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Shaping Democracy

We need to stop looking for leaders who embody our desires, identities and dreams. Whenever the clay of democracy starts to dry, we need to wet it again – or we risk our leaders moulding us.

Demi and patrick ghost pottery

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost.

In the 1990 date-film Ghost, Demi Moore famously does some late-night pottery with the help of her undead lover, played by Patrick Swayze. This sexy sculpting session is a good metaphor for democracy. But, before we see how Demi and Patrick’s pot making can teach us about running stuff better, here’s a short history of how nations were shaped.

In the days before democracy, the will of the nation took the physical form of the King or Queen. The nation had a body and a face. If the body died, all that they represented passed to another physical body, a blood relative who would now be God on Earth and embody unity. We, the people, submitted to them, moulding our own selves to fit the will of the monarch.

Then came more sacred bodies. Communism had the tomb of Lenin, a monument to an unshifting ideology that knew the absolute truth of history. Loved by millions, as millions died. Fascism had Hitler and Mussolini, who led their people into the self-mutilation of war and the horror of genocide. These were leaders to be loved and feared, revered and followed. Not simple ordinary men, but the power and will of whole nations in human form. Bodies celebrated in stone, made to last forever.

The alternative to this tyranny is democracy. We may look at our leaders, snigger and roll our eyes. We may despair of being able to trust them or ever having an ‘ordinary person’ represent us. But, in exchange, they cannot tell us what to think or how to be. Instead, they have to try and persuade us and beg for our support. Our democracy does not care about their bodies.

On election day, they are discarded. Whole parties can be dismembered and reformed by the public will. Democracy lets leaders slip away to land discarded at its feet. Like Donald Trump, the old leaders are left impotently lashing out at the institutions turning away from them. As we can remake our leaders, so we can also remake the institutions of democracy: elections, political parties, city councils and national parliaments. We can shape them and reform them.

There is a temptation to seek leaders who might truly embody our democratic desires, our feelings, identities and dreams for the future. But no one person can satisfy the desires of a whole nation of equal individuals.

Instead of forging a functioning democracy, leaders would mould the nation. Turn us all into clay if we let them. Shape our minds and focus our thoughts on their body as the unique symbol of the nation to be loved. Focus our fear and anger on other bodies: the migrant, the rich, the poor, the other. The populist leader divides to rule. But, most dangerously, the populist leader tries to make their body the symbol of the nation. They lay the path for tyranny.

No one side is more culpable for this surge in populism. Some would point to Donald Trump as he tweeted his way into the hearts of the disaffected, but he just followed in the tweets of Barak Obama. The Trump movement was more about the man than the party, as was the movement for Bernie Sanders. Politics has become about the individual. About the body. About Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson. About the person we identify with and believe in. But democracy isn't populism. It isn't about single leaders or even parties. We should not look for eternal bodies. We should not try to find ourselves in our leaders.

Democracy is Demi and Patrick shaping that piece of clay together. Seventy million people moulding leaders and political parties and policies and local councils and parliament together. Sometimes our loving couple might disagree. Maybe Patrick has a thing for twiddly bits on his pottery and Demi likes minimalism. Likewise, we need to shape our democracy so it can handle conflict as well as unity.

It's just like that scene in Ghost - though maybe not with that soundtrack. Demi and Patrick might want to make a work of art, but they’d settle for a pot that looks OK and does the job. We need to mould leaders who will do a competent job. Any more than that is just good luck. Most importantly, we need to always be reshaping the clay, never letting it dry into stone, never turning it into one body in a mausoleum to be revered forever.

As soon as the clay begins to dry, we need to wet it once again and make the clay formless. We need to have the confidence to discard our leaders and remake political parties. Reshape our institutions, councils and governments before they become too solid. The more we do this, the better we will get at it.

And we will disagree. Sometimes the clay will be shaped as I want it and sometimes as you want it. That is democracy. Perhaps sometimes we will shape it together in unity and with love to make something truly special. Just like that scene in Ghost… OK, maybe not exactly like Demi and Patrick. That would be a bit creepy.

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