The Suffragette Effect


Democracy is, for all its wondrous achievements, slow. This is a partially inbuilt facet, a sort of radical centrism that is designed to prevent any significant lurches to right or left in a reactionary feedback system. Yet in this act of never fully accommodating radical views on either extreme, neither will be fully satisfied or placated. As a result, many good policies and ideas are forfeit in order to avoid pandering to one faction over the other. In place of this political malaise that often overtakes the representative democracies prevalent in today’s world, it is often the place of anti-democratic action that births newfound vigour into the parliaments, congresses and senates of the world.


Democracy is a somewhat diffuse concept, lacking a clear ideological outlining beyond voter participation. Even then, who can and how one votes has never been universally defined. This has probably been one of its main successes, it can easily avoid most criticism as it is difficult to discern what exactly to criticise. However, without a core of defined idealism democracy is left as a collection of somewhat empty legalism and institutions, hardly the formula for appealing rallying cause. Overall governmental approval ratings show this odd symbiosis between both stability and public disillusionment, with the figure of disapproval generally oscillating between 45%-55%. It is clear that at any given time, democratic governance is only begrudgingly tolerated by a large swathe the population.


This disillusionment is as often as not the result of the often painfully slow and incremental progress exhibited by most governments. This is not to mention the entrenched interests and influence of big business that very often run contrary to public will. The anger at big business is often overtly expressed, as for example: the Occupy Wall Street movement. Although it periodically flares into huge protests, much like the democracy it claims to be defending, it lacks a clear goal outside expressing a general dissatisfaction at the system.


In the face of this, it may seem like authoritarianism could creep in as an opposing force with promises of efficiency, vigour and clear goals tantalising jaded voter’s appetites. However, the authoritarianism of domestic political extremes and foreign dictatorships is one of key ingredients to helping democracy survive. This is because they add a reflective surface for the otherwise diffuse light of democracy. By their opposition, they add context to an otherwise vague concept; for it is often far easier to say what something is not that what it is. This can often be seen in the initial public support for foreign intervention amongst western nations, as demonstrated in the military action against figures such as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. It gives a defined cause to rally against and offers the veneer of democratic principles one might point too. It is also no wonder then, that popularity quickly tapers off when the realpolitik and geopolitical dimensions of conflicts become clearer.


While international politics can be used as legitimacy mines for democratic governments, what often oils the very function of democracies is domestic disturbances that skirt standard procedure. These take on many forms, civil disobedience, riots, petitions and even intimidations and violence. Whilst generally deplored by both government and public alike, we regularly overlook the positive rewards we reap from such events; labour laws, environmental regulation and minority rights being but a few such benefits.



These can often be overlooked because they are given a final political stamp of approval, whilst almost the entire process having being galvanised by public disturbances. In this way, democratic institutions can take the credit. This was exceptionally prevalent during the American Civil Rights movements; riots, protests, strikes and even armed militias such as the Black Panthers stepped in where democracy fell short. The government could not ignore it for long before action was taken. In British politics, the most momentous result of civil disorder for political change was the suffragettes. Through a series of acts such as rioting, assaulting politicians and even the martyrdom of Emily Wilding Davison, the right for women to vote was eventually achieved. Although there is fierce debate as to whether their tactics were useful or counterintuitive, the fact remains that they fought and eventually won.


It is easy to say with hindsight that the acts of the suffragettes and others were actually a hindrance to their respective causes, and it was a general social shift that caused the success of these para-democratic movements. But that ignores the fact that at the time of these movements there was very little democratic will for their causes. Whether or not the tactics endeared them to their electors, they plainly illustrated the discontent brewing. In this light we should look at modern examples of civil disobedience, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Their widely decried tactics of riots/protests and roadblocks might not endear them to the general public or government, but it shouts loud and clear that there is an issue that needs fixing. The vigour of Black Lives Matter and movements like them inject much needed energy into an all too often complacent system.

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