life” is totally detached from international affairs. It is not uncommon for those of us millennials or younger, to find our politically unaware parents possessing strong, opinionated views on issues of governance, taxes or public administration. As such, I believe that while individuals do intentionally adopt apolitical tendencies in their daily lives in order to live quiet, peaceful and happy lives, they tend to be guided by “folk politics” (Srnicek, 2015). 

Folk politics details the strategic assumptions evoking folk psychology that argue the mistaken historical construction and conception of the world. “Folk” brings attention and refers to the small-scale, “authentic” and” traditional”. Folk politics can be seen as the aim to humanise politics, acting along the lines of immediacy being more authentic. Therefore it often ignores long-term goals, in favour of short-term tactics. 

The uptick in folk politics brings certain qualifications. It is inherently an implicit tendency and does not state an explicit position on affairs. While all politics starts on a local level, folk politics is content with retaining at the small-scale local level, even despite the growing interconnectedness and globalised state of the world. This puts the electorate at a disadvantage in understanding the economy and the capitalist system in totality, by intentionally choosing to enforce a scope of locality onto affairs of governance and policy. 

Constructing the intangible

If the general assumption is that the median and average citizen subscribes to the epidemic of folk politics, this would reasonably allow us to conclude that direct democracy would not be the best for a nation. Such a conception of politics packs complex decisions into a binary selection and breeds an inability to make concrete decisions among the electorate. In some cases, this leaves them prone to sway from politicians that prey on nativist or xenophobic lines of argument. This can be clearly seen in cases like Brexit. However, the subscription to a folk political view inherently breeds the preference for an immediacy of results, which direct democracy provides via political tools like referendums. 

Therefore, it is unfair to conclude that people are apolitical just because they choose to live a quiet, happy, peaceful life. Instead, the diagnosis of folk politics’ rapid uptick in an electorate and its locale-based view of affairs further puts into question the ability of a population to be able to make the best decisions via direct democracy. 

Here we have a central predicament of any democratic process. On one hand, representative democracy inherently widens the gulf between the electorate and the decision-making process. Alternatively, direct democracy leads to poor decision-making.

Too hot vs too cold 

At this juncture, I feel the need to touch on equilibrium-based theories, as I’ve been speaking in terms of two ends of the spectrum, apolitical contrasted with political inclinations. Congruence theory, coined by American political scientist Harry Eckstein, consists of two hypotheses. First, governments perform well to the extent that their authority patterns are congruent with the authority patterns of other societies and that democratic governments perform well only if their authority patterns exhibit “balanced disparities”, meaning a combination of democratic and non-democratic traits. In Civic Culture, Eckstein details how a democratic government must balance power – its role, power and governance of the state, and its responsibility to its citizens – responding to their desires and preferences. Eckstein found that effective democratic governments needed to walk this tightrope of power and responsiveness, which points to a mixed pattern of political attitudes associated with civic culture being appropriate for a democratic system. 

Illustration of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Therefore the electorate needs to realise that governance is a two-way street. If they continue to be apolitical, they continue to alienate themselves from realising that the government is only able to exert its will, due to their need to accommodate the desire and preference of those who voted them in, the people. Putnam’s understanding of the Civic Culture is manifested in the form of the Goldilocks metaphor, where Goldilocks eventually settled on the porridge and bed of the little bear, as the food was too hot and cold in the Mum and Dad bear bowls. This metaphor of Goldilocks searching for the “right” temperature runs parallel with a democratic polity’s need to avoid being too overheated and apathetic concurrently. This would prevent multiple social units from mobilising and flaring up against the government, instead regulating it to a number that was “just right”, which would inadvertently regulate pressure on the political system, and would allow the government to work on long-term plans, instead of constantly focusing on the immediacy of results, an idea being pushed by folk politics. 

Return to roots

I do believe that a government should be serving its people. However, there should be reciprocity between the people and the governance in political participation. The essence of democracy is ruled by the people, and many have forgotten their duty to themselves to be actively involved.  In the modern day, people are too often caught up in their daily lives. 

Illustration of a Parliament building. | Photo Credit: Iconisa

However, we can also observe how this disarming sense of apolitical tendencies has been socially engineered. This is evidenced by the general lack of political interest in the Singaporean populace, spurred by the narrative of the government in the 80s urging citizens to leave the important governmental duties to them, while they focus on their daily lives. As such, people have a duty not to be swayed by the folk politic epidemic, as well as being informed enough to hold their leaders accountable. This unfortunately is an electorate finding the porridge “too cold”. However, on the flip side of the porridge being “too hot”, we see governance being stalled by protests and demonstrations, rightfully as they should, when many different interest groups flare up after feeling antagonised by societal issues.

In closing, I am dispensing a critique that in a democracy, citizens have an active role to play in politics. I would like to reiterate that I am not opposing democracy, whether in its direct or representative form. Neither am I criticising the uptick of folk politics in an electorate. Instead, I am pushing an agenda of balance, less the electorate finds themselves victims of the paradox that representative or direct democracy presents. Citizens should be participative and aware of international affairs and political activity, however, they should not be fully apolitical as that would leave them susceptible to alienation from the decision-making process, or an extreme activist, disruptive to the polity within which they reside. Just as Eckstein promotes balance of government, so too should the electorate consciously balance their political activity.

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Jerald Lim
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