John Sergeant: Tripped
The British TV show Strictly Come Dancing
, which has been exported around the world
has recently had to contend with a scandal that casts a harsh light on the meaning of democracy.
John Sergeant, the former BBC politics correspondent, decided to leave the show
this week when it became clear to him that there was a real danger that he and his professional dance partner, Kristina Rihanoff, might actually win the competition. In spite of the fact that Sergeant was clearly not a good dancer, and was told so by the panel of experts, the Great British Public took a shine to him and voted in massive numbers to keep him in the competition. Naturally, this had the effect of knocking out other dancers who were clearly more deserving of going forward. When the very decent Sergeant saw that he might actually win when he was not the best, he decided to withdraw.
And there, my friends, we have the beauty and the problem with democracy. The people knew that John Sergeant wasn't the best, but they liked him, and were willing to sacrifice those more qualified to keep him. The elites (the experts who knew what good dancing was) thought he was awful, but they couldn't stop the people. As a political correspondent, Sergeant knew the dangers and attractions of elite and popular opinion: his most famous moment came when he was caught off-guard as Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street at the end of her administration
. She, too, had been supported by the public in three elections; it was the elites in her own party (the other members of parliament) who threw her from power.
In order to cope with what they see as the peoples' collective tendency to vote irrationally, the elites have always curtailed genuinely popular democracy: limiting who can vote, putting in such things as electoral colleges, first-past-the-post voting systems
, councils of elders, etc., etc., to make the vote count for something less than it might do in a direct ballot. These systems allow the elites to make sure that only really "good" political dancers get to move on to the next round—whether or not they command genuine political support.
As tyrants everywhere have found, however, the people cannot be denied for long: their collective always threatens to overwhelm the elites—even when the revolution may lead to the collapse of the system. In John Sergeant's case, the public were willing to destroy the whole point of the program (that the most accomplished dancer wins) because they thought the candidate was fun (the most entertaining dancer wins). Doesn't that sound awfully like the 2000 election?
The novelist E.M. Forster once offered two cheers for democracy
, and I feel the same way. For instance, I don't believe in capital punishment. For decades, in vote after vote in the British parliament, MPs have voted not to lift its ban, in spite of the fact that the great majority of the British people would like it reinstated. Here, one could argue, the people have elected representatives to think for themselves and not on behalf of the people. On the other hand, I hate congressional earmarks and pork-barrel politics: I wish the politicians would
think for themselves. However, senators and congresspeople are elected, at least in part, to do what they can for people in their district and state: therefore, earmarks and pork are in some ways the purest expression of what they are elected to do. In other words, they are responding to the needs of the voters—isn't that what democracy is about?
Of course, one solution is for the people to elect someone who is at once clearly more skilled than anyone else at political dancing, and yet also perceived as genuinely popular. I won't say that Barack Obama has solved this problem with democracy, but consider this: Not only was Barack Obama a better dancer
than John McCain, but Michelle was a better dancer than Barack
. Meanwhile, the two "Sixty Minutes" programs that featured Barack Obama's campaign team and Barack and Michelle Obama were the highest-rated programs in those two weeks on television
. Indeed, the Obamas' show drew "the largest audience of the fall season for a single program on a single network."
democracy in action!