You say you like democracy, but you don’t really, do you?

If you’ve been arguing for the UK government to ignore the Brexit vote in any way, you’ve probably been poked in the ribs with this argument. There are plenty of replies you can use — after all, being a democracy and holding a referendum are hardly the same things, are they?

Yet, in an odd way, I think the accusation sticks to people on both sides of this ruck. I’d argue that most of the commentators who claim to be democrats would be horrified if they had to live somewhere that we could objectively describe as ‘a good democracy’.

Orwell nailed this one;

“In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides…. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”[i]

We struggle with the simple task of finding an agreed definition because we are usually allowed to get away with discussing it in either historical, or political terms. We define it either in direct reference to something that we have historically referred to as ‘democracy’; or we (generally people with political interests) make claims that democracy would be better if it were structured in ways that would help us achieve our political goals, or create a type of governance that we believe to be more virtuous.

As a result, the subject is very poorly served. Democracy is fundamentally a way of making decisions. It would help if we were to discuss it in the abstract occasionally, in the way that we discuss other decision-making systems such as ‘justice’ or ‘the scientific method’.

Bridging any political divides, I’m fairly sure that most readers understand democracy, whatever Orwell says about political commentators. In the ideal, it is a form of governance that is directed by citizens, in their own interests or the interests that they decide to defend and promote — the Gettysburg Address formula — “the government of the people, for the people and by the people.”

Political philosophers have generally recoiled from a very literal application of this (especially the “by the people” bit) because a number of problems with it have not been solved.

  • How do we avoid a government that has no interest in behaving virtuously by any measure?
  • How do we avoid the constant violent conflict and tyranny that arises from government being an auction of legislation that is won by the faction that can mobilise the largest numbers?
  • How do we deal with ‘the quality problem’? Most of us don’t have the time, energy or inclination to invest in informed, evidence based, creative and intelligent decision-making on every single subject, and if we did, we don’t know how to turn vast numbers of individual perspectives into a coherent and practical outcome
  • How do we deal with the problem that some people will always have better connections, or more time / resources to dedicate to political activity than others, and the outcome will be unjust?

We currently resolve this in a pragmatic way using representative democracy, liberal institutions and the rule of law in a way that, I think, even the democracy-sceptic Aristotle would be satisfied with. We can’t be complacent though. One of the paradoxes of democracy is that citizens are a restless bunch. They have expectations that things can be improved. That final problem in the list (above) — some people having more resources to engage than others — creates a very competitive political auction for more participation in crude and infantilised forms — petitions, ‘recall’, binary referendums, ‘direct action’, and so on.

In demanding more ‘voice’, they put the delicate compromise that we call democracy at risk. Given the fantastic historical success that this fudge has created, it’s a big gamble to take, but political demands mean that we will forever be on the back foot if we duck this question. We have to find ways of making democracy better — fairer, cleverer, more satisfactory to the citizenry.

If we were really bothered about democracy, we would be looking for ways to solve these problems. We would be finding ways to use mass deliberation and participation without any of these downsides. Doing so would allow us to move on from the intellectually unsatisfactory approximation of democracy that we use at the moment.

Instead, we mutely acquiesce to each new demand for a plebiscite, or expect that a petition is treated seriously. We find comfort in the idea that going on a demo is the right response to political corruption and not a way of becoming its useful idiot.

So, in a year where (we are told) the most articulate and connected part of the British electorate have had their world turned upside down by a referendum, why aren’t we putting much effort into finding these solutions?

I would suggest two possible reasons;

  1. because we don’t know where to start, or…
  2. because we don’t really want to — preferring the comfort and certainty of our political settlement to one that may be more democratic, but less suited to the kind of people who would actively engage in this question (broadly, a Marxist argument, though one also made by Public Choice theorists).[ii]

I believe that we would know where to start if we wanted to. If we didn’t know a few years ago, the digital revolution has provided us with all kinds of disruptive technologies and opportunities that would point us in new democratic directions. Anyone interested can start here, read something by Peter Levine, or using UK options, talk to DemSoc or Involve, or Andy Williamson.

Therefore, I’d discount the first reason.

If it’s the second reason, maybe we need to find a new word for the things that we keep referring to as ‘democracy’. They usually look a lot more like ‘politics’ to me, and politics has been around for thousands of years in which ‘democracy’ was a dirty word.

Maybe its time that we stopped hiding behind the pretence that ‘democracy’ is a contested word and started deciding whether we really want to live in one or not?

[i] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” (1946)

[ii] As an aside, it is a very worrying spectacle when supposedly progressive political movements are being taken over by activists who come from relatively wealthy social groups, with the intention of pursuing a direction that is less focused on electoral success. It looks like a way of exercising an almost religious conviction

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