“55 Voices for Democracy” is inspired by the 55 BBC radio addresses Thomas Mann delivered from his home in California to thousands of listeners in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the occupied Netherlands and Czechoslovakia between October 1940 and November 1945. In his monthly addresses Mann spoke out strongly against fascism, becoming the most significant German defender of democracy in exile. Building on that legacy, “55 Voices” brings together internationally esteemed intellectuals, scientists, and artists to present ideas for the renewal of democracy in our own troubled times. The series is presented by the Thomas Mann House in partnership with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Deutschlandfunk.
The video of Colm Tóibín’s talk can be viewed below.
My father was a member of the Fianna Fáil party in Ireland; the main opposition party was Fine Gael. “You could salute Fine Gael people if you met them,” my father said, “but if you ever voted Fine Gael, your right hand would wither off.” Fianna Fáil was in power in Ireland from 1932 to 1948 and again from 1957 to 1973. Since then, it has held power more than any other party in Ireland. Just now, the Prime Minister is a member of that party.
My father died in 1967. Two years later, at the age of 14, I worked for Fianna Fáil in the general election campaign. On the night before the vote, news came of a woman across the town who really could not make up her mind how to vote. It was decided that a senior figure from the local organization should visit her. He invited me to come with him. “Every single vote counts,” he said several times as he drove towards her house.
This, then, was democracy. The woman was living on social welfare. She wondered if the Labour Party, who were running a vigorous campaign, might not serve her interests better. The argument the man from Fianna Fáil made was that these promises from Labour were empty. The Labour party had no experience of power. The woman would be safer with Fianna Fáil. The woman really could not decide. All the power was hers for the next 24 hours.
The day after the vote, I got a lift to where the count would take place, with a local man from the Labour Party. Labour, he was sure, were going to do well. They had selected a number of prominent academics and glamorous media figures as candidates. Their slogan said, “The Seventies will be Socialist.” Ireland was changing; Labour was modern, secular, serious about policy.
But Labour did badly, gaining just three seats. Fianna Fáil was returned to power once more. Labour’s promises seemed to frighten people. The party seemed to be too modern, too ready to embrace change and promise more.
Democracy gives people, uneasy about change, the chance to put a stop to it for the moment, knowing that, sometime in the future, they might take a different view. Often, people are more comfortable voting the way they did before. Democracy is a great stabilizer.
But sometimes a space opens during an election campaign, a space filled not by policy promise, but by something that lives in the imagination, a sudden openness to change.
I saw this in Spain after the death of Franco, how quickly the political parties and politicians without any experience of power entered the public imagination. The Communist party in Spain was legalized early in 1977 and soon had more than 200,000 card-carrying members. The night it was legalized — it was a Saturday — I was in a taxi in downtown Barcelona that began, when the news came, to sound its horn in glee, to be joined soon by other taxis and cars. The driver was on fire with joy. It had happened, the unthinkable. That night the communist leaders flew into Spain from Paris where they had been in exile. They were going to stand in the upcoming elections.
Democracy, as it developed in Spain, gave people the right not merely to embody an ideology but change their minds over time. And soon the allure of the communist party faded, to be replaced by the allure of parties who promised less change, offered stability or something easy to imagine.
Growing up gay in Ireland, I did not imagine that the country’s response to homosexuality would ever change. The country was Catholic, conservative. In election after election, people had shown that they had no appetite for change. Often, people voted the way their parents did. In the 1990s, I remember offering an opinion piece on gay marriage to a newspaper editor who shook his head and said that his readers were not ready for that.
For gay marriage to come to Ireland, there would have to be a change in the constitution and this meant a referendum, the crudest mechanism that democracy has at its disposal. This was 2015, but it was still not clear that equal rights for gay people were high on most people’s list of priorities.
I was not alone in believing that if came down to yes or no on the question “Should there be gay marriage in Ireland?”, a majority would vote no.
Already, early in the campaign, there were voices raised saying that gay marriage would undermine the concept of the family in Ireland.
What the supporters of a “yes” vote did was take this idea of family and turn it around, asking the families of gay people to talk not about rights but about love. Gay people were asked not to become angry, not to get involved in arguments or make demands, but simply stand back and let their mothers talk, or their fathers, or their siblings, and tell the nation how much they loved their gay son or brother or sister, and how much they wanted them to be happy.
One morning, when I went on prime-time radio to support a “yes” vote, my task was not to sound strident, but to sound vulnerable and wounded, to ask why, even though I am a novelist who had been used by the Irish government to promote my country, my love is not seen as equal under law as the love of other people? I tried to make it sound like a melancholy or puzzling fact rather than something that had me in a rage.
The “yes” vote won 62% to 38%. In the campaign we had appealed to the imagination of the voters. We avoided argument. We sought instead to offer images of love and family that seemed hard to dispute. It was all about soft emotion.
It was sweet and progressive, but it made me wonder what it might have felt like if our side had actually tried to make an argument about the rights of minorities and about breaking up a consensus about family, marriage, and sexual identity, and how we might have felt if the other side, the “no” side, had run a campaign based on fear, on stirring up hatred against people who are different.
We would have understood that within democracy lie dangers. We would have understood that voting is a complex act, and the motives behind choosing are not simple and can be manipulated.
It is easy to lose an election. In democracy, people can vote for stability. But, when, in a campaign, people begin to imagine change, the most miraculous transformations can be voted into reality, and also the darkest outcomes can emerge.
We have learned to be vigilant. We can never be vigilant enough. Democracy’s very openness brings with it many possibilities, some of them are easy to understand and manage, others are not so easy to control.