Has Democracy Run Out of Choice?           You-Sheng Li

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The current election of the United States, George Bush versus John Kerry, is a tight race locked in a heated struggle for both sides. Through the whole campaign period, no side has ever come out as the decisive winner. The whole country was in a gloomy mood worrying about the possible result similar to last time when Bush won by 500 votes in the recount. I met many Americans who said, Bush was going to win by a little margin since the Democrats, unfortunately, did not come out with a better candidate.

I wrote those sentences a few days before the 2004 United States presidential election. The final result was 51% versus 48% but with a high voter turnout rate of 60%.  When I saw thousands of voters in line waiting to vote on TV, I seemed to hear their impatient voices in my mind: Who is the guy a little bit ahead? You don’t like Bush? I don’t like him either. But for God’s sake, give him a push. It will be disaster for democracy if we repeat what happened four years ago.

A few months ago the presidential election of Taiwan ran a very similar course. Both sides were fully motivated with massive gatherings or marches for one or the other during the campaign time. Even Taiwanese overseas were excited to travel back home to vote. One day before the election, the president and vice president, who later won the race by a margin in the range of a dozen of thousand, were both slightly injured in an assassination attempt during a campaign appearance. After the election, the losing party immediately requested a recount which found invalid votes, which were arguable, that amounted to far more than the margin by which the president had won his race. The opposition also accused the president of staging the assassination attempt to win sympathy votes. To my knowledge the dispute has not been settled yet. People still remember the last American election four years ago. The Democratic Party won the most votes but lost the election, and the recounts were only settled by the high court.

Those election results are by no means the voters’ wish or represent a majority of the people. Ancient people cast lots to make a choice. Those elections are nothing more than casting lots but the cost ran in the dozens of billion of dollars. For the 2004 election the government provided $74.6 millions for both George W. Bush and John Kerry but they actually spent 330.7 and 279.0 millions respectively. Has our democracy run out of choice?  To many citizens who care little about the election the answer is yes.

A banker who was interviewed by CBC Radio said, Bush and Kerry were the same to him. If there was any difference at all between them, it was like that between Classic Coke and Diet Coke. A banker is a businessman who has a strong sense of orientation or direction. His metaphor was also oriented one: From Classic to Diet Coke is a moving direction like from conservative to progressive.

Most people may not care whether the country gets a Classic or a Diet Coke but some do prefer one to another. Let’s say more voters prefer the Classic one. What would happen next? Diet Coke would change a little bit to make itself more Classic like, and vice versa. Thus both sides will balance out to make sure there is no clear choice left for the voters. The voters are acting exactly the same way. If Classic Coke is winning, its voters will say my favourite Coke is winning any way, I do not need to bother the voting. On the other side, lazy Diet Coke voters who never planned to vote, alarmed by the winning edge of the opposition, decide to cast last minute votes to prevent the other party from winning.

Democracy is a major development in modern history and has brought many changes to the world. But democracy is not perfect. Socrates was executed by votes and Hitler won the popular vote in his early years. Votes can decide on measurable and tangible things which everybody can see clearly.

If we call the primitive community in ancient societies the primary society, then modern society is the secondary society. The secondary society has its own purpose which is essentially not interests of its people. One of a few exceptions is war. When there is war, the society and its people have the same interests---wining the war and defending the society.

In a secondary society, there is a clear direction and full purpose when there is a threat of war. A Taoist would say even in such a situation, the government has no reason to engage its people’s full attention. People have the right to have their life and their own worlds uninterrupted for any reason. In our real and unfortunate world, if the enemy motivates its whole population, our government has to catch up to prepare against possible attack. In the Second World War, the Chinese slogan for the day was all for the war. Any theatre, entertainment, magazine, or newspaper was ordered to carry the same message: fight the war against the Japanese. At least four hundred million of Chinese joined the war directly and indirectly. Some Chinese people or captured guerrillas were transported to Japan to work as physical labours. When they came back home, they told everybody, “The Japanese people are much worse than us: Everyone gets a little bit of food each day to keep alive. There is no soap, and no matches.” Apparently the Japanese used all their muscles for the war. War is also a means to make a political choice but a very costly one compared to an election. So the former Chinese leader Mao (1893-1976) said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

But since the cold war era ended more than a decade ago, the matter has become quite different now. The atmosphere is more relaxing, more human-nature friendly. It isn’t too much to ask if people want to be left to themselves. In the Taoist view, people are closer to nature when they are relaxed and out of worldly affairs. Politics is now something for the society, for the country, for one population against another and so on but it is not for the people.

If we are sick, we go to a doctor who, nowadays, consults the computer to diagnose and manage our sickness. You may say human health is complicated and needs a professional decision. When there is no clear choice, the political decision becomes complicated too, since it has to take many more minor issues into consideration. You may not believe this but a half dozen issues to be considered together will make it so complicated that it needs a really good computer to work out the difference. Can we implement the same system to train professional politicians and sophisticated computer programmes to manage our country and our society? In such a system, decisions could be made more quickly and at less cost. Voters’ intentions can also be taken into account.

An alarming phenomenon is that young people have become less interested in politics. The trend seems to be getting worse with passing time, and the politicians have not come up with an effective measure to stop it. Young people are tomorrow’s grown-ups. It is exactly what is coming. The turnout rates to the voting stations become disappointingly low. Not very much more than half of legitimate voters bother to cast a ballot.

The following are the turnout rates of percentages of the voting age population in recent presidential elections in the States:

2000                                51.3%

1996                                49%

1992                                55%

1988                                50.1%

1984                                53.1%

1980                                52.5%

1976                                53.5%

1972                                55.2%

1968                                60.8%

1964                                61.9%

1960                                63%

According to the Canadian author, Douglas Coupland, and others, generation X who were born in the 1970s are quite different in comparison with the baby boomer generation whose births followed the Secondary World War. Generation X are less materialistic, less money-oriented, more leisure-seeking, and put more value on individual freedom. In other words, generation X are closer to human nature while the boomer generation closer to the Western culture. It is not coincident that in the Taoist view, the young people are closer to nature since they have not been exposed to our culture for long.

In the 1980s and 1990s some anthropologists came to a new interpretive perspective, post-modernism. Post-modernism is a strong reaction against modern culture which was largely developed along Western rational, scientific, analytic traditions. In the post-modern world, there is no general direction but everyone has their own directions. There is no mainstream but numerous streams trickling along their own paths.  One day I read an article on the Internet talking about the Hindu concepts of human rights and democracy. I felt trapped in a deep puzzling fog without any hope of clear understanding. I did not finish reading but sighed to myself, “This must be why those anthropologists say it is impossible to cross the culture border.” That article was written in English and explained in Western terms. To me, it spoke about human rights and democracy at the cosmic or spiritual level. When all people on earth come together, their concerns are closer to nature.

 In the Taoist view, human rights and democracy are the values at the social and cultural levels in the secondary society, and they correspond to human nature and equality in the primary society. I hardly see those values at the cosmic or spiritual level, which are both above the real life of the secular world. But if you want to build temples and huge God statues in order to pursue those levels, you may run into confrontation with the secular world, and then human rights and democracy may come as an issue to concern. But Taoists adapted themselves to the secular world and pursue their spiritual liberty. In their view, those secular concerns do not enter the spiritual world. Therefore, in the Taoist view, people are closer to nature when they are at the spiritual level.

After the 2004 election some surveys showed that 80% of those who worried about morality voted for Bush while 80% of those who worried about the economy voted for Kerry; 91% of those who thought religious faith was the best quality of man voted for Bush while 91% of those who thought wisdom was the best quality of man voted for Kerry. Bush’s success seems to reflect the shift toward religion and morality, and in the same trend, it was found that American high school students go to church more than their parents for the first time since the1930s but the world may be the most peaceful now since the1930s.

I did not follow the election closely but those surveys were quite different from what the media and the two parties talked about before the election. Again it suggests that the election itself is becoming irrelevant to the people’s life. They vote for something that is not on the minds of the two candidates and their parties.

According to Taoist belief, the best government does no governing. People hardly know of the existence of their government but have neither praise nor blame to give it. If the Taoist people have a chance to vote, and they will vote the government out. One may say that Taoism advocates the small primitive community. This is not the case. Lao Tzu says, If you have mastered the Taoist principles, all the states and their people in the world come to you. You do not harm them and they do not harm each other. The result is peace, equality in a great country.                                                     Chapter 35

Taoists believe human nature is universal and that we come to the same ground once we come to basic human nature. Politics and culture provide different choices but they are one level above nature. All people in the world are one species in the biological sense, and we are all from the same parents who lived one or two hundred thousand years ago in Africa. Taoists often refer to new born babies who are naked and pure and innocent. In front of a new born baby, naked human nature, we should all feel united, and undivided. There should be only one choice left for true democracy since choice has finally run out. One day we may all say, “If you hold the human nature or Tao, the whole world will come to you. You do not harm anyone’s nature, and the whole world is in a grand and tranquil peace.

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