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A Crisis of Democracy

Professor A C Grayling | November 28, 2016

Donald Trump’s election in the US, and the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK, are the most visible outcomes of a change in political mood across Western democracies. In the Netherlands the party of Gert Wilders leads others in polls. France’s presidential election next March between Marine le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy could easily result in a victory for the former. The Pegida movement in Germany and across Europe is gaining support. Norbert Hofer is close to becoming Austria’s president in the re-run election in December.

This move to the Right is happening on an upsurge of populist sentiment. Most commentators agree that this sentiment is prompted by two main factors. One is that income inequality has risen markedly in all the democracies since the 2008 financial crash, with stagnation of living standards for working class and middle class people, but recovery for higher earners. Resentment against ‘elites’ has grown. The second reason is increasing anxiety and animosity over immigration, fuelled by attitudes to Muslims.

Traditionally, inequality in society has been a cause for the populist Left, while immigration has been a cause for the populist Right. The coming together of these two populisms has been encouraged by some political leaders fostering the impression that immigration is to blame for low wages, unemployment, and pressure on social services. Of course the reasons are more complex; but in the minds of those who have voted for Trump and Brexit there is a sense that traditional core society – in effect: the white home population – has been left behind, betrayed by establishments and elites, who have allowed immigrants and other minorities to get ahead of them in the queue.

Some commentators see this as a ‘peaceful revolution through the ballot box.’ For others, it raises question-marks about the future of globalisation, with nationalistic identity politics resulting in closed borders. Perhaps it is both. But one thing that commentators are only beginning to contemplate is the longer term result: that the election of governments and presidents from the further reaches of the political Right will not solve the problems that prompted people to vote for them.

The reason is that the kinds of policies that would help the economically disadvantaged are not the Right’s preferred mixture of low taxes with privatisation of public services and reductions in welfare. The disadvantaged voted for the Right out of emotional feelings of betrayal and xenophobia – but if they had voted on rational grounds they would have chosen the kinds of Left-leaning policies that would help them. This is the paradox of the current situation, and it threatens greater problems in future when those who voted for the likes of Trump and Brexit come to realise that they were, in fact, profoundly misled in their expectations.

Democracy is proving to be hospitable to the expression of this populism. The systems of democracy practiced across the West vary in structure and form, but they all rest on the principle that the final say in political matters rests with voters. This is a good principle, the best that has ever been devised: but it rests on a requirement that has never been met to make it fully effective. This is the requirement that electorates be informed and thoughtful. If voters made their choices on the basis of good information, serious discussion and careful thought, rather than on emotion and ignorance exacerbated by tabloid newspaper partisanship, democracy would be perfect.

But it is nowhere near perfect, and no clear-minded designer of a democratic system has been unaware of the danger implicit in the fact that voters do not have the time or expertise to be as informed and thoughtful as they should be. As a result most democracies are indirect, with the power of decision devolved to representatives in legislatures, who are periodically answerable to the electorate for their performance.

What has gone wrong in Brexit – to take the example at present closest to European concerns – is twofold. First, referendums are a direct negation of representative democracy. For a matter of such constitutional and economic importance as deciding on EU membership, a referendum is a highly inappropriate instrument. To refer the question to a simple yes-no plebiscite is an abdication of political responsibility, given that in the long and complex process of building the EU there will of course be times of difficulty, when it would be easy to persuade enough voters to give up making the effort. These are precisely the times when governments should hold their nerve, present the arguments, and make more effort to help the project work: not to turn the matter over to currently disaffected short-termist sentiment.

Second, the EU referendum in the UK was explicitly designed as advisory and consultative only, and MPs were told that a simple plurality of votes could not be regarded as sufficient to precipitate a major constitutional upheaval. In the event, 51.89% of those who voted on the day, voted for Leave; which on the turn-out represents 37% of the electorate and 26% of the population. On this wholly inadequate ground, and despite the referendum explicitly being consultative only, MPs and the government are acting as if the majority was huge and the result binding and mandating.

Here the democratic process fails itself because representatives are not acting as representatives. Lazy thinking is at fault here, for even politicians have come to think of democracy as merely a matter of the plurality of votes cast. The warnings of Plato, de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill – the two latter both proponents of democracy, but with the qualifications and protections that representative structures are meant to embody – have been forgotten.

The US system of electing a President, designed at the end of the eighteenth century to favour the slave-owning Southern states, is another example of a flawed version. The office of President is not as powerful as people think, but the consequences of Mr Tump becoming President despite losing the popular vote, will be felt in efforts to combat climate change, in the Middle East’s problems, and in social policy in the US with a Supreme Court majority of conservatives. And one of his candidates to head the US education department is a religious Creationist.

The Rightwards move of the democracies might be the end of democracy: it has happened before, less than a century ago, in the heart of Europe. Or it might help the democracies reform themselves to make democracy more effective. Two desiderata stand out very starkly.

First, referendums are a danger to democracy. They look as if they are the most democratic of instruments, but they are too simplistic, hard to reverse (unlike elections), and are not much more than opinion polls. If referendums are to be used, supermajorities should be mandatory: a minimum of 60% of votes cast, or 51% of the total electorate even if not everyone votes.

Second, there has to be a major effort to educate citizens in the nature and requirements of democracy. Democracy is for intelligent understanding of issues, it requires thought, responsibility, a sense of the common good and of longer-term consequences. Short-term self-interest, ignorance, emotion and whim are serious dangers to a society – and they are the chief basis for the operation of democracies today. The proof is Trump and Brexit. Whether Trump will be a disaster, the future will tell; Brexit certainly is for the UK; and it is – to say the least – unhelpful to the great project of European unity and progress. By fighting to make democracy better, some of the harm currently being done might be remedied, in time. But only if democracy survives its current too-successful effort at self-harm.

Professor A C Grayling

Master of New College of the Humanities