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Democracy and its crisis – by AC Grayling

In the first part of an exclusive serialisation of his brilliant new book, Britain’s foremost philosopher describes how we stand on the precipice of losing democracy in Britain

For many centuries the idea of democracy was regarded with revulsion and fear, and not just by ruling elites who saw it as against their interests. This prevented the mass of people from having any say in the government of their communities and their own lives. It took much time, ingenuity and careful thought to devise institutions and practices which would make the democratic expression of preferences translatable into government that worked.

For most of recorded history political power has been held by the few over the many. It is easy to imagine that in prehistoric conditions, in small bands of people, an instinctive democracy reigned; but it is equally easy to imagine that a strong individual, charismatic or physically powerful or both, exerted leadership rather as alpha individuals do in other animal species – usually males, which suggests that physical strength had much to do with it. Physical strength is one form of power, but so also are wealth, tradition, mystique, taboo, religious attitudes, genealogy – all in their own ways, and more potently still in combination, providing and justifying the rule of one or a few over the rest.

At different points in history this form of political structure has been challenged and, less frequently, replaced by the claim of the many to have more right than the few to hold political power, or – in terms both more practical and accurate – to be its source. In fifth century BCE Athens this claim took its fundamental form, which is democracy. The word itself originates in the ancient Greek demokratia, from demos ‘the people’, kratos ‘rule’: ‘rule by the people’.

We would not now recognize Athenian democracy as a paradigm, for in effect it was the replacement of a smaller ‘few’ by a larger ‘few’. The franchise was held by adult male citizens only, a minority in the city, excluding women, slaves and xenoi (non-citizens), groups which between them probably made up at least three-quarters of the city’s adult population. But Athenian democracy was enough to alarm some of its leading contemporary thinkers, notably Plato, who saw the danger in it: that it could too readily degenerate into what is called ochlocracy, that is, mob rule, driven in unruly fashion by emotion, self-interest, prejudice, anger, ignorance and thoughtlessness into rash, cruel, destructive and self-destructive action. The danger is even more apparent when one considers the power of demagoguery, of manipulation of crowd sentiment by fiery rabble-rousing speeches (or their later forms such as, for example, tendentious election advertising) which target those very things – emotion and prejudice – so inimical to producing sound government. This danger is in reality different from ochlocracy, for this is manipulation by a hidden oligarchy – a group using the excuse or the fig leaf of appeals to democratic licence to carry out their agenda.

The Platonic anxiety about democracy has resonated throughout history. The remark attributed to Winston Churchill could be a summary of Plato’s own view: that ‘the strongest argument against democracy is a few minutes’ conversation with any voter’, the point being that it reveals the ignorance, self-interest, short-termism and prejudice typical of too many voters. The American satirist H. L. Mencken put the point more trenchantly: ‘Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.’

Of course these cynical views miss the point, and perhaps deliberately so, which the ideal of democracy reaches for. Yet at the same time, in the powerfully justifiable claim of the many to be the holders or source of political authority, and in the danger of the collapse of this authority into either ochlocracy or hidden oligarchy, lies the acute dilemma of democracy itself. Until the seventeenth century scarcely any thought was given to how democracy might be made possible by means of institutions and practices that would honour the right of the many to be the source of political and governmental authority in their society, while securing that arrangement against the danger of ochlocracy or hidden oligarchy. How – this was and remains the burning question – is this to be done?

To appreciate the importance of the question, one need only reflect that if the practical sense as well as the self-interest of most polities in recorded history seems to have been that of two kinds of tyranny – rule by a dictator or a dictatorial claque, and rule by a mob – the former is, unhappily and unavoidably, preferable for reasons too obvious for its proponents to enumerate.

Indeed in the opinion of those such as Plato, monarchy and open oligarchy (respectively rule by one and by a few) are less likely to degenerate into tyranny than is democracy, because monarchs and oligarchs would see that their tenure of power relies at least in part on the implicit acceptance of their rule by the populace, which cannot be secured by the exercise of coercive power alone.

For Plato the demos, by contrast, a numerous body without a head, is too vulnerable to being captured by the emotion of the moment, by the phenomenon of the ‘madness of crowds’ which panic or anger can prompt, or which demagogues are by definition skilled at arousing and exploiting.

What Plato did not consider was whether there are ways of so structuring the application of popular consent to the administration of government that the benefits of democracy can be harnessed without risk of it collapsing into either mob rule or tyranny. This work, of considering and then constructing practical means to this end, only fully began with the devisers of the US Constitution in the late eighteenth century. Of course the ideas at stake in this work were not new: the Levellers of seventeenth-century England had eloquently made the case for a form of democracy with universal male suffrage, and their disputants in the Putney Debates of 1647 made an alternative case for a more restricted because more conditional property-based franchise. The latter indirectly issued in the claim in the English Bill of Rights of 1688 that ‘the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons’ (with the Crown jointly constituting Parliament) ‘represent the people’ – although the England of 1688 was considerably less a democracy even than Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell had envisaged at Putney.

But it was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their colleagues in revolutionary America, and in Europe Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, who formulated ideas of democracy which influenced practical historical events leading to the emergence of increasingly democratic constitutions. A common theme both of the theory and the practice was that the dilemma of democracy could be resolved by so arranging the institutions and practices of the political state that they could reconcile two key aims: that the ultimate source of political authority should lie in democratic assent, and that government should be and could be sound and responsible.

What emerged in practical terms from these considerations was the realisation that democracy, in whatever form, is only part of what would make for sound government, though it is obviously a very important and indeed necessary part. But herein lies a key: democracy is necessary, but not by itself sufficient. More is needed, both in the way of further necessities, and of desiderata. Necessities are: constitutional checks and balances placing limits on the power of both legislature and executive, and providing remedies when the limits are breached. Desiderata are: an informed and reflective electorate, and a responsible media as a vehicle for distributing that information and providing a platform for debate and analysis. The briefest of surveys shows by how much the major democracies fell short in respect of both the necessities and the desiderata – and the years 2016–17 demonstrate how that underachievement led to a breakdown of the compromise offered as a solution to the dilemma of democracy.

The argument, therefore, is this: the political history of what we can call the ‘Western liberal democracies’ is the history of the development and application of a compromise which resolves democracy’s dilemma.

It is in my view unarguably right that the model of democracy forged by this compromise is by quite a long way the least bad of a lot of bad systems, and we do well to preserve it if we can.

The election of Donald Trump in the US, and the ‘Brexit’ referendum and what followed it in the UK, most acutely illustrate what happens when there is a failure to cleave to the underlying principles of representative democracy.

Both the UK and US, in their different ways, illustrate the emergence and application of ideas designed to resolve the dilemma of democracy, but the word ‘democracy’ denotes a number of different political systems, some of them anything but democratic in any meaningful sense of the term; for a speaking example, the official designation of North Korea is ‘the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. The democracy-allusive idea that ‘the people’ are in control of their country’s government and politics – in some sense of ‘the people’ and some sense of ‘control’ – is claimed by such designations as ‘the People’s Republic of China’. This formulation was a commonplace of nomenclature for pre-1989 communist regimes; the People’s Republics of Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Mongolia all dropped the democracy-allusive word ‘people’ after 1989 in remodelling themselves on the multiparty electoral and parliamentary systems of the Western liberal democracies. The implication is that the formula was an example of Orwellian Newspeak merely, denoting the opposite of reality.

Whatever the history of regimes to which the word ‘democratic’ has been applied, the clear intention embodied in the idea of democracy is that it is a political order in which government is chosen and given its authority by the periodically, freely and fairly cast votes of the enfranchised members of the populace, who have a real choice as to whom to give their vote. In modern democracies the franchise is extended as widely as is consistent with decisions about who should have and who should be denied a vote, and on what grounds; such decisions include questions about a suitable minimum voting age. Until a century ago qualification for the franchise included how much property a person owned and that person’s sex. The idea behind the property qualification was that the vote should be reserved to those with a palpable stake in the state and its economy; the idea behind the sex qualification was that only men were likely to be sufficiently informed and rational to know how to use a vote properly. Needless to say, abolition of these qualifications could not have come soon enough.

The principle underlying democracy thus understood is that it gives the enfranchised an important say in the running of their society, through mechanisms which allow for peaceful changes of government. A central feature of a democratic order is the rule of law, and the idea that the law applies equally to all and its remedies are equally available to all.

Due process is key, protecting against the arbitrary application or withholding of legal provisions. But this is not the only central feature. A set of civil liberties is essential to the operation of democracy, such as freedom of expression, the right to assembly, and liberty in respect of political choices. The mechanisms by which the enfranchised elect a government, and by which the government is thereafter constrained in what it can do, are highly important. Each vote should have equal weight (a condition not satisfied by a first-past-the-post electoral system), and there should be clear constitutional provisions governing the exercise of governmental power and discretion (in the UK there is insufficient such clarity because the constitution is unwritten and consists in an inchoate mixture of custom and statute).

All this is essential to democracy. Is it enough? Not yet. Three further intimately connected essentials – the proper operation of the democracy, the quality of the electorate, and the quality of the elected – would close the gap between aspiration and the nearest thing to the ideal that humanity can achieve in this sphere. I suggest that it is in the breakdown of these further essentials that the crisis of contemporary democracy consists.

Allowing democracy to be corrupted, as it has been, is a betrayal of our forebears’ long and arduous struggle to achieve the rights and liberties founded on democracy, and a danger to our present and our future.

This last apocalyptic-seeming remark is offered in all soberness. It is very easy to lose what is of real value by inattention, laziness, the sloppiness induced by overconfidence and distraction by trivia. While we look at the screens of our televisions and mobile phones, others with agendas have their fingers in the pockets of our democracy, on the steering wheel of our democracy, on the keys to our democracy, on the credit cards of our democracy. As I write this in the spring of 2017, and as a motivation for writing it, I take it to be the case that the United Kingdom is in the throes of a politically illegitimate effort – the so-called ‘Brexit’ – by the right wing of a political movement to effect dramatic constitutional changes which they could not achieve as a self-standing political party in a standard general election.

In the United States, at the same time, there is a new President who is by a long chalk one of the worst qualified and worst equipped individuals ever to be voted into the White House, ‘defeating’ – though with three million fewer votes, courtesy of the Electoral College arrangement – a candidate who by a long chalk is one of the best qualified and most relevantly experienced individuals ever to stand for the White House. By themselves these facts suggest something has gone seriously wrong in the state of democracy. They threaten to be the opening gambits in the loss of democracy altogether. Democracy must be reclaimed, in the form worked out by some of the best minds in the history of our civilization, before the opportunity to reclaim it passes.

Democracy and its Crisis, by AC Grayling, is out now, published by Oneworld; hardback £14.99

In next week’s serialisation in The New European: AC Grayling on the path to fixing democracy

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