WHAT THE WEST NEEDS? AN AFFIRMATION OF REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
BY NIK SLOAN
BY NIK SLOAN
Why do we value democracy? A common answer to that question would certainly be something like “it empowers the people”. But such answers are by themselves insufficient. Consider the constitutional structure of western, liberal, representative democracies. Why bother with institutional balances, constitutional checks and representatives which are supposed to act independently from their constituents if the value of democracy was to empower the people? Why not just ignore the middle man, i.e. the currently much loathed political class and give the people power to decide on issues? Our current system most certainly does deliver power to the people in a direct way, as is clear from the phrasing of the British Acts of Parliament which have extended the franchise - tellingly they are called “Representation of the People” Acts, not Empowerment of the People or Sovereignty of the People Acts. Rather than empowering the people directly, the system allows the people, or more specifically the electorate, to give their consent to the way the system is run, their impulses and wishes filtered through the system of democratic institutions to give effect to their preferences in a way that is compatible with a liberal, pluralistic and moderate society. That was what Churchill referred to when he famously said that compared to other forms of government, democracy is the least bad option. But he was most certainly referring to the constitutional system that has been build up in the west over centuries.
Of course, as it was put in Animal Farm, we live in a society where we are all equal although some are more equal than others. This applies no less to political power and influence; it is a truism to claim that an influential figure in the American gun lobby or pharmaceutical lobby has more power than an average American voter. Politics too is likely to favour the interests of those whose situation is more likely to evoke sympathy or whose cause is advanced by some other factor, like belonging to a certain ethnic group. This means that vast swathes of the population throughout the Western world currently do not have their interests represented and the gap between rich and poor has significantly increased. It seems to many that governments have a record of pandering to a particular type of group - wealthy internationalists like bankers, tech companies and big businesses. And it is difficult not to some extent sympathise with their situation. It is thus no surprise that populist President Donald Trump in his inauguration speech claimed that he envisioned that in his time as President he would “give back power to you, the people”. This is nothing less than populist dogma, but its logical implications; either more direct democracy or a weakening of our democratic institutions to allow the people a more direct say, cannot contain the answers to the contemporary crises faced by our democracies.
The most powerful criticism against democracy is as ancient as democracy itself. Ancient Athens, as is well known, was a direct democracy unlike our own representative democracies. It involved the enfranchised citizenry (around 20% of the population) voting on various subject in the assembly of the city state. Plato was famously critical of this system, seeing democracy as an easy ground for demagogues to sway electoral decisions towards their desired, not usually altruistic, outcome leading to anarchy, oligarchy or tyranny. It is essentially the argument about the dangers of populism. Plato’s argument proved both powerful and realistic, considering something very close to what Plato had in mind occurred straight after the French revolution. It prevented democracy from being considered as a serious system of governance for the best part of 2,000 years. The criticism still persists today, those who argue against the deposition of strong man dictators in the Middle East argue along the same lines, that democracy is not sufficient to bring stability in less advances nations considering it has a tendency to bring militant Islamises to power such as Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Yet we should be careful not to flatter ourselves unduly. Middle Eastern nations certainly have illiberal, and thus unsavoury political movements, but the same can be said about the West. In America, and to a lesser degree in Europe, the Alt-Right has gained increased and unprecedented popularity, drawing this in large part from the racial divide still extant in the US and a loathing for non-whites. On certain parts of the internet the views it represents have very much become mainstream. In Brexit Britain, large swathes of the population seem to be xenophobic – the constant undervaluing of the continued positive impact EU migrants have had on the country are simply not recognising and cannot be explained in another way. Forget about the contribution of EU migration to the larger society through their work for the National Health Service, contribution through the food and agriculture industry or teaching at universities, EU migrants are here to commit crimes, steal our jobs and abuse our benefit system. In their defence, the narrative has very much become that there are legitimate economic concerns about migration which fuels these fears although this seems utterly to disregard that there is no study or evidence which suggests that EU migration brings down wages or reduces employment opportunities for native born. So at worst, voters are xenophobic and at best they are ignorant.
It is thus no surprise that populist policies, those enjoying much support from voters, are highly damaging and self-contradicting. In Europe, populists have been able to capitalise with their vitriolic hatred of Middle Eastern Refugees and the Muslim Community at large. Assimilate or else their mantra goes, although such mantra has become mainstream – words amounting to the same have been echoed by moderate parties and individuals too, such as the Dutch PM Mark Rutte. They berate cultural incompatibility, especially regarding Islamic treatment of women, whilst conveniently ignoring that the leader of the free world, one for which they often express admiration for, is somewhat of a misogynist. Or that so many were complicit when Harvey Weinstein’s victims were not believed or silenced. A wing of the German populist party AfD in Southern Germany denounces Muslims as having an anti-Semitic problem, whilst refusing to suspend one of their own for railing against international Zionism. In Britain the Brexit movement has so far failed, and is unlikely in future, to provide the benefits promised by the Leave campaign in the referendum. The £350 million for the NHS, free access to the single market and with simultaneous free trade with the world have shown themselves to be, conservatively put, severe mispredictions. In the US, the swamp remains undrained and if the revelations in Fire and Fury are anything to go by, power has not been restored to “the people” but rather through the worst form of nepotism has been bestowed on Trump’s daughter and son in law. Populist economics fail, their policy demonises minorities and their leaders are incompetent hypocrites.
These are unpopular arguments, but unfortunately no conjecture – in the early chapter of his book Against Democracy, Jason Brennan (a fairly well known political philosopher) goes through various social scientific studies which show voters to be ignorant of most important issues, partisan about whom they support and guilty of a number of cognitive biases when involving themselves in politics. It is not surprising that they would choose incompetents as their leaders or persist poor policy is the right policy. Again, none of this is revolutionary or new reasoning, as Plato was able to figure this out over 2,000 years ago. It was the reason that democracy was not considered to be a viable form of governance until comparatively recently. Democratic thinkers were very well aware of these points, which is precisely why the form of democracy we practice today, as the American constitution (imperfectly) demonstrates, has numerous checks, balances and a guarantee of fundamental rights. The robust constitutional structure had one purpose and that was to keep the populists and demagogues out.
Our democracies are quite young. In fact, we can only meaningfully speak of our system being truly democratic since the early 20th century, where half the population ceased to be conclusively excluded from the right to influence government by their sex. Worryingly, after the Second World War, they have faced very little challenge – the West has collectively grown richer and richer; technology has continuously improved. Our democratic system functions on the basis that the electorate gives their consent and participates in the system. It is easy to consent to an imperfect status quo in times of economic plenty and wealth growth. Once this ceases to be the case, such consent to the system and its institutions is not so easily given.
With this in mind, it is rather unremarkable how unpopular mainstream politicians in the West are, seen often as selling out to big business or their own interests. It is this narrative that populists thrive on and can explain why their “us vs them”, the people vs the elitist narrative is currently so resonant; a narrative that is so very dangerous because it pins popular discontent on those institutions which ensure moderation and good governance. Examples can be found across the Western world, in the UK the court system has been somewhat discredited in the eyes of many, denounced as the “Enemy of the People” by a leading national newspaper and framed as part of an establishment conspiracy to undo Brexit even though the case revolved around not whether Brexit was a good idea on its merits but rather whether the executive had the power to initiate the process itself. Parts of the legislature, in Britain mostly subservient to the electorate anyway, were denounced as “Mutineers” by the right wing press for carrying out their constitutional duty to hold the executive to account – with a weak legislature a constitutional system will easily collapse into an elected dictatorship throwing into question the liberalism and pluralism our representative democracies seek to protect. The new political correctness forbids any criticism of the Brexit movement on the political stage, leaving British international influence and potentially Britain’s prosperity unaccountably tumbling, sacrificed to appease the nebulous will of the people. That itself is an odd invocation, considering only 26% of all British people voted for the British Exit. In the same vein, President Trump’s continuous assault on the press in America undermine the institution holding the executive government to account, made all the worse given the press’ role in that nation in exposing the Watergate scandal. Criticism of the President’s policy, like his odd tax reform, travel ban or attempts at overcoming Obamacare are too easily dismissed by his supporters as fake news or justified by “alternative facts” the mainstream media chooses to forgo in their apparently biased narrative.
In Eastern Europe too, those fledgling democracies, the trend continues. In Poland the Law and Justice Party undermines the rule of law and independence of the courts. The European Union’s justified objections have been dismissed with nationalistic affirmations, the interference cast as unjustified interference in the sovereignty of Poland by an (incorrectly labelled) undemocratic intranational body. More pressingly, in Hungary, the Prime Minister Viktor Orban sustains his popularity by playing a similar narrative, but also by scapegoating Muslim Refugees. The opposition media and the civil society have been under sustained government attack, including unsavoury attacks on the Jewish financier George Soros. The inconspicuous breakdown of civil society and transparency has led to an increased cronyism and corruption in the country, making Hungary one of the poorest countries in the region, certainly with the lowest growth in the area. Orban’s new constitution claims to be promote the interests of the Hungarian people, although much like the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo, this is a sham.
Whilst the present situation may seem depressing, the ramifications of new technology for our democracies has yet to become clear – the situation will only be worsened by new election techniques like the use of online focus groups and polls etc, many of which are not caught by current election spending rules. The rise of “alternative media”, the Breitbarts, Infowars, various YouTube political “commentators”, etc of this world are further cause for concern. An already partisan and ignorant voter-base is more likely to be radicalised in their vices by these new forms of completely unaccountable and in the case of Infowars, post-truth, narrative. Even more worrying is the creation of online echo chambers, fostered by the existence of algorithms.
Removing the checks and balances of our constitutional arrangements undermines a liberal and pluralistic society and places power into the hands of those least able and worthy of it, leading to the tyranny of the majority or forms some unelected or unelected dictatorship. There are many objectional elements to the way the system currently functions, yet that should not lead to a capitulation to populist forces, those which our representative democracies sought to exclude from power. It should lead to an affirmation of the principles underlying representative democracy, which ensure that power is used responsibly and accountability. A C Grayling in his book Democracy and Its Crisis points to some of these – namely more transparency and limits in electoral fundraising; greater systemic education of the voter base; a clear explanation of what politics can and cannot achieve. A deference to accountable experts would too be desirable, following the mantra that just like I wouldn’t want Obama as my plumber, I would not want Trump or Oprah as my president. New and brave political reform is required for this, as such ideals are far from our current reality. The Platonic objection to democracy rings true - a systematic dismantling of our representative democracies, by weakening its institutions and giving back power to the “people” would be disastrous, felt most by those who it is intended to empower.