There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my social network timelines about the electoral success – or at the very least, media prominence – of UKIP and their equivalents in the run-up to and results of elections held this week across Europe. Being that a UKIP spokesperson has today attributed their relative lack of success in London to their difficulty in appealing to the “educated, cultural and young”, I congratulate my social media contacts on presumably being some or all of these things.
Personally I don’t agree with the inference she makes about the intelligence or otherwise of her supporters – rather, I’d say that these election results are an excellent example of the collective intelligence of an electorate in sending a message to mainstream politicians.
As frightening and distasteful as the emergence of these parties and their voices may be to many, in the longer view I would take heart that they are a sign of a functioning democracy. Let’s say that mainstream political parties had reached a consensus that e.g. immigration was a topic best kept off the agenda. What voters have shown them is that any such unofficial conspiracy of silence is not viable in a democracy in the long run – if there is a topic about which voters are concerned, someone will sooner or later come along and exploit those concerns, just as a functioning body fights an infection by inducing a fever. So comfortable silence is not enough – the arguments must be made, and continue to be made, since there is always a new generation of voters for whom accepting the existing consensus is not enough.
A few years ago I wrote about the Oxford Union’s decision not to give the unpleasant historian David Irving a platform to debate his views on free speech. Although he did appear at a debate on the same subject a few years later, to me the main flaw in their logic was to fail to give him a platform to be questioned and cross-examined on his views on the holocaust – it’s not enough to say he’s wrong, he must be shown publicly to be wrong, and (given that this is a student debating body), continue to be shown to be wrong periodically.
Similarly, for those who are cultured or educated or young enough to disagree with the thrust of UKIP’s arguments, it is not enough to pour disdain or vitriol on them and on those who agree with them – if their arguments are wrong, we must reinvigorate ourselves to provide the reasons that they are wrong. If and when democracy works, this is how; and it fails when we lack the will or desire not just to assume that the consensus is right, but to make the arguments for it, repeatedly and persistently.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport where one can sit back and just give color commentary. It’s an urgent & demanding participatory endeavor.” – Cory Booker