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David Bouchier: The Only Thing That Might Work

By (top)Cezary and (bottom)MattWade
Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who voted last Tuesday, or who lined up for early voting during the previous week, must have been impressed as I was by the sheer number of people who turned out, sometimes standing in the rain for hours. I’m not speaking about the result or about the process (which is crazy), but the participation, especially when so many people had so much else to worry about. Sixty-five percent seem to have voted, up less than half in recent elections. This is not bad, considering how much of the population is completely disgusted with politics and would not vote for anyone under any circumstances. Enough people cared about this one, enough to give up their time and their comfort and take the risk of infection. That’s pretty impressive, and that’s what democracy is supposed to be like, but rarely is.

The idea of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the best notions that the human race has ever produced. It’s a pity that the chosen candidates so seldom prove to be the best and the brightest, but nobody has come up with anything better. As Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the wost system of government, apart from all the others.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans created a limited kind of democracy more than 2,000 years ago. It was far from perfect. Voters suffered from pressure, propaganda, intimidation and bribery, but at least there was no social media. Roman citizens voted by areas or tribes, much like us. Thousands had to stand in line to vote publicly and individually, sun or rain. Sometimes it took all day. The Romans kept their fragile democracy for 500 years, much longer than we have so far, but it was never popular with the rich and powerful. When the Emperors came along they simply swept the elections aside, and that was the end of the Roman experiment with democracy.

Of course we are nothing like ancient Rome, apart from the imperial architecture in Washington, D.C., the powerful senate, and the hugely expensive military machine. Those are just accidental similarities. But even our democracy is a fragile thing, too easily flipped into autocracy, as it was in Rome, by ruthless people with an unlimited greed for money and power. Being a “modern” country has nothing to do with it. Europe has provided some sobering examples recently.

Democracy is at its most vulnerable when there are two sides, divided more or less 50-50, who cannot engage in rational discussion. Whatever happens half the population will be elated and half will be angry – not a good recipe for national unity, or any sort of progress.

In this unhappy situation it may be time to consider having two presidents. One is clearly not enough to satisfy everybody. There are historical precedents. The Roman Emperor Diocletian devised a system of two emperors, called Augustus and Caesar respectively. And from 1378 to 1417 there were two Popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. So that’s my modest proposal: two presidents, one in each wing of the White House, promoting two different policies. Like the two popes they could spend their time denouncing one another. Everyone would be happy, knowing that their chosen president was in the White House. As for the business of government itself, that’s why we have 3 million civil servants.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.