Imagine we could re-design democracy from scratch? What would it look like?

Alexis de Tocqueville — understood that democracy had some mechanisms that shouldn’t work — but do.

We may have reached a point in history where the trajectory that democracy has taken needs to change dramatically, if it is to survive as a respected concept.

Most readers will have an idea of what is meant by the word “democracy”. In many cases, it will be a concept that is so indistinguishable from “electoral politics” that it seems almost contrarian to de-link the two. They’re plainly not the same thing. North Korea and Iran hold elections. On the other hand, very democratic bodies often, correctly, treat the point at which things need to go to a vote as an indictment of their failure to reach a deep consensus.

So much commentary that purports to be about quality of our democracy is, in reality, political advocacy cloaked in a flimsy ethical costume. A call for “a more democratic decision” is often a code for “I want the decision to be made in a way that is more likely to result in my preferred outcome”.

For example, it’s not hard to see people with a very pure democratic motivation, and no particular political outcome in mind are attracted to the idea of referendums. They have an obvious appeal in an age when representative democracy looks increasingly stale, where technology is changing our expectations, and where new, more responsive structures are possible.

But if there is an innocent reason to champion referendums, there is also a deeply cynical one that comes from some quarters. A strategic use of referendums can force the government to do things that no sensible parliament would do.

Plebiscites that were once described as a tool of demagogues and dictators by sages on all sides of the political spectrum are now almost entirely normalised due to a cynical political investment in them as a way of making decisions. Their emergence is less an ethical shift than a political one.

It is very telling that opponents of Brexit haven’t thought it worth challenging the claim that leaving the EU is “the will of the people,” no matter how flawed the democratic credentials of a ballot in which a narrow majority voted in favour of a very poorly-defined change to the entirety of UK foreign and trade policy.

Even if the ideal of leaving the EU is genuinely popular (it probably is) and is a priority for a clear majority of the populace (it probably isn’t), good democratic processes depend upon much more than just gauging of the reflexes of voters.

The alternative — Representative Democracy — also evolved out of political, rather than logical, processes, though over a much longer period. It emerged in a struggle between people with existing power, and emerging groups who had become too strong to ignore. Old autocracies declined as the franchise gradually expanded. It was a political product — not a concept that was developed in the abstract and then applied methodically.

It emerged in this form because even the most convinced reformers understood that people-power could be unsustainable if it were poorly designed (as must now, surely, be obvious with respect to referendums, as the British government struggles to decode what the Brexit vote told them to do).

Of course people with existing power have never liked giving it away, but there were also always genuine philosophical concerns about what democracy would mean for individual liberty, or about the quality of decision-making. Concerns were voiced about the wisdom of creating a big powerful system that could be ‘captured’ by small groups, or controlled by people with money, charisma, or both. Fears of a tyranny of the majority and mob rule were not (always) reactionary scaremongering. They were prominent in the writing of Aristotle, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, among many others, and reinforced by the experiences of the French Revolution.

There’s no better advert for liberal discourse than the creative way that history has reconciled all of these tensions to arrive at Representative Democracy.

It has blunted a lot of those fears. It’s been a fantastically successful outcome in terms of prosperity, liberty and peace. They are designed to work towards a consensuses, because it is a rare political gift to be able to get away with annoying too many people too much of the time. They are designed to deliberate well and to make good decisions, to be inclusive, and to (as Burke put it) to represent the nation as a whole because they have to get re-elected on their records as much as on their promises.

Even if politicians have not always been sticklers for upholding these ideals, Alexis de Tocqueville was able to calm our fears in his early survey of Democracy In America, by showing how a parliament is less an assembly of virtuous people than one of grasping idiots who collectively keep each other in order while also generating an historic vitality almost in spite of themselves.

In many ways, by contrast to referendums, elected representatives give us a fantastic example of evolutionary games design. It is based around an almost magical mechanism that takes people who learned the craft of partisan campaigning, forcing them to stand for election — to beg votes from people who are neither very politically active nor partisan. Winning elections has always been about getting votes from ‘swing voters’ — people who don’t have particularly fixed or consistent views on policy and government.

Fanatics have to appeal to agnostics. It kills a number of birds with one stone. It’s a great system. It is quite possible that Representative Democracy — government by electoral politics — may still be the least-worst way of giving us a government that is democratic as is practicable, yet these two things are not the same thing. There’s something almost miraculous about how Representative Democracy designed itself. The moment that its wheels come off will be a very dangerous one.

Worryingly, or perhaps, fortunately, it may now have arrived.

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Government by electoral politics emerged in certain conditions. There was, for example, an emerging local, and national ‘commons’ and a commercially sustainable media offered the kind of reportage and commentary that could fuel a meaningful liberal discourse between elections. This was dished up to an increasingly literate, educated population in a relatively high-stakes contest between the interests of labour and capital.

There were many more features upon which government by electoral politics was based. Not all of them are present today in the form that they were. It is possible that society is atomising to the point that the commons needed for a functioning democracy is no longer there. It’s possible that clickbait and the degraded version of journalism that Nick Davies described as churnalism is suffocating the fourth estate. It’s possible that political discourse has left the more reflective forums in which it was discussed as a serious high-stakes business (in the political salons, the newspaper op-eds, etc) and relocated to the more tribal and reflexive realm of social media.

This may read like an unduly pessimistic snapshot of the digital age, and I only present it to illustrate the point that it is not a foregone conclusion that the mode of government that worked for the civil society of, say, the 1990s, will continue to work in the future. The more exciting possibility is that there are new skills and platforms that we have developed that could transform democracy for the better, and that now would be a good time to explore them.

For this reason, it’s worth asking readers to clear their minds. To imagine that they were designing democracy, from scratch, knowing all of the things that we now know now about how people make decisions together. In my book “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting”, I have tried to turn our understanding of democracy into one of games design because this may offer a way out of the stalemate offered by debates around “constitutional reform” — a discourse that is often monopolised by those people with political, rather than democratic aims.

It’s an attempt to think about what popular sovereignty can look like without any preconceptions about whose interests would be served more, or less, than in the current settlement. It challenges us to say if we would really like to live in a state that is very democratic? It’s not a foregone conclusion (indeed, the book argues that people who are very engaged in political activity would detest the idea of a well-designed democracy, as it removes many of the vetoes enjoyed by political busybodies).

“Save Democracy — Abolish Voting” asks readers to think about what a world would look like if our priority was to find a very democratic way of doing things and accept the policy outcomes from good democratic processes ­- whether we like them or not. Imagine a government that is directed according to the interests of all of the people, where we get the governance that the best available consensus of what the whole population really want — not the policies that they ought to have if they only knew what is good for them, or the policies that they say they want, if asked in a particular way on a particular day (using electoral processes).

Imagine a government that is as accountable as possible to all of the people, not just those who can invest time, or play the political game more effectively than the rest of us. The first observation I’d offer, as part of a guided meditation on this subject, is a question about why we’ve chosen to stick with ‘the vote’ — a very blunt instrument — when we live in a society that has very well developed techniques (in marketing departments, for example) for finding out what people really want?

Ballots are often seen as an almost sacramental part of democracy, but, as Tom Paine said….

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.”

This article first appeared in The Ethical Record — summer 2018 edition.