Democracy: the best policy?

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As we enter a new year (indeed a new decade), we leave with the saccharine drone of this year’s X factor winner at number one and arrive into the run up to arguably, the most important general election in our lifetime. An odd link, one might think. However, following Simon Cowell’s announcement that, after a stunning set of viewing figures for this year’s X factor final, he plans to launch a “Political X factor” in the run up to this year’s election, I began to consider how the seemingly vacuous, yet lucrative, concept of voting on so-called “talent shows” compares to voting in a governmental election.

Simon Cowell is a man who represents the rise in the manufactured, guaranteed-number-one-selling, populist pop phenomena that so many people abhor. Many fade into obscurity within half a year, whilst the infuriating resilience of The Cheeky Girls is countered by the fact that at least the show which discovered them brought us Girls Aloud, and the delightful Cheryl Cole. However, I do not want to digress into the various musical merits of the products of such shows.

“hordes of housewives braved the icy pavements to prevent Joe “Me mam’s me best friend” McElderry’s toothy grin becoming a forced loser’s smile”

Whether by coincidence, or not, the rise of these shows coincided with the beginnings of iTunes era. As a generation grew up expecting to be able to have music free, the genius of these shows was, in effect, to make people pay twice for it. First voting your preferred artist to the top, and then buy

ing their lacklustre ballad afterwards. For those who felt that they knew about “real music”, the dominance of these acts in the music charts was a complete travesty, but if anything, the rise of the protest single campaigns (Jeff Buckley, Rage against the Machine) has helped even more, as hordes of housewives (albeit futilely) braved the icy pavements to prevent Joe “Me mam’s me best friend” McElderry’s toothy grin becoming a forced loser’s smile.

As the past decade came to its end, various “charts of the decade” came out, and of the top ten singles of the decade, five came from talent show winners/runners up (holding the esteemed company of Bob the Builder and “Is this the way to Amarillo?”). Indeed, even for someone such as myself who has the iTunes collection of a 14 year old girl, the top 100 singles of the decade made depressing listening, with the Crazy Frog , the Ketchup Song and Afroman all making an appearance. Voting in an election is one thing, but voting in a television competition, or “voting” in these charts (by buying a single) requires one to pay. People bought the Crazy Frog single, in fact over half a million copies were sold. Let us hope it was one rich idiot, as if it were the case that 550,000 people bought one copy each, then they could easily be a group of people that could swing an election (2% of the 2005 voting electorate).

“our government is being chosen by people who thought “Can we fix it? (Yes, we can!)” was the tenth most worthwhile song to purchase this past decade”

This is where the idea of Cowell’s “political X factor” seems like a terrifying prospect; because it reminds us that it is the might of the public that decides the way forward for the country. We delight in the fact that we have universal suffrage for adults, we condemn unfair elections and we deride China’s single party system (a government, who incidentally restricted voting in television shows in case the populous got “a taste for democracy”) and yet in these “other elections” where people are given the power to choose, whether by telephone voting or buying singles, we ridicule the results.

The emergence of television voting and novelty singles makes the reality of democracy clear, our government is being chosen by a group of people who thought “Can we fix it? (Yes, we can!)” was the tenth most worthwhile song to purchase this past decade. If we had to decide on the best song of the 2000s, surely the method that most resembled a democratic model such as most purchased would be the way forward. Then, the result would be Will Young’s “Evergreen”, yet I am sure the hordes of supposed musical experts would vehemently disagree. But if this is a flawed measure, why is a similar method seen as best system for choosing a government?

“there is something taboo about suggesting that those who are more informed should have the power to choose government”

Of course, we hope that it is a small bunch of people voting/buying repeatedly, however most often this is not the case. Whilst the measures we accept for what really is the best song or best film tend to revolve around the decision of a panel of impartial experts, there is something taboo about suggesting that those who are more informed (more intelligent?) should have the power to choose government. Few, it seems, would back the reintroduction of the extra vote for graduates of major universities (the Oxford and Cambridge constituencies were abolished in 1950), whilst in the US, even the introduction of “the save” in American Idol, a device by which judges could, once a season, save an act from elimination, was branded “evil” and “undemocratic”. But could our discontentment with such populist results be a further point against the argument that democracy is the best policy?

As it stands, I most certainly wouldn’t be up for an electoral reform that saw voting rights only given to those of a certain IQ, or some similar measure, but with Bhutan (only marginally avoiding “authoritarian regime” on Democracy Index) and Brunei (an absolute monarchy) both in the top ten of a recent University of Leicester study of the happiest countries in the world, maybe democracy is not always the answer, and at least, one hopes, not Simon Cowell’s version of it.

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