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Human nature and Democracy

Human nature and democracy may, on the face of it, seem insular disjointed narrative of isolated views and ideas, but digging deep one can find intrinsic umbilical cord between the two. Human nature profoundly affects the thoughts and actions and the democratic process offers the outward expression of those thoughts and actions. Thus, these two strands are inherently, if not intricately, linked.

Human beings are fundamentally and intrinsically dangerous and coercive animals always looking out for attaining advantageous positions. They intuitively take selfish and hideous steps in order to achieve evolutionary advantage, particularly when it is perceived that they can get away with their selfish partisan actions.  

The economist Thomas Sowell contends that there are two visions of human nature: (i) The utopian vision, which claims people as naturally good and virtuous. They do virtuous things for the benefit of the community and country unless propelled to do otherwise, and (ii) The tragic vision which shows people as inherently flawed and vile.

This tragic vision in human nature comes from inherent selfishness and mendacity with the purpose to attain advantage. Exclusive personal interests override collective interests. In fact, quite often, collective interests may be viewed as counter to individual interests of a selfish individual, as any competitor in the collective pool may benefit from the collective aggrandisement and thereby jeopardising the relative advantage of the selfish individual. This is, to a large extent, part of the evolutionary drive. Thus, it can be said that science supports this tragic vision.

History also supports tragic vision. This vision is the natural drive for dominance. The philosophers Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt advanced the tragic vision and rejected the implicit natural goodness of humanity. They tendered the view that humans are potentially evil. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated that those who fight monsters must be aware of becoming monsters themselves. The implication of this view is that in a society of monstrous humans, monstrosity tends to infect the surrounding and propagate itself, unless constrained by some contrary means.

The founding fathers of the USA held tragic vision and hence created checks and balances to constrain the political leaders’ worst impulses. Nothing is more flagrantly evident than the present state of affairs in the USA of the incumbent president, where racist xenophobic tendencies are blatantly exposed and weaponised.

Democracy is manipulated and molested due to vileness of human nature not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and many more countries in the world.  David Gauke, ex-Justice Secretary in the UK, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.” This vile abuse of democratic process by selfish, manipulative, mendacious, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted politicians undermines and contaminates the whole of democracy. But these vile selfish politicians care very little about the collapse of democratic process as long as they can achieve political advantage for themselves.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’ meaning the ‘rule of the many’. Plato, the Greek philosopher, detested democracy as it embodied the rule of the imbecile and ignorant deplorables over the educated and the knowledgeable. He upheld the view that democracy is the rule of mere opinion. Indeed, this opinion could quite often be ignorant or misinformed or misled by opportunistic populist politicians.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling was eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association. For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what the abbreviation ‘EU’ stands for! Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on pure prejudice and bias. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally altered the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became screwed up.

The politicians, the people in power comprising industrialists, financiers and increasingly media barons and social network bosses manipulate the very essence of democracy for advantageous positions. Boris Johnson, the present British prime minister, in his first term prorogued parliament within few weeks of gaining prime minister position, not out of necessity but out of dubious advantage of denying any democratic opposition to his sectarian views and dogma. However, his action was found to be unlawful by the highest court of the land (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Northern Ireland) and he had to recall the parliament. Subsequently, when he signed a Withdrawal Agreement (revised) with the EU, he called it a ‘oven ready’ and ‘excellent’ agreement and on the back of it, he won the election on 12 December 2019 with an overwhelming majority. But within ten months of signing that historic Withdrawal Agreement by himself, he is now preparing to defy this internationally binding agreement to achieve political advantage. Nothing can be more mendacious in human nature with its tragic vision than this.

The Greeks had a word called ‘parrhesiastes’ which identified an individual who used freedom to uphold moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy, who adopted frankness instead of persuasion and who chose truth instead of falsehood or silence. Unless parresia, the attribute of the parrhesiastes, dominates the contaminated so-called ‘democracy’ of today, the virtuous attributes of democracy are going to be abjectly negated.

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave and tragic view of human nature dominates. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.