While residing in the sunny south for these long winter months, I have become reacquainted with the unmistakable sound of one of the most ubiquitous pieces of footwear ever invented, the flip-flops. Flimsy pieces of rubber precariously fastened to one’s foot with a plastic thong between the toes, flip-flops are worn by hundreds of millions of people all over the world.
One would have to be extremely unmindful not to hear the approach of someone wearing them—flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…
That same unmindfulness, however, may explain why we seem to have been oblivious to other sorts of flip-flops, all of which have perverted what we have long thought to be the cornerstone of our democratic way of life—the right of every eligible voter to cast a ballot on every question of significance to our civic life. That is no longer the case.
In societies with a small population—ancient Athens, for example—eligible citizens had only to attend in the public square, pay attention to the arguments being presented, and direct their vote in favour of the one they preferred. Majority ruled, of course, and so the will of the people was carried out.
It was of little import back then that the only eligible voters were men, and only men who owned property.
In larger, more complex societies, such as the democracies we live in today, direct civic involvement is nigh impossible, certainly impractical. Even as we watch the ever-accelerating unfurling of technology that promises (or threatens) to transform the very way we interact with one another, it is hard to conceive of a system that would allow every eligible voter to have a say on every issue affecting the direction of the nations we call home.
That may well be why one of the first great flip-flops in how we are governed came to be. Instead of citizens having a direct say in the affairs of state, they began to delegate their voices to spokespersons elected to represent them. Long before Abraham Lincoln had spoken his famous words about government of the people, democracy had already morphed to government by the people’s representatives.
Whether that has continued to be government for the people is an open question. And did no one hear the sound of the flip-flop?
Mind you, there are still examples of direct, one-to-one voting on issues affecting the commonweal. Plebiscites or referenda are often placed before the people to decide on questions of import great or small. Examples might include: the secession decisions by thirteen states in the US circa 1860; the presently-dormant question of Quebec separation from Canada; the still-active issue surrounding Scottish independence from Britain.
A prime referendum example is the choice afforded the citizens of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar in 2016, whether to leave the European Union or remain a member. Those wishing to leave, the Brexiters, squeaked out a narrow victory over the Remainers, thus establishing the will of the people.
Second thoughts seem to have plagued the UK ever since, however, resulting in the government’s plan to exit the EU being roundly defeated in parliament recently by the people’s representatives. The EU is not amused.
This change of course seems to me to be another example of a flip-flop in the way we are governed, in that, apparently, hundreds of thousands of British citizens, when given the opportunity to make their voices heard in 2016, declined to do so. Only when the potential consequences of the referendum’s outcome began to surface did those recalcitrant citizens seem to realize they were hoist on their own petard.
If this case is any indicator, the lack of esteem in which their right to vote was held by so many citizens is a far cry from that of their predecessors who, on the fields of Runnymede in 1215, demanded and obtained such rights from King John. Even eight hundred years later, how could such reluctant citizens not have heard the sound of the flip-flop?
Over time, as people ceded the right to govern them to elected representatives (or had it snatched away), those very delegates moved inexorably toward the formation of collective positions on almost every issue facing their countries. Political parties were birthed, they lived, and in some cases died, only to be resurrected in somewhat altered form. This has been true in fascist regimes, capitalist unions, and communist societies.
It became the norm for these collectives to establish a platform, a set of principles and intentions upon which they would stand. Indeed, parties were criticized, and continue to be, if they have no such guiding manifesto. Of course, whether or not they govern according to the platform promises is another thing altogether.
All of which brings us to the point where the representatives we have elected to govern on our behalf, rather than listening to us to determine how we want them to do that, tell us what they will do—the proverbial stump speech. The will of the people, even if representing only a majority of them, has become secondary to the decisions of the political party to whom we have granted power. For voters, it is all too often a choice between the greater or lesser of evils.
This is surely a flip-flop of the highest magnitude, where the directions in which we—collectively, by majority rule—want our nations to move can be easily subverted by the contrary will of those we have allowed to represent us. It has been said that, as government expands, liberty contracts.
And when enough of us don’t even bother to vote, don’t care to have a say in who those representatives will be, we open ourselves to government by a small faction of the people—a tyranny of the minority.
We must stand up to this. Our unwariness and our indifference are allowing the flip-flops in how we are governed to approach us, overtake us, and inevitably subjugate us. Just listen and you will hear them—
Flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…