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AC Grayling: begs us to look at the injustices of democracy. Photo/Alamy

Democracy inaction: AC Grayling's The Good State reviewed

British philosopher AC Grayling’s second work on the flaws of the democratic system fails to inspire.

Philosopher AC Grayling’s 2017 work Democracy and Its Crisis told us what every Listener reader knows: democracy is at best a vulnerable political system that is far from perfect. In Grayling’s follow-up, The Good State, there’s more balance – democracy is the best system we’ve so far discovered, so let’s tinker under the bonnet and hot-rod that system so it functions “as required” for all who might be along for the ride.

Developed from various autocratic systems, modern democracy still favours the privileged. Not enough people vote; not enough people have access to an education that helps them to express their civic character. Campaign-funding mechanisms are corrupting; the intermingling of the three pillars of state – executive, legislative and judicial – invite this corruption into government. Parties compete for voter attention with promises that, when voted into power, they are unable to follow through on because they have such a limited amount of time (just three years in New Zealand) and are therefore thinking of re-election almost as soon as they have come into power.

There are, in Grayling’s view, many excuses for the poorly functioning democracies that produced the likes of Brexit and US President Donald Trump.

His solutions are those of a mechanic: a thorough, no doubt costly overhaul is required. He advocates lowering the voting age to 16, teaching democratic processes in schools, five-year terms and enforcement of political codes of conduct. Add to this a proper proportional system – not something that Grayling’s Britain will see soon, I should think – and reforming the campaign-funding system. Now that 1990s Toyota Corolla is starting to look like a late-model Volvo.

My struggle with The Good State is that in focusing on the abstractness of democracy, we’ve set aside our humanness. Self-interest, complacency, arrogance – any combination of the seven deadly sins is bound to undermine a political system. We’ve seen that with feudalism, authoritarianism, communism – any -ism, really – and it is there in all of its Trumpian grandeur in democracy, too. But these aspects of human nature shape history.

People continue to make poor decisions based on short-term ambitions and our political system reflects that in its daily soap opera of intrigue. We knowingly nodded our way through House of Cards, The West Wing, Veep, The Thick of It and, for those who couldn’t get enough, the Danish series Borgen. It wasn’t due process or a code of conduct that served us in these works – it was vice and corruption. Grayling’s plea is, like Greta Thunberg’s, for a world that “reads the science”, that begs us to look squarely at the injustices of the system we support – its inherent privilege, its deliberate disengagement with large sections of society, its competitive headline-grabbing vanity – which we would love to do without but cannot.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of a philosopher. By the time you reach the end of The Good State, you will be yawning just a little. What, you might wonder, would an Alain de Botton – both an educator and entertainer – have done with this subject? Possibly enough to convince us that democracy is worth the effort and is part of who we all are.

THE GOOD STATE: On the Principles of Democracy, by AC Grayling (Oneworld, $36.99)

This article was first published in the March 28, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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