Not Dead Yet: A Response to Rachel Stewart’s Musings on Democracy


I’M A BIG FAN of Rachel Stewart’s writing. Her column in the NZ Herald has quickly become one of those “must-read” contributions to the national conversation. She’s to be admired for her courage, too. Anyone who takes on Big Dairy in this country knows exactly what to expect – and it usually arrives. This weeks contribution,  however, on the subject of democracy, was not one of her best.

Even when undertaken with the best of intentions (as I’m sure this particular column was) dissing democracy is never, ever, a good idea. It stands among the most extraordinary – and fragile – of human achievements. Its cost, in terms of human suffering, has been huge, and most of its victories have been tragically temporary. The historical default setting for state conduct is authoritarian (descending all-too-frequently into brutal tyranny). When it comes to political systems, democracies remain the precious exception – not the rule.

Which is not to say that the practice of democracy is always entirely edifying. It was the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who quipped that: “Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made.”

A sentiment with which Rachel clearly has some sympathy.

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“If society feels less moral reverence to the democracy ideal, who can honestly blame them? Having listened to Clinton and Trump battle it out for a year before the unthinkable became real, I get it.”

Obviously, last year’s US presidential election still rankles. But it is always a mistake to confuse outcome with process. Rachel may have been disappointed that Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton, but to suggest that the Democratic Party “fiddled with the dials and switches to ensure Bernie Sanders never got the nod” is just plain wrong. Bernie lost because he got fewer votes than Hillary – pure and simple. He made the cardinal error of not competing hard and early in the American South – the very same mistake that cost Hillary the nomination back in 2008.

Rachel is also scornful of the US Electoral College’s contribution to democracy: “Then there’s Trump. Astonishingly elected, but by fewer than three million votes than his rival. Only in America. Land of the seriously deficient electoral system.”

Except, of course, the whole point of the Electoral College is to ensure that the rights of the smaller American states are not completely obliterated by the superior numbers of the larger ones. The United States is, after all, a federation. What benefit would the citizens of Wyoming or Rhode Island derive from belonging to the Union if they were forever being outvoted by the citizens of California, New York and Texas? If Hillary had spent less time in those three states and more time in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania she would now be the second President Clinton.

More worrying still, is Rachel’s evident lack of understanding of her own country’s democratic system.

“Here at home we find we’re stuck with the lack-lustre Mr English as Prime Minister, and not of our choosing. He was the pre-ordained prefect left to us by Key when he exited stage right. Yeah, the Nats held an internal mock election but, that’s all it was. The appearance of democracy when you’re not really having it.”

Umm, no, the Nats didn’t. Caucus elections frequently fail to come to an actual vote, for the very simple (and obvious) reason that if there’s one thing democratic politicians know how to do really, really well – it’s count. When a candidate realises that he or she doesn’t have the numbers to win, they simply withdraw from the race. Why stand if you’re certain to lose? There’s always next time!

And besides, under our Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, voters NEVER get to elect the Prime Minister. That job goes to the Member of Parliament who convinces the Governor-General that he or she commands a majority of the House of Representatives – the politicians we DO get to elect.

Political parties make this job a great deal easier and ensure that the person who emerges as Prime Minister gets to remain in office for a sensible period of time. That’s why we have them. And if they often seem rather cautious and overly influenced by special interests, then there’s a very simple way to remedy that deficiency – become a member and turn them into something worth voting for!

Danyl Mclauchlan makes the case for practical, get-down-and-dirty politics much better than I ever could in his excellent review of Max Harris’s “The New Zealand Project”:

“Politics is technocratic because modern societies are complex: many things could be better, but almost everything could be much, much worse, and all the high-minded values in the world are worthless if you can’t keep the lights on. It is compromised because pluralism – the challenge of different groups in society holding different and conflicting but reasonable and valid views – is the central problem in politics, and cannot be fixed by re-educating everyone. Political reform should be cautious, because outcomes are uncertain and overconfidence bias is real, especially among groups of intelligent experts who reinforce each other’s assumptions – a dynamic that often leads to catastrophic failure despite the best of intentions.”

So, Rachel. Is democracy having a rough time at the moment? Yes, it is. But that only reinforces the need to get stuck in and organise it back into robust good health. Do money and backroom wheeling and dealing sully the search for “pro bono publico” – the public good? Of course they do – but not to anything like the extent you might expect. And even when they do get out of hand, and the plutocrats start menacing the democrats: a corrupt democracy is always – always – better than a virtuous tyranny. (As Carrie Mathison discovers in the final episode of the sixth series of “Homeland”.)

Because, to quote the pithy summation of that old rogue Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”


  1. Bernie Sanders was done by the Democratic Party like a dogs dinner.As a Bernie Sanders Supporter at that time I followed the ongoing saga very closely.Nothing would convince me that that was not the case.The Democratic Party was hopelessly corrupt then and still is.They have learned nothing from their corruption except not to get caught out next time! And of course when you get caught doing shit you blame Russia.It works every time!!

    • I think Bernie Sanders did a good job. The Sanders campaign proves that there is money out there that can rival big party donors, it can even rival the biggest party donors stretching hundreds of millions. Ok so Sanders lost but not because he said bad words like universal healthcare or money per se, he just didnt have the staminia and I dont blame him at his age.

      In away Sanders proves you don’t have to be a rich asshole to get elected but it does has something to do with stamina, if only Sanders or even tired old killary could have made it to Wisconsin and so on instead of skipping them. Maybe a personal Boeing jet could have helped. I could never understand Danders desire to fly coach on the campaign trail, when you fly as much as nominees do a 5hr flight is still 5hrs to get a lot of work done, you wouldnt think of flying business class in any other situation. So killary and Sanders could have taken it more seriously.

      • Yep I’m also a big fan of the exquisite writing’s and clarity of Rachael’s writings.

        In our current world of insidious media hype and junk news bias we all often sway around trying to make clearer sense of it all, and as humans often fail.

        Rachael is about as good as it gets (Martyn, your case as our oratory genius aside) so in a perfect world we all are frail sometimes, as the politicians who run this circus show most of the time.

  2. I agree with you on one thing Chris; a corrupt American democracy is infinitely better than the Chinese totalitarian dictatorship: every. single. time.

  3. When the definition of a nation becomes subtley changed – when companies and labour are globalised when infrastructure and even land are owned offshore, power shifts from government to corporation.
    These corporation then buy the political system – lobbyists, donations etc.
    Is it so hard to see the attraction of benign dictatorship?

    • In reality there is no such thing.
      Indonesians thought they had it with Suharto but the regime just kept getting more corrupt and a lot of people didn’t make it through the interrogation process.
      When, in the 80’s, he allowed the indiscriminate killing of anyone with a tattoo the shine had well and truly gone.

      • I fully agree but you can see the attraction as our country and our democracy is increaingly taken from us.

  4. Chris, I disagree with you on 3 counts.

    “Bernie lost because he got fewer votes than Hillary – pure and simple.”

    It’s mind-boggling that you can still claim this, when the emails documenting the communications between Debbie Wasserman Schultz (supposedly neutral) and members of the Clinton campain are published on the web for all to see. Amy Goodman (hardly a Trump supporter) accepts the facts of Clinton’s corruption. Why can’t you?

    As for the Electoral College, you’re right about its stated purpose. Adam Conover explains this in hilarious detail, with sources, in ‘Adam Ruins Elections’ (here’s an extract):

    However, there are a number of problems with it. For a start, in many states, the electors who vote in the Electoral College don’t have to vote for the candidate the majority of the voters in their state voted for (according to Conover this has happened about 80 times). Second, FPP races within states ensure that huge numbers of voters don’t get represented at all. Third, combining the Electoral College system with FPP elections creates the “swing states” whose effectively get the casting vote on who becomes President. All this, especially the last two points, discourages participation, resulting in a turnout that’s been as low as 33.6% (2014 mid-terms) of *registered* US voters. In other words, this isn’t a country electing its political leaders, its the political class electing *its* leaders:

    “And besides, under our Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, voters NEVER get to elect the Prime Minister.”

    You’re splitting hairs. We get to elect the Prime Minister by voting for the party whose leader we prefer as PM (if that matters to us). The country elected Key three times, if only because a third of the country didn’t turn up to vote against the third that voted for National. Nobody elected English, not even, as you point out, his own colleagues. He was handed the job, the same way Goff was handed the Labour leadership job when Clark stepped down, and is similarly undeserving given his past record.

  5. I heartily agree with Rachel, we have ended up having government for the rich, by the rich and the rest of us can go to buggery!

  6. Again Chris, I feel we need to focus more on those behind the governments who decide which puppet they want in as our PM and the pres. of the U.S.

    They decide which country to overthrow and how to perpetuate money making wars. Lets get beyond our dramas and look more holistically.

    I have put up many links about this in the past here. Please let us stop wasting time trying to understand why English is in or why Key was put in and then left. Let’s focus on the powers, hidden in secret, who are orchestrating this – New World Order – and who control most governments ; own most banks and most all media.
    Broaden perspective a bit more.

  7. Let’s not forget that the Republicans have been using various forms of disenfranchisement to ensure Democrat supporters didn’t have the opportunity to vote in the first place

  8. “Equality became a dominant value in human culture, almost all over the world. Why?

    It was partly down to the rise of new ideologies such as humanism, liberalism and socialism.

    But it was also about technological and economic change – which was connected to those new ideologies, of course.

    Suddenly the elite needed large numbers of healthy, educated people to serve as soldiers in the army and as workers in the factories.

    Governments didn’t educate and vaccinate to be nice.

    They needed the masses to be useful.

    But now that’s changing again.

    The best armies today require a small number of highly professional soldiers using very high-tech kit.

    Factories, too, are increasingly automated

    This is one reason why we might – in the not-too-distant future – see the creation of the most unequal societies that have ever existed in human history.”

  9. One correction: the Electoral College was not about the rural/urban divide at all, instead it was primarily about allowing slaves to be counted for the purpose of allotting representation while still banning them from voting. This was known as the Three-Fifths Compromise.

  10. An important prerequisite for a functional democracy is that the vast majority of the population buy into it.
    In middle eastern countries where peoples of distinct and ancient ethnicity and religion have retained their separate identities and beliefs for thousands of years, sharing locations , sometimes tolerating each other, sometimes not, that general buy -in is not easy. It might not be possible especially when it is being forcibly imposed by some completely foreign entity.
    Democracy is not old in terms of human society and it’s not surprising if it needs a lot of work yet. The majority of us so totally accept it as normal and right that we are becoming complacent about it, and not waking up to what is happening to it. A motivated few do not buy into it at all in respect of accepting the legitimacy of the majority’s claim to a fair share of society’s heritage. Democracy is not mature enough , it’s structures not robust enough yet to defend itself against the insidious workings of this intelligent ,knowledgable, educated, wealthy, avaricious, organised few to corrupt and distort democracy. Hence there is growing disillusionment with it within democratic societies.
    It needs urgently to be improved to curb the imbalance engineered by the avaricious few before they alienate so many of ,and so completely the losers ,that it is lost even among societies that completely believe in it.
    Do you think Andrew Little is up to it?
    D J S

    • I must belatedly add that to me at the moment, important nations not recognised as effective democracies appear to be behaving much more responsibly on the world stage than do their ‘recognised as democratic’ counterparts.
      D J S

  11. “to quote the pithy summation of that old rogue Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

    About the only place with an approximation of that blessed state is Switzerland.

    The rest of us have no idea.

    If ‘democracy’ is voting for a bunch of people we don’t know, we rarely have recourse to, we can’t influence, once every few years after an expensive-to-us charade – we’ve been robbed and deluded. Followed by fiddling with the ballot boxes and denying prisoners the right to have their say in the policies that they can’t avoid the way the rest of us can.

    This is not democracy. This is an interim step from ‘Let all those in favour say ‘Aye’ and ‘put your mark here’ to the real thing.

    When do you suppose we’ll make a system fit for the present and the now slightly more mature purpose?

    Or will we continue with the lies and sops to the general populace?

  12. All I can say is, that Rachel Stewart is one of those informed and educated Kiwis who dares to speak out as it is, and who does not fall for all the BS and brainwashing we get dished up 24/7.

  13. We have so many issues in Aotearoa – homelessness, poverty, environmental collapse, huge rates of domestic violence, suicide, mental health, 3rd world childhood disease etc etc and you Chris, choose to write a piece attempting to pull apart the work of one of our most authentic ethical journalists who has bravely risked the wrath of the powerful farming community by writing the truth. An example of patronising mansplaining at its best/worst. Let’s concentrate on the important matters – as you Chris so often do, and Rachel increasingly does.

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