It’s only after an election is over that real politics begins. The polls themselves are designed to preserve almost perfect equality among citizens in the electoral process.
But that’s just the formal side of democracy. Election campaigns have become almost liturgical, heavily choreographed events. And what takes place during the rest of the five years is the informal side – a much rougher affair, with no gestures towards equality at all.
The contrast between the two parts of politics has been stretched to breaking point as campaigns become ever more artificial, while inequalities of wealth and income grow more extreme and play an ever greater political role.
That rising inequality is creating economic and social problems is now widely understood, but there’s been far less discussion of the threats it poses to democracy. The issue really comes into focus when we recognise these differences between the formal and informal sides of democracy, and the very different ways in which they treat inequality.
In the electoral process, we quite rightly insist on important principles of perfect equality. We stick to one citizen, one vote and punish those who try to cheat, hold the parties’ broadcast presentations to strict fairness rules, ban party materials from polling stations, and closely limit individual candidates’ spending.
But democracy isn’t just about voting. It’s about campaigning, discussing, lobbying and imposing pressure – things that go on all the time, not just during elections. This is the informal part of the political system, and if it did not exist we could hardly say we lived in a democracy.
The problem is that these parts of our democracy offer no guarantee at all of equality among citizens.