So, in a straw poll of Twitter users organised by the new Chief Twit, Elon Musk, Donald Trump has been ‘elected’ back onto the platform after being banned in 2020 for reasons we all know.
“The people have spoken,” tweeted Mr Musk. Haven’t we heard that phrase before, ad nauseam, since 24 June 2016?
Musk’s poll of ‘the people’ was hardly decisive – apart from the fact that, as admitted by Musk, ‘bots and troll armies’ affected the result. (Oh, haven’t we heard that before, too!)
No, it wasn’t decisive because how can a result of 51.8% to 48.2% be decisive? (And that’s eerily close to another indecisive result, 51.9% to 48.1% in the EU referendum.)
That’s the problem with straw polls, or referendums, or plebiscites, or whatever you care to call them.
They are merely snapshots of a fleeting moment, only offering a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to what’s often a complicated or tricky question, without any riders, provisos, conditions, or stipulations.
- What’s that you say? Trump should only be allowed back if he promises not to incite another insurrection?
Sorry, that’s not on the ballot paper. It’s either yes or no. He stays out or he comes back. It’s one or the other. No what ifs, no get-outs, no debate, no wriggle-room. It’s in or out. Get it?
Oh, should we leave the European Union? Yes, or no?
- What’s that you say? You need to know the terms of leaving before deciding? You want to know in advance of your answer what’s the deal, how it will affect you, what are the alternatives, what are the choices if leaving?
Sorry, I don’t think you get it. It’s leave or not. Yes or no.
Don’t mess up the question with complications. If you answer yes to leave, then leave means leave. You don’t get options. You don’t get to qualify your answer.
Well, isn’t that just the problem? Straw polls, or referendums, or plebiscites, or whatever you care to call them, are lousy ways to make decisions.
Much better is to have people, or democratically elected representatives of ‘the people’, fully debate a complicated proposal, over many months if necessary, with extensive information provided, the proposal properly considered, together with numerous opportunities to revise, amend, or abandon the ‘decision’ at any time during the process.
It’s called representative Parliamentary democracy, and in relative terms, it’s served our country well for hundreds of years.
A referendum, or direct democracy as it’s also called, can lead not only to simplistic bodges in response to complicated questions.
When pitched against representative Parliamentary democracy, it can also result in dangerous outcomes, as it did with the undefined version of leave ‘decided’ by ‘the people’.
Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was strongly against the use of referendums or ‘direct democracy.’ He famously said:
“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.”
Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, agreed. She said that referendums are the “device of dictators and demagogues”.
And it’s true: Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon III all used referendums to legitimise decisions they had made. They could go to the populace and ask them any question, and then interpret the simplistic one-word answer almost any way they wanted.
And that’s precisely what’s happened with the EU referendum result. The answer, by the narrowest of margins, was a simplistic, undefined, unknown ‘Leave’, which was later interpreted any way the Tory government wanted.
A decision that our Parliament was not permitted to challenge – even though the referendum was supposed to be ‘advisory only’.
And so it is with Trump. He will now return to Twitter following a simplistic ‘referendum’.
As for the terms of Trump’s return, that will be down to Musk – the new demagogue on the block?