You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

We, the Oftentimes Wrong

Winning a popular vote may be nice, but let’s not conflate victory with deservedness.

Madrid, Spain -- There’s one danger inherent in the democratic system, a danger that, in recent times, keeps surfacing. It is its tendency to spread into all other areas, even those that are not strictly political.

Few people would deny that, however imperfect, democracy is still the fairest, most acceptable and most reasonable system of government. Not so much because the voters always choose the right candidate (in fact they rarely do--one has only to look at the United States, Venezuela, Iran or, until very recently, Italy, where voters kept Silvio Berlusconi in high office for years), but because the citizenry as a whole is prepared to put up with the results, however crazy or pernicious they might seem.

The important thing about democracy is not who emerges from it as leader (remember, Hitler reached power via a combination of the ballot box and pacts made with other parties), but the fact that the population agrees that those chosen by the majority to govern will be allowed to govern without further argument. Those of us who are appalled by the majority decision will not attempt to foment rebellion; instead, we’ll either go into exile or be patient and try to persuade the majority to vote differently next time.

Democracy guarantees only two things: that we renounce force as a way of gaining power and that we renounce force as a way of ousting a government, even if many people believe a government has acted wrongly or against the interests of the country. What it never guarantees--and this is something we should be quite clear about--are fair and honest leaders.

That’s why it’s so laughable when present-day politicians invoke the democratic origins of their power just as kings once invoked the supposed divine origin of theirs. What underlies this attitude is the misleading idea that “the people are right” and that “if the people have elected me, it’s because I am fair, good, honest and efficient.”

Obviously, one can’t know what any leader is like until he or she has been in power for a while. And being endorsed by “the people” in subsequent elections does not make them one iota better. That lying, cataclysmic disaster, Bush Jr., received just such an endorsement, as did the manipulative, dictatorial, coup-leading Hugo Chavez.

And if, around 1960, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had legalized political parties and called free elections, he would have won them hands down, because the great mass of Spanish society was clearly pro-Franco, however much people nowadays would like to deny or forget it. The same would have happened over the decades with Castro in Cuba, as it did with Hitler and Mussolini and Peron in their day.

In order to be--and continue to be--truly democratic, it’s not enough to have been democratically elected, although that is, of course, a necessary condition. You have to govern democratically too. These simple ideas, which should be crystal clear, appear to be increasingly harder to grasp. What people call “the people” are not necessarily right, or if they are, it’s usually only retrospectively. It’s the grandchildren of “the people” who might--just possibly--be right about the era in which their grandparents lived, but who, regrettably, might be quite wrong about their nation’s current situation.

Put another way, present-day Germans see Nazism as a complete disaster, a horrific mistake, but the Germans who lived through that same Nazism saw it as the greatest blessing of their time--which implies, alas, that present-day Germans might be no wiser about what is going on now in their own country.

Or to use another example: Most Americans now condemn the excesses and abuses of 1950s McCarthyism, and yet they show no signs of disapproving of something far more serious that is happening right now--Guantanamoism. It will, I’m afraid, be their grandchildren who’ll feel ashamed and shocked that hundreds of prisoners were held for years under torture and without charge or trial in a kind of ghost prison.

Bush Jr., the leader responsible for this, was democratically elected (well, he was the second time), but the existence of a place like Guantanamo in large part de-democratizes him.

If what we call “the people” so often get it wrong with something as vital as electing a leader, why should they do any better in another field? And yet “popular” votes are proliferating, largely because the Internet and text-messaging make it easier and easier to carry out these sham polls. We are constantly reading or hearing that some newspaper or organization or radio or television channel has got up a poll to determine, say, the most important figure in the history of Spain or the United Kingdom or wherever.

And then there are the polls held to decide the best songs, films or novels of all time: Since most of the people who take part in this silliness are the young, the results depend greatly on what is recent or even current.

The height of this half-witted concern with what “most people” think was reached a few months ago. A multimillionaire--his millions being his only credentials--launched a ridiculous “popular” vote to choose the “new Seven Wonders of the World.” At first, this seemed fairly innocuous, but it ceased to be so when even the more serious newspapers devoted whole pages to the initiative, as if such a vote could have any authority or value whatsoever.

How do “the people,” with no particular artistic training, know what is wonderful and what is not? And have they all been everywhere in order to compare the different Wonders? The poll triggered other embarrassing initiatives. In Spain, there was a campaign to get “the people” to vote for the Alhambra--the palace and fortress in southern Spain--regardless of whether they had ever visited it or not.

Politicians and all kinds of celebrities, including writers--who were previously assumed to possess at least a quarter of a brain, if not half--hurried to vote for the Alhambra on the Internet, in case they were deemed unpatriotic or something. I must confess that, after all this nonsensical fuss, I was quite pleased when Granada’s “Wonder” failed to be chosen as one of the seven stupidities of the world.

Just how stupid the whole thing was can be gauged by the inclusion of the hideous statue, Christ the Redeemer or whatever it’s called, that looms over Rio de Janeiro. Apparently, people like it.

“The people” often like hideous things or ludicrous and totally ephemeral things. “One hundred thousand Muslims in Indonesia,” I read in the newspaper, “are calling for the creation of a pan-Islamic macro-state ruled by Sharia which would bring together all majority Muslim territories, including Spain.” I’m sure there are millions of Muslims calling for such a thing, therefore the Muslim “people” must want it. Does being many make them right? No. Regrettably, we, “the people,” are rarely right.

Javier Marias is an award-winning author and columnist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been translated into 34 languages. His most recent book is the novel Your Face Tomorrow: Dance and Dream.

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

By Javier Marias