Jean-Jacques Cornish

Top political thinker says democracy is in ruins

Democracy and Its Crisis, by A.C. Grayling Oneworld Publications.

Asked about democracy, one invariably reaches for the Churchhillian truism that it is the worst form of governance until it is compared with all others.

The British wartime leader  is also responsible for saying the strongest argument against democracy is a two-minute conversation with any voter.

Jokes aside, being dubious, let alone critical, of democracy one risks being dismissed as fascist or a flat earther.

Much as a Eurosceptic might have felt before being transformed by Brexit.

Yet it wasn not  always so.

Plato referred to an ochtocracy, which is tantamount to mob rule,  and held that ordinary people were too ill-informed, short term, self-interested and prejudiced to government themselves.

He was so scathing about democracy that it took 2 000 years for political thinkers to dare suggesting government by ordinary people.

Oliver Cromwell  in Britain and the French Revolution eventually gave it the legs to make it the  civilized choice, albeit with variations that made  East Berlin’s democracy unrecognizable from Beijing’s while both were totally at odds with  the so-called original version in Athens.

H.L Menken called it collective wisdom and individual ignorance.

Adli Stevenson, contesting the US presidency with Dwight Eisenhower was assured that every thinking man would vote for him.

But I need a majority, he protested.

 A new skeptic has emerged. A.C. Grayling leads the band of modern political philosophers.

He argues, in effect, that democracy is in ruins.

What one expects of a public representative in the democracy we think we know  is the ability to garner information, make judgments and to act on those.

Democracy should mean that if the citizens don’t like the way their representatives are performing  this function, they should be able vote them out.

Grayling  maintains that the system has been so subverted by dark money, corporate power, big data, social media and archaic party political systems that it does not work like this.

Democracy, he says, has been taken over by special interests and demagogues that it has become the ochlocracy Plato warned us about.

He uses the Donald Trump US presidential victory and Britons voting to quit the European Union to illustrate his argument that democratic principles have been ploughed under on both sides of the North Atlantic.

Far right European MP  Nigel Farage, speaking to  Mark Zuckerberg in the European Parliament on May 22 said that without social media Trump and Brexit would not have happened.

Grayling  might have said: my point exactly.

 As a heavyweight in his field, Grayling  

proffers some answers.

These entail reducing the voting age and obliging young people to take extensive civic lessons to understand governance.

In fact, they are solutions for the next generation.

Sadly it seems those of around around currently have to survive a first past past the post system that can exclude nine out of ten voters from any say in governance, or a party whip system that makes liars of political candidates – if indeed we ever believed them in the first place.

This is a very sobering but quite essential read. 

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.