The age of enlightenment, most notably associated with the 17th and 18th century, marked a change in the decision-making attitude of people who were beginning to step away from superstition towards reason.
Given the differences among people, some of which are irreconcilable, how long can a democracy afford to facilitate discussions in the name of 'rational discourse' before a binding decision can be executed? With the way things are, the biggest threat to democracy at present is, quite ironically, democracy itself, or shall we say the paradoxes present in it
The progress in science was at the forefront of this transition, but the rational approach where evidence was sought to verify a claim seeped into the world of social sciences.
At the heart of this transition was the belief that people could rely on reason and make sound judgments for themselves as individuals.
Now as events unfold in the 21st century, the question arises- do human beings really adopt a rational decision-making process? After more than 200 years, the Capitol Hill in America was breached by an angry mob. What sparked the protests to begin with was the wide spread election fraud that the protestors were convinced happened. Now let's set aside America momentarily and consider a general democracy.
For many, supporting an unpopular protest that is doomed to fail would seem like an irrational decision driven mainly by emotions.
But then again, if the constitution grants the right to protest, wouldn't utilising it to share discontent also be a rational choice, especially when severe repercussions are not expected? As opposed to the scientific world where a rational and empirical approach leads to a singular outcome, the use of reason in the socio-political realm, depending on demographic variables associated with the person/group, can lead to multiple conclusions.
Different people have different priorities and different ways in which they perceive the world, and just because someone stands on the opposite side of one's ideological fence, doesn't necessarily mean that the other is entirely irrational.
Isiah Berlin was one of the thinkers who accepted this diversity of positions in the form of pluralism. If we think about it, a society where there is only one right answer would resemble, not a democracy, but a totalitarian state. There is this famous statement by Nietzsche that goes, "You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist."
A version of this article appears in the print on February 4, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.
If even the rational ones can come to different conclusions then perhaps the focus should not be so much on people's ability to be reasonable.
A question then arises, given the differences among people, some of which are irreconcilable, how long can a democracy afford to facilitate discussions in the name of 'rational discourse' before a binding decision can be executed? With the way things are, the biggest threat to democracy at present is, quite ironically, democracy itself, or shall we say the paradoxes present in it.
Professor Larry Diamond points out that there are three inherent tensions in a democracy. The first is between conflict and consensus.
It is expected that people and groups in a democratic framework will compete to put forth their positions, but such interactions, if done overzealously, come with the possibility of violent conflicts.
The second tension is between representativeness and governability. While a democracy does not want to leave power at the hands of the few, there are issues regarding which a government is expected to make quick decisions – a process which can leave the ones in opposition and segments of the mass ignored.
The third paradox, which is similar to the second one, has to do with consent and effectiveness. Democracy requires the approval of people, but in order for people to believe in the system, the system must also deliver. But many far reaching socio-economic reforms tend to be unpopular with the mass. A subtle balance between these tensions is required for the preservation of democracy.
For Nepal, effectiveness has probably been the most elusive pursuit, often hindered by lengthy political deliberations in the name of democracy that bear no fruit, so much so that people are now calling for autocratic interventions.
At the heart of the problem is rationality, which is fueled by a utilitarian approach to achieving self-centered ends. The problem arises not mainly because every person or group is irrational but instead because they are just the opposite- they analyse what they want and then demand they be the first in line to get it.
A rational person or group will always prioritise their interests before that of anyone else. And because of this tendency, the road to consensus through dialogue, which is a hallmark of democracy, becomes littered with impediments, which at the end of the day come at the expense of the society at large.
When the bandwagon of democracy came along in Nepal, individuals and groups, quite naturally, became eager to hop on it.
The naïve and often deceptive slogans from politicians had portrayed the transition to a democracy as the short cut to prosperity, when in reality, virtually no country has been able to achieve rapid progress under a purely democratic framework. This isn't to say that democracy is by any means bad, but expectations do need to be corrected.
The problem with young democracies like Nepal is that, in the name of expression and inclusion, agendas are lumped and carried together in a way that the wagon cannot sustain. The way that passengers try to get on public transport at peak hour in Nepal is symbolic of the political processes that unfold in this country. But there are two major differences.
The first is that the people left behind at the bus stop don't take it personally because they know if one vehicle goes another will come along.
And the second is that if during the ride, someone standing appears to be more in need of a seat, a person who is already seated volunteers to give it up or does so after a request. It is a shame that we cannot show similar courtesy when it comes to politics and political demands.