Essence of democracy in X Factor

What does the 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke have to do with X Factor?

Not much, you might think, but the other night I was in one room reading a fairly weighty article about Burke while keeping an ear out for the results of the voting on X Factor, which was being broadcast in the next room.

I don't like to admit I take any interest in this excruciating yet compulsive programme. But reading something about a famous figure from the past, while keeping tabs on what is happening on the show somehow makes it less shameful.

Not that X Factor lacks entirely in educational value. As I have said before, these talent shows, judged by a panel of so-called experts, are one of the few times young people receive an honest appraisal of their achievement and performance.

There are plenty of platitudes, but they are not of the what-ever- you-do-is-spectacular variety. No prizes are given for just turning up and no-one voted off gets a second chance. Excellence is not only expected, but strived for. It's a little bit like the real world.

Before simultaneously reading about Burke, it hadn't occurred to me that X Factor has another useful message for its viewers. It teaches its audience about voting. All that encouragement to get on those phones and vote, sounds very much like the message from political parties just before an election.

Admittedly the choice does not require much knowledge or mental activity. Essentially it is about who you like the best. Cynics might suggest this is not unlike the way we currently choose our politicians.

The cynics have a point. Our national elections often seem to boil down to selections akin to choosing a can of soup in a supermarket. Likeableness and coming across well on television are often perceived as more winning qualities, than a deep commitment to a set of values and well-conceived policies.

The sort of voting you see on X Factor is also increasingly touted as the direction in which democracy should go. With the right equipment installed in our homes, we could in theory vote directly on set proposals about things like welfare entitlements and drug dealing penalties. This is called direct democracy and in X Factor it is exhibited in perhaps its purest form.

Thanks to Wikipedia I can tell you a direct democracy is where people vote on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy, in which people vote for representatives who are given the job of deciding policy initiatives.

You sometimes hear politicians confusing the two types of democracy.

Some, for instance, will say they must vote according to the beliefs of their constituents rather than exercise their own judgment. In other words, they become a mere conduit for the opinions of their electorate.

Or they are a one-issue candidate like Christchurch City Councillor Aaron Keown, who was elected on his platform of free parking at the hospital.

The article by Charles Hill in The New Criterion was suggesting current politics is moving "ever more to the direct democracy that brought down Athens", because of the politician's fear of exercising mature judgment.

Burke, who was a parliamentarian in the English House of Commons, regarded "a perfect democracy where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained is therefore the most shameless thing in the world".

In 1774, Burke gave a speech in Bristol that became famous for its defence of the principles of representative government, against the theory elected officials should merely be mouthpieces for their electorate:

"It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention . . . But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Granted, Burke was a leading skeptic with respect to democracy.

He doubted people had the intelligence to vote responsibly and he believed ordinary people had irrational and irate passions that could be manipulated by rabble rousers and firebrands. He also warned democracy would oppress unpopular minorities.

So apart from agreeing that the elimination of Moorhouse was disgraceful and unjustified, perhaps we can also see X Factor as demonstrating a voting system that we should avoid at all costs for anything more serious than a talent contest.

The Press