Is it important to live in a democracy?

            The common sense of modern, globalised and technological world would somehow magically impose that the answer to our big question be looked for through a historically well-established and apparently well-functioning statistical method. Take a random sampling scenario and you will soon hear the opinion of he who sympathises with Orbán’s concept of ‘illiberal democracy’: the best of all the hitherto tested regimes is not liberal because there is always a compromise in enjoying freedom and we will simply redraw its line. A few steps on though, among mic’s cable constantly tangling and cameraman’s tiredness, you will have great chances of meeting a worshipper of the biggest conquest of the modern world: a non-expensive representative and transparent system with the attached rule of law, underscored by the fundamental separation of powers. Being slightly unfree to be very free, one could argue.

Such an experiment, of which we have given just an initial and yet radical hint, would certainly end in a million of statistical errors with some being truer than others and eventually gathered under the unique signifier of a ‘consensus’ on the question. The consensus which tends to encircle the meaning of democracy, but which in the end just comes full circle.

            Hence, is there something wrong with our question, a good statistician would probably ask? Years and years of his university studies say so and undeniably show that the way it goes may influence much the answers to it and thus the final result, potentially biased.

Yet, which question is not biased at all? Convince our Orbánist that he is wrong on account of a statistical bias and you will have just created an unjust world. Prove Churchill’s reader right and our Orbánist will seek justice at the next elections. Let our Orbánist rule and you will soon wake up under what many, but never all will define as an authoritarian regime. Make an exception to democracy in defence of democracy from the position of a judge who had taken an oath and you will probably discover, in the form of an old video recording, that the banned had sworn in on the Constitution. The country will become deeply divided and, where certain conditions are met, end up at the brink of a civil war.

Democracy loves big numbers, but it is never full-fledged. Not even the most developed societies on earth know how to mobilise the solid portion of those who remain at home that key Sunday instead of using their right or, according to some, duty to vote. Not even Stalin abolished elections in the framework of home-grown ‘socialist’ democracy. At the end of the day, as many apparently accomplished democracies teach us today, a somewhat opposition always turns useful: be it at government’s payroll or profoundly under its symbolic aegis.

Democracy is never fully accomplished because it was invented precisely as a mechanism for dealing with the radical and never ending dissensus rather than as a Westernised tool for bragging about harmonic consensus. As can be seen, there is no consensus in the first place, otherwise there would be no democracy.

            Well, is it important to live in a democracy? The uncanny, subtle force of this question is that in formal circumstances, for instance in a rectangular voting booth, ‘maybe’ would never be an acceptable answer. Nor would be any other proposal, however elaborate, which would diverge from the standardised ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘да’ or ‘нет’, ‘όχι’ or ‘ναί’… To a certain extent, there is always something authoritarian in democracy, even when this choice is enlarged: should a voter decide to annex his own personal explanations to the names of the candidates or lists and meticulously write them down, his vote would yield barely any effect for democracy. Indeed, the latter is about sacrificing these superficialities however important they may intimately be for our voter, constrained to externalise them only while sharing the couch with his closest family members. For, elsewhere there is election silence: enough has been said, it is high time you silently choose among the options or stay home if opting for an unproposed, absent or even banned option. There is no way to add any explanations and personalise your vote, if not in the form of exclusion: through casting a spoilt ballot or figuring as absent or lacking in the total voter turnout. There is no way to add anything: it is this invisible, unuttered, unwritten surplus which is the sacrifice of democracy, in the name of democracy, at the basis of every democracy.

            It was not easy to interrupt this long stream of consciousness and he would not have managed to do so without the shouts of a half-drunk man near a ballot station. All of a sudden, they diverted his attention from the infinite flow of reflections, eventually replaced by a visual focus on his immediate surroundings. The ballot station was about to shut down and he had little time to decide about what to do. The institutions of a brand-new ‘democratic authoritarianism’ had a question for him, Pascal Jones, voter no. 5674 on the voting list: ‘would you like to continue living in a democracy?’. In the midst of a new, very personal reflection on the doubtedly binding character of the referendum, he had his finger sprayed before being handed in a robust yellow-painted piece of paper and directed towards a free voting booth. It was so in at least two senses: it was unoccupied and simultaneously a place of exercise of the deepest individual belief. Still, in the absence of others, he was shocked after reading the two clear-cut and apparently mutually exclusive answers: a) ‘yes’; b) ‘no’. In a certain sense, no coercion was really needed to feel coerced to stick to the rules: ‘read carefully the following question and tick one of the two options’.

Binding or not, he saw simply no way to do justice to his compatriots and probably even the closest family members. Sasha said he would answer ‘yes’, while Rosa was leaning towards a ‘no’. Amplifying this fundamental cleavage to his friends and acquaintances was of no help, let alone reasoning at the total turnout level. There was no cure to the peopleness of his I being measured by an invisible mechanism already at work.

Just a few steps on he saw the lights at the ballot station being turned off. What democracy he was to wake up in tomorrow, an entirely democratic vote would have soon revealed.

Igor Milić, graduate student, University of Trento and Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies (Italy)

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