Liberal democracy is suffering but politics is doing just fine

There’s a lot to agree with in Kenan Malik’s short essay on how Liberalism is suffering but democracy is doing just fine’. However, I believe that he is making a couple of very important mistakes here. He’s not alone in making them, and the degree to which his views will be challenged (I suspect they mostly won’t) tells us a lot about the predicament that we are in.

Politics v Democracy

Let’s look at the ‘democracy’ aspect first. He is observing that decisions are being made in a way that people seem to want them to be made more than was the case in the past. I think Kenan is mistaken when he calls this any triumph of democracy though. It is, instead, a triumph of politics.

For a variety of reasons (many of which stem from the change of expectations created by The Internet), our democracy is becoming more crudely ‘direct’. Representative Democracy was always designed to give us the outcomes, rather than the micromanaged decisions that we seem to ask for when politicians decide to let us ‘have our say’. Democracy is about giving us the governance that we want and there’s no reason to conclude that we’d prefer to have a government of pleasing political fireworks to one that keeps us prosperous and safe.

It’s a question that we’ve not even been asked, but it will probably be one that comes up more often as the full folly of holding a binary referendum on EU membership plays itself out over the next few years. The important thing to remember, though, is that ‘democracy’ is where we get the governance that we want, and that is not the same thing as being given political decisions that are made in a way that appeals to us in the short term. If it were, then we’d be delighted with a permanent parade of un-keepable promises. Free beer anyone? It’s a very fine point to make, I know, but I think that most writing about democracy doesn’t take it into account.

For some reason, we’ve allowed ‘democracy’ and ‘electoral politics’ to be conflated in a way that ensures only the shallowest version of ‘people power’ possible. As our democracy becomes more centralised (local democracy is a shadow of its former self and Euro-elections are slated for abolition shortly), we’ve agreed to limit all of our democratic voice to a once-every-five-years exercise in misdirection that we call ‘A General Election’. Unlike the outcome of a rigorous deliberative processes, the expressed reflexes of public opinion are easy to manipulate and misrepresent.

If we really did want our democracy to be more participative, there are plenty of more sensible versions of Direct Democracy that do help us get closer to the governance that we really do want without the need for mediation from ‘elites’ (and we can include politicians in that particular clique if we want to). We can use ‘participatory budgeting’, citizen juries, demand-revealing referendums, co-design of our environment / services / governance, and so on.

We can’t forget about equality either. A good democracy should strive to ensure that every voter has a fair amount of influence over their own governance. Politics, by contrast, is about ensuring that a victorious social grouping gets the governance that suits them at everyone else’s expense, and the growing influence of lobbyists has shown that this as never been as much of a problem is it is today. If this were a fair fight, it would be OK, but as Mancur Olson showed when he expanded his understanding of the free rider problem into the political sphere, when we make policy to suit competing campaigners, it gives a huge advantage to small, wealthy and purposeful groups at the expense of everyone else. A reading of Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development [pdf] shows us that we need to invest a great deal if we want to behave together collectively in a way that is effective, and most social groupings won’t be able to do this.

When we look at the mathematics of all of this, Olson would have advised us to be very suspicious of the kind of tidy consensuses that politicians place themselves at the head of. It deals another blow to the idea that a politics dominated by activism can be a good thing. A good democracy should be a negotiation between very complex competing needs of a highly pluralistic population who are all represented in some way. Politics, by contrast, is a clash of simple shallow exclusive consensuses that have often been assembled at great expense.

Crude versions of direct democracy exacerbate this problem. Representative Democracy was designed to minimise it by forcing politicians to stand on their records as much as they stand on their promises. It forces them to bid for the votes of a very pluralistic and agnostic electorate instead of pandering to the over-simplified certainties of ‘the silent majority’ (which is rarely ever a majority and never really silent).

We have always been prepared to make excuses for politically managed Representative Democracy on the grounds that it gives us the closest possible approximation to a properly consensual form of governance. All of that appeears to be changing though.

Democracy v Liberalism

Because of this confusion about politics, I think Kenan is overstating the tension between liberalism and democracy. There’s no question that politics, and not democracy, will always try to create a range of tyrannies of the majority. Over many decades, Liberal Democracy has been designed to counteract this and to ensure that we collectively protect each other from the worst forms of coercion. It does this by finding mechanisms that build a consensus where one can be had. It will try to facilitate trade-offs between competing demands, finding a negotiated settlement that is reasonably satisfactory to most, without leaving anyone victorious.

It’s a tough job and it’s not surprising that politicians try to wriggle out of it whenever they can. The politically active portion of the population will usually be very happy to allow them to do this as it allows them more of a monopoly over decisions that affect everyone. If a democracy is functioning properly, it would now allow the kind of ‘majorities’ that would aim to tyranise us to emerge in the first place. As I argued earlier, when they do appear, they’re expensive fabrications.

Representative democracy has given us a system in which all voters (and not just the active ones) choose the least-worst candidates who are part of a political party that has a broad appeal. It forces them to find a platform that is broadly acceptable to a wide range of us while they also try to poach support from rival politicians. As a mechanism, it’s far from being perfect. In many ways, it’s a makeshift system designed to keep a lid on things until we can find a way to govern in a properly consensual manner. In its defence, it has given us an extended period of peace, prosperity, and relative justice in a way that humanity has never experienced before.

It has also left us relatively free from any oppression at the hands of active minorities, though there is an argument that what Colin Crouch called ‘Post-democracy’ — the gradual capture of the democratic state by corporations — may have changed all of that. If it has, this is a victory of politics over democracy and not a triumph of democracy over liberalism.

It’s important to understand the difference between politicians and democrats. I’ve argued (elsewhere) for democracy to be a political end in itself. Politicians are often very fond of calling for ‘more democracy’ where it suits their political ends, but I’ve get to meet one who would describe themselves as a ‘methodological democrat’. Until such a politician arrives, we should understand them as people who want to impose their policies and moralities on us. As democrats, we don’t have to put up with this. We can have a different aim, and (again, while we are using Representative Democracy as the best-available approximation of a properly consensual form of governance) it’s one that is unattainable without liberal institutions.

Democracy is compatible with a robust individualism — I’d even claim that you can’t be properly individualistic without a strong, fair and effective democratic system to underpin it. If we want a degree of autonomy and control over our lives, it means not having other people who are able to use the law unfairly against us. It also means that other people should not be able to write, or influence the writing of laws in a way that benefits them at everyone else’s expense. We want the freedom from fear and coercion that The Social Contract gives us. We want to know that our government does ‘nothing about us, without us.’ As Mary Wollstonecraft put it in another context;

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

A good consensual democracy gives us the laws that all of us want, and not just the ones that suit the active minorities that have captured the state. As a robust individual, I also want to benefit from collective action where it can be fairly managed. Representative Democracy facilitates consensus building and protects us from the excesses of political entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi or Aaron Banks . Cruder versions of Direct Democracy have the opposite effect.

I understand Kenan’s broader point about unaccountable global technocratic bodies, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Representative Democracy’s liberal institutions weren’t created to defy the will of the people in the way that he may be suggesting. Instead, they often exist to ensure that politicians can’t avoid finding a consensus where one could possibly be found. They ensure that a politics representative of all isn’t replaced by a tyranny of the active. As John Philpot Curran said when he became the Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1790;

“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

Again, our Liberal Democracy is far from perfect, but freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, media pluralism, independent regulators, and even the rule of law are all designed to moderate the influence of active minorities. Left to their own devices, our under-resourced politicians would happily pander to the loudest voices most of the time and liberal institutions stop this from happening.

Kenan says that “Classically, liberals held that any official restraint placed on an individual’s liberty had to be both justified and minimal.” That may have been the case for Classical Liberals, but the democrat’s argument is that democracy doesn’t reduce individual liberty, it protects it. The only difference between this and Classical Liberalism is that the latter only gives the beggars the freedom to as much Caviar as they can buy.

There may be a tension between the rights of the individual to be free of majoritarian coercion and the ambitions of democracy to get the benefits of collaboration, but that’s something we can sort out at the ballot box — as long as we understand that a good democracy isn’t about delivering a victory to the most enterprising political faction. As long as we understand that it should be designed to promote consensuses wherever possible.

Consensual democratic practices allow us to bridge the difference between the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness and the possibility of making more happiness possible by working together. Any tensions that there are can be found in a genuine clash of political philosophies that can play itself out over electoral cycles.

In every established democracy, we see these two apparently conflicting planets — liberalism and democracy — locked into each other’s orbits. Neither is possible without the other or fully realisable because of the other. From that, we have to conclude that neither are really at odds with each other — it would be more accurate to say that liberalism is needed to defend democracy from the impulses that politicians have to short-change us in favour of the active minorities that frighten them.

For this reason, maybe Kenan Malik’s article would be better titled ‘Liberal democracy is suffering but politics is doing just fine’? I’ve nicked it as the title for this post, anyway…

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