What is democracy? Not in terms of the wider philosophical point, that can be kept for another day, but how do we neatly sort whether something is ‘democratic’ or not.
To use a case in the public imagination at the moment, is a presidential election democratic? In the abstract yes, but is this presidential election democratic? It is happening within a system that is at least notionally democratic, so one could argue yes. But does the mere presence or absence of a vote define something as democratic? Surely that cannot be the case? And is the alternative to holding a presidential election, now, also, potentially democratic?
I would argue it is. There have been plenty of presidents elected for a second term unopposed in Ireland. In fact, one must go back to Eamon DeValera to find the last time an incumbent president ran opposed. So when broadsheet opinion columnists decried ‘democracy at risk’ when it looked like Higgins might just default into a second term, Ireland in 2018 surely does not need the presidential election as the barometer of the strength of its democratic norms.
But perhaps that is the point? Those same broadsheet columnists don’t seem too concerned about democracy when it comes down to many other areas, such as concentration of media ownership to give one small example. Perhaps it is a situation where it is just the volume of votes that matter? It’s not important that those votes mean anything or really confer any power to the electorate, just that votes happen and are multiple. It is notable how these large public plebiscites focus the mind, elsewhere. Although Fine Gael did not intend to run a candidate, I can’t imagine they are too upset that a vote is happening. The parade of circus freaks that are lining up for a tilt at Higgins are providing plenty of Roman games for the struggling hoi polloi, while Leo and Co keep a tight hold on the bread.
Had the cervical check scandal not happened during the Eighth Referendum, such a huge scandal is the type of thing that would take down a government in a reasonable country. Of course this is Ireland, and resignations and collapses of government can usually just be brazened out, but Fine Gael did escape relatively unscathed from that particular horror show and now have a nice rosy glow of a referendum victory to tide them over to the next vote.
Fianna Fail meanwhile have bought themselves more time to try ride into the next giant financial crisis and hope Fine Gael get turfed out, or at least try improve their ratings in the intermediate term. If they got one of their weirdo entrepreneur pod people into the Aras, that might even mark the start of a comeback for them, or at least that’s what they could sell to their membership.
So then, we have a vote. A vote where it looks like Michael D will get around 65% of cast ballots. And in the meantime we have the political correspondents doing what they do best – giving updates on the horse race. There will be pithy anecdotes from the high brow ones and constant tweets from the extremely online ones and frothing about provos from the INM ones. And in that we lose sight of many things. While there’s been a swell of coverage lately of the dire situation on housing, and FG’s inability to batten down the hatches in eight years, as the presidential election comes near the ceremonial head of state position will dominate headlines, current affairs shows and airwaves. We’ll get time dedicated to debates and heady arguments online. All the while attention is taken away from issues that really matter in this country.
As the cold closes in a record number will be sleeping on the streets. As winter comes, more children will be in food poverty than in any previous year. Schools are underfunded, students can’t get accomodation, the health system creaks under the increased winter load. There will be another all time high in the numbers waiting on trolleys.
It looks like we may have the referendum on removing the clause that states ‘a women’s place being in the home’ moved to Spring. Like the Eighth, that is a worthy and overdue referendum. One could even argue that the same is true of the blasphemy referendum. But we in Ireland are prone to overconstitutionalising things. Is there a real world effect to these clauses, in the way that there was with the Eight? I would say not. Similarly, many of the calls for things to be put into the constitution are often naive. In order for many of the additional clauses called for to avoid being interpreted in the narrowest way possible by our extremely anti-activist judiciary, they would have to be both immaculately worded and backed by a strong civil society movement that would put pressure on their terms to be enforced to the full.
Which is where we end up in the situation where we are. It suits the government to have these votes on things that could very well end up meaningless.
I’m not saying that this is a tactic, only that one could follow this tactic if one wanted, where a government might call these large votes periodically, so that attention is drawn away from their terrible record on so many material things and instead if focused on immaterial things. Whether Michael D Higgins is in the Aras or not is an immaterial thing. Whether children are going hungry and living on our streets is a very material thing.
Which of those two things do you use ‘democracy’ to solve? Pick one.