The aftermath of the 2015 General Election may retrospectively be seen as the beginning of the current protest phenomena we find ourselves in now: protest against democratically decided political change.
Whether it’s the anti-austerity rallies of June 2015 in response to the Conservative’s election victory, last years’ post-EU referendum backlash from the remain campaigners, or the most recent international anti-Trump demonstrations, these movements have been met with massive opposition from those considering them undemocratic.
Here in the UK our conception of democracy is so ingrained in our sense of national identity that we take it as a given and forget to scrutinise the legitimacy of the democratic systems we have in place.
The 2015 General Election was a prime example of how our first past the post style of voting failed to produce a representative parliament. The SNP, though obtaining only 4.7% of votes, managed to secure 56 seats in parliament, while the Green Party with just 1% less secured only one. With the Conservatives gaining power with just 24% of the electorate on its side, is it not our right, or even our responsibility, to call the eligibility of the democratic process into question?
The same question can certainly be asked of Trump’s election victory. Although he secured enough electoral votes to win the Presidency, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than a million. Is it fair that a man who has received fewer votes than his opposition, let alone failed to obtain a majority, should win?
A further issue with both the UK and US approach to representative democracy is that it gives equal weight to citizens regardless of whether they have any knowledge or understanding of the issue. The lack of access to reliable information and the government’s neglect to provide comprehensive political education, coupled with the increasing social pressure to cast your vote, means people are visiting the polls without understanding what they are voting for.
Look at the great swathes of leave-voters who came out just weeks after the EU referendum to admit they weren’t aware of the economic repercussions and would change their vote now if they could.
Can it really be considered democracy when you are addressing a population you have intentionally kept undereducated and unengaged in politics in general?
But let’s imagine a perfect world in which everyone’s vote perfectly correlated with their ideas and values and through some miraculous process was taken into account in an entirely fair and representative manner. Would it then be wrong to protest against that decision? No, it wouldn’t.
It would not be wrong because democracy is so much more than being allowed to cross a box on a piece of paper every few years. Believing this will only make us complacent. Democracy is about getting involved in every way we can to get our voices heard.
Every great progressive movement of the last two centuries began as a minority of people recognising a problem in their society. If the masses were the only body in society to be granted a voice, then social, political and economic progress would stagnate.
Ought the early suffragettes of the 1870’s to have thrown in the towel given the majority of the country was against them? Should those of us today who are concerned about refugees or the NHS or women’s rights stop talking because a few polls have dictated that we are not the majority?
To side entirely with the will of the majority is only remotely democratic. To vilify the minority – even painting them as threats to society – because they refuse to be silent is even less so.
True democracy – or the closest we can hope to get to it – is about everyone’s voice being heard. And when the few institutionalised mechanisms of democracy fail us, we have every right to use our own means of protest and direct action.
In recent times, votes and elections seem to have become more divisive. Voter apathy, while still widespread, is replaced in the current world with harsh voter division: stories of Trump supporters exiled from their family, and vice versa; anecdotes of families so divided over Brexit they no longer speak. Political beliefs are leaking into the personal lives of many members of our society: I know many people at our University who would unabashedly refuse to be friends with someone if they were a Trump supporter, for example.
With this change in voter identity and the increased volatility and anger from both sides comes a difficult question: do the losers of these votes have the right to protest? Contesting the result of a democratic election, while our right as free citizens, is also an insult to democracy itself. However, the recent anti-Trump demonstration, so well attended by Sussex students, did not seem to me like a group taking aim at the failures of the democratic system that carried Trump, against all odds, to victory.
Of course we have the right to demonstrate against a system- this is indisputable. As soon as it is decided that the governing body of a Country has the power to block change to the mechanism that elects it, fascism begins. For this reason, demonstrating against the failures of a democratic system is not only our right- it is, I would argue, our duty. However, this duty is not being upheld.
After the most recent General Election’s result, there was a brief discussion around how flawed the system is in relation to how many seats certain parties got despite disproportionately large voter turnout, followed en masse by general and unconstructive complaints about the Conservative victory that detracted from the greater political point that could have been made.
It was not at all about disparaging and critiquing the democratic process’ perceived failure and entirely about slandering and ridiculing its victors. With the disappointment of loss, the losing side seemed to forget to go after the system that beat them.
After Brexit, there was some discussion of the failures of our media, politicians, and the system in representing what the actual plan was (and if there was one at all) if the motion was carried out. Some critique of the process of the referendum was made here- surely the side who threw the most money at it, controlled more of the media, and caused the most hysteria would win?
This was a constructive criticism that quickly gave way to blame, with both sides antagonistically attacking and insulting what they perceived as the ones ruining the Country. It became an indicator of stupidity to either side to have voted for the other. It is this which became the dominant discourse around the referendum: Remainers were naïve, Leavers were bigots, and everyone was at each other’s throats. Once again, the protest was not against the democratic process, but against the result of that process.
After Trump’s unexpected victory, much was to be said about the fact that he failed to achieve a majority. More than half of voting Americans do not currently believe in their President, and the number is reported to be rising. This is a perfectly valid thing to criticise a democratic process for, and perhaps incite some change. However, what we see at Trump demonstrations and in the media is not a call for destruction of the current process.
We see only calls to take down the man himself, for what he has said and done. Protest needs to go deeper than identity. Trump is a cheap punching bag for those who hate the result they see. I would argue, though, that the right thing to do, and the only way change will be achieved, is to go after the system that allowed him his position.
I won’t say that I disagree with the current Western democratic systems. I do believe whole-heartedly, however, that those who protest the results they bring would do better to target the cause of those results.