The ballot box is under pressure in many parts of the world, as two new books attest. After the electoral shocks of 2016, stand by for a new intellectual assaultby Tom Clark / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few days after 9/11, one of my more excitable friends said: “very soon, we’ll be discussing whether we can justify torture.” I put it down to one war film too many. But before long, it turned out he was right. The CIA asked George W Bush about “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and he replied “damn right.” Before long we had all heard about waterboarding, or tormento del agua—as the Spanish Inquisition had called it. A handful of suicidal fanatics on four aeroplanes had proved capable not only of felling two towers from the New York skyline, but also of uprooting one of the most basic ground rules of our civilisation.
The right shock can turn the unthinkable into the actual with frightening speed. In the wake of the stunning Brexit vote, and especially since Donald Trump’s unintelligible victory, respectable opinion is beginning to call into question the most fundamental of our political principles: democracy. Since the end of the Second World War, a shared deference to the collective will, as expressed in occasional elections, defined the political mainstream in the west—question it, and you consigned yourself to the crankish fringes. But I was on a plane recently with copies of two books on my knee—David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections and Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy—which caught the eye of the 50-something public-sector accountant beside me. She seemed like the embodiment of Middle England, not the sort to thrust opinions on strangers. Nonetheless she blurted out: “Against democracy? With the way things are going, I think that sounds like a very good idea.”
She is not alone. Intellectuals are beginning to discuss the right to vote as if it is something to be handled with wariness, if not disdain. Within hours of November’s election result, an emotional David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker, despaired that “the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness.” He reminded readers of George Orwell’s warning that “public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate.” In the UK, a publication on the opposite end of the political spectrum—the Spectator—ran a piece which commented that “one of the reasons many people are sceptical about democracy is because they’re right to be.” A worried Barack Obama was moved to dedicate his farewell presidential address to the dangers facing democracy as he sees them—inequality that depresses the poor and empowers the rich, racial division and complacency. These threats, he said in Chicago in January, “pose a danger… more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile.” He invoked George Washington who warned that self-government must always be guarded with “jealous anxiety.”
“The people have had enough of experts” was one of 2016’s more memorable phrases. “The experts have had enough of the people,” could turn out to be a slogan for 2017. Democracy is suddenly being seen not as a complement for other cherished political virtues, but instead a rival pitted against them. Suspicion is growing that many of the advantages long claimed for people power were misattributed and flowed instead from other characteristics of regimes that happen to be democratic, such as free speech and the rule of law. One could, in principle, have these things without having democracy. Indeed, with no co-ordination from editors (would that we were so organised!) three contributors to the last issue of Prospect warned that the liberal and democratic halves of “liberal democracy” were falling out of kilter.
Adam Tooze (“365 days that shook the world,” January) explained how that compound was first forged amid the scramble for a common cause in the First World War, an exigency that discouraged poking too hard at the inherent tension between majority rule and respect for the individual. There was even less scrutiny of liberal democracy when it marched triumphantly across the Communist world: Francis Fukuyama wrote of “the end of history.” But after Trump’s win, Fukuyama warned (“The failed state”) that the divisive liberal project of globalisation was rendering liberalism itself unsustainable at the ballot box. Finally, the Cambridge political scientist Chris Bickerton (“Europe in revolt”) approached the mutinous mood of Europe’s electorate from the other end—his concern is not democracy undermining liberalism, but the liberal left neutering democracy by disdaining popular sovereignty. But whichever conceptual partner—liberalism or democracy—is the plaintiff, Fukuyama and Bickerton are agreed that the divorce is underway.
If the future is one in which you have to be a liberal or a democrat, then history suggests that the educated bourgeoisie will put its own liberty ahead of other people’s votes, and I worry that a serious assault on the ballot box is coming. But am I getting ahead of myself, and losing perspective in the light of a couple of dramatic recent events?
Take the long view, and the experiment in government by voting—initiated by French Revolutionaries and America’s Founding Fathers in the late 18th century—still ranks as a success. As recently as 1945, there were as few as 12 true democracies. In 2012, according to the NGO Freedom House, there were 117, or 60 per cent of the world’s 195 countries. True, in 2015 the Economist Intelligence Unit put the number of “full democracies” at 20, a drop from 24 the year before. However, there was also an offsetting move towards people power in more despotic countries, which meant that overall, democracy was not in retreat.
In further support of a “keep calm and carry on” analysis, one could make specific points about 2016’s big electoral shocks. Sure, Trump might have violated democratic norms by suggesting he would “lock up” his Democratic rival, but he soon dropped such talk after his win. He did not cruise to victory in a way that suggested Americans as a whole had truly turned their backs on liberal democracy, but rather fell 2.8m votes short of Hillary Clinton. So the remedy to Trump might not be less democracy, but more—sweeping away an anachronistic electoral college that pulls off the unlikely feat of arranging a one-person-one-vote contest between two candidates into something the less popular of the pair can win. A similar argument could extend to the UK, where a slightly more defensible electoral system still produces some perverse aggregate outcomes—like the fact that four million Ukip votes only returned a single MP for that party in 2015. This democratic failing fuelled the mood of resentment that helped the Leavers to secure their narrow referendum win.
Advocates of Brexit, of course, regard it a triumph of democracy—a case of the “real people,” in Nigel Farage’s words, besting the (presumably phantom) 48 per cent. There is, however, no disputing that the liberal bourgeoisie was appalled. Days after the vote, the political scholar David Runciman suggested in Prospect that it had put society’s winners on the losing side for the first time. Many of them (us?) instinctively felt that the result was not only unfortunate, but somehow invalid. It was a huge mistake made by a populace that had not had the economics properly explained to them and which had been fed dodgy statistics about free money for hospitals by cynical xenophobes.
But even if that is your take on the referendum, it might not cause you to give up on democracy in general, but rather to despair at referendums. There is plenty to object to. Democrats on the continent have been wary ever since a plebiscite made Napoleon Emperor in 1804; Germany’s constitution bars federal “yes” or “no” votes because its history in the 1930s demonstrated how easily they could be manipulated. And as the government’s Brexit plans unravel, it could transpire that the narrow majority against European Union membership does not translate into majority support for any practical “Leave” plan—the way we actually exit would then end up less popular than staying in. If so, June’s result will look less like “the settled will of the people” than a product of the way that the issue was framed.
On this analysis, the pro-European liberal should demand not less democracy, only better democracy—a return to the tried and tested parliamentary model. It is a good argument, but not an easy sell in these times. Parliaments are despised: EU research suggests the elected assemblies in its nation states are now trusted by barely a quarter of voters. Deep resentment against a caste of professional politicians—whose careers follow the researcher-adviser-minister conveyor belt—has been compounded by scandals, such as the one over expenses in the UK in 2009. The harsh fall-out from the banking crisis in poor communities has inflamed a sense that privileged “suits full of bugger all” have no understanding of their problems. In the mind of many angry British voters these suits would include, for all their real differences, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and both Milibands. Politicians are in a bind, because the resentment here is less about what they say than who they are—and there isn’t much they can do about that. The best answer would be an influx of diverse legislators with humbler backgrounds, but the civic institutions that used to provide them—above all, the trade unions—are too weak to do so today. So are local councils, whose evisceration over the last third of a century has discouraged the belief that democratic control of services like schools is possible, and diminished a training ground for politicians in their own communities.
In these circumstances, many MPs fear that it would be dangerous for them to second-guess the verdict of the electorate in a referendum, even a flawed one. Indeed, all the pressure—and the trend—has been for more referendums, not fewer. Even excluding referendum-mad Switzerland, Europe now witnesses an average of eight a year, up from three a generation ago. And the frailty of parliamentary democracy is regularly reaffirmed in these votes. Last year, Dutch, British and Italian voters all used successive referenda—notionally concerned with, respectively, relations with Ukraine, EU membership and constitutional reform—to give their unloved leaders a hard kicking.
“In Britain the elitist case against democracy is familiar: it has been used to thwart reform of the House of Lords for over a century”
Beyond the west, the pressures on the ballot box are more intense. The Bush-era delusion—that an invading army could deliver peace by ordering elections—has been drowned in a river of blood, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya. A year after Islamists won modern Egypt’s first free elections in 2012, secular military forces ousted them in a coup. Last year, unhappy Turkish forces tried a putsch against their elected Islamists. They succeeded only in entrenching in power a regime that arrived through the vote, but increasingly rules by nakedly authoritarian means. In Eastern Europe, as Prospect has highlighted (“Rolling back freedom,” March 2016) nationalist “illiberal democracy” is on the march in Hungary, Poland and even the Czech Republic. The drumbeat behind it all is the remorseless economic eclipse of the west by the one-party state that is China. Not so long ago, conventional wisdom held that the citizens of the People’s Republic would demand and secure western-style political rights as they became more prosperous. But now, as we look on at President Xi tightening his grip, it’s hard to be confident about anything except that things aren’t going the west’s way.
There have also been warning signs for democracy in its original European cradle. During the euro crisis in 2011, both Greece and Italy saw elected leaders replaced by technocrats. Ever since, bureaucratically-imposed austerity has eroded accountability. Meanwhile, on the other side of the North Atlantic, the American polity has long been crippled by partisan sclerosis.
Such vicissitudes may pass, but surely a system of people power will not be sustained unless the people want it. A paper in January’s Journal of Democracy has made waves with its suggestion that western citizens are losing interest in the vote. The picture painted is of a structural, generational collapse. The belief that democracy is essential is held by 72 per cent of older Americans, but only 30 per cent of their millennial grandchildren. A similar gulf between the cohorts is evident in many other countries. An ugly question raises its head: as the pre-war and then the Cold War generations slowly die off, will the vote die with them?
The two provocative books that I had with me on that plane trip have similar titles and similarly grim analyses of the current state of politics. But they come at people power from opposite perspectives—one concluding that we have had quite enough of it, and the other suggesting that the real problem is the democratic deficit.
Against Democracy by the American Jason Brennan is a meticulous, crisply written and ultimately sinister book. If an elitist attack on the franchise is coming, here is a foretaste. The basic argument runs like this. Most people are pig-ignorant about politics, and when they do engage with it, they don’t become more enlightened, only more inclined to indulge in tribal group-think. Inform the clueless “hobbit” majority, and you won’t turn them into the model citizens the romantic democrats fondly imagine, but instead tool them up as partisan “hooligans.”
Human nature is only partly to blame. The other big problem is—in the jargon of economics—perverse incentives. Elections can have momentous consequences, but the odds of any one vote swinging the outcome are millions to one, so individual voters see no reason to do their homework. Instead, they regard politics as a spectator sport like football—and approach it as fans do on the terraces, by chanting abuse at the other side. Happily, the same inconsequentiality of the vote that engenders this irresponsibility means it can be harmlessly taken away. If we, quite literally, dissolved the electorate and selected another on the basis of, say, good exam results, then voters and non-voters alike would enjoy better governance.
If all that sounds alien, then—British readers—reflect. This elitist perspective has a place in our culture; it is an argument that you’ve heard before. It has repeatedly been used to thwart democratic reform of the House of Lords, in the 106 years that have passed since the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act promised a second chamber constituted on a “popular” basis. The landed and then later the expert British aristocracy has always retained enough power to defeat that—killing off the latest in a long line of attempted reforms in 2012. British peers always suggest that the masses will enjoy better-made law if they are given the benefit of the deliberative classes. The difference, however, is that—at least since the political crisis resolved by that 1911 Act—this case has always been made in a conciliatory tone, recognising that the Lords can refine and delay, but not veto the popular will.
Brennan is not given to such concessions: he pursues his anti-democratic case with an unusual mix of subtle conceptual distinctions, and arresting—sometimes crass—imagery and language. He usefully cuts through sentimental tosh about democracy “empowering us as individuals,” a confusion produced, perhaps, by the long elision between liberalism and democracy. Except in the rarest of circumstances where our own vote might serve as a tie-breaker, our possession of it does not give us extra control in day-to-day life. It is, as he says, only the collective that is empowered.
But this tenured white professor then leaps from that observation to hectoring those with more experience with the rough edges of life on how they should feel about their own vote. “A black person should be nearly indifferent,” he writes, between a situation in which they personally do and don’t have the vote. Whereas there might be a “semiotic objection” to explicitly racist disenfranchisement, there is little to fear from a voter qualification exam that just happens to entrust the vote “disproportionately to white upper-middle to upper-class educated employed males.” At a time when poor, black voters really are being systematically suppressed by Republican politicians—see Des King and Rogers Smith’s article (p6)—the concerns here are not merely the theoretical stuff of seminars. But don’t worry, says Brennan, “on implicit bias tests, I score many standard deviations lower than the average person.”
The particular case against democracy here embodies a distinctively American libertarianism, which could limit its appeal in Europe. Brennan lets slip that the book was originally going to be called Against Politics; his distaste for voting is part of a wider suspicion of government. At one point, he writes “To say ‘Restaurateurs should be required by law to publish nutritional information on their menus’ is to say ‘I advocate using violence against restaurateurs who fail to post nutritional facts on their menus.’” That’s one way of seeing things, and if you want to dash down that analytical avenue with him, then you might—as he does—resent “unqualified” fellow voters in the same way you’d resent a drunk driver who put your child at risk. Many, however, will have disembarked from his car by this point.
Indeed, before Trump and Brexit, I think Brennan would have struggled to command a hearing. His insistence that, just as he defers to his plumber on matters of plumbing, so “I justifiably believe that I—a named professor of strategy, economics, ethics and public policy at an elite research university with a PhD from the top-ranked philosophy program in the English-speaking world, and a strong record of peer-reviewed papers in top journals and academic presses—have superior political judgment,” would have been dismissed as a self-satisfied boast. Now, however, educated sorts may be in a mood to listen to his suggestion that only an “epistocracy”—rule by the knowledgeable—can protect them against incompetent government. After all, Brexit will, most experts advise, likely make us poorer. Trump—a demonstrably mendacious, ignorant bully—commanded sufficient support to subject the world to his whims. That is, without doubt, an uncomfortable reality for enlightened democrats.
“Lord Salisbury had it right when he suggested that with the question of the franchise, wealth is always in play”
In the context of the public’s failure to get to the “right” answers in 2016, Brennan’s cockiness that politics is a puzzle that “social science” could solve—if only smart people were left alone with the evidence—could start sounding more plausible to pragmatic types in bureaucracies, businesses and universities. It now seems less indecent to entertain restricting political power to “people who know what they’re doing.” Unlike Brennan, I would contend that economics, much of which he seems to regard Adam Smith as having “solved” two and a half centuries ago, is rarely black-and-white. That is another argument, however. His more immediate problem is defining the “knowing what you’re doing category.” The epistocrat hope has to be that education, as evidenced by qualifications, at least inclines its recipients in the direction of Brennan’s ideal “Vulcan” citizen, who forms disinterested insights about public policy on the strength of the evidence, and votes on that basis.
The word “empirical” runs through Brennan’s book like a nervous tick; much of his support appears to come from analysis of surveys and polls. These can be used to show, for example, that most Americans don’t know who their local congressional candidates are, or the relative positions of presidential hopefuls on abortion. A few results are truly shocking, such as the fact that 40 per cent of Americans apparently do not know who the US fought in the Second World War, but there is a sense of the evidence being pushed. “Don’t knows” are sometimes lumped in with those who get answers wrong to suggest an electorate that is “worse than ignorant”; voters’ inability to detect growth in GDP, a statistical abstraction, amid an anaemic jobs market is pointed to as a failing. Well, I’m not so sure about that.
Then there is the—to my mind—extraordinary claim that voters will reliably act in the national interest, rather than self-interest. A litter of academic papers are rapidly cited in defence of this claim, but there is little interrogation of what these are saying. That is a serious weakness, because this is the pivot on which the whole argument turns. To gain traction, it is essential for the new anti-democrats to demonstrate that they can safely experiment with disenfranchising the unschooled (and thus effectively the poor and the black as well) because the educated will selflessly take them into account. Brennan has such faith in his surveys that he suggests that smart social scientists can divine “with a strong degree of confidence… what ‘We the People’ would want if only ‘We the People’ knew what we were talking about.”
But for all Brennan’s avowed empiricism, there is little consideration of historical experience in any broader sense. If self-interest has nothing to do with voting then why, for example, does prosperous Surrey reliably return no Labour MPs, and impoverished Liverpool consistently not elect any Conservative ones? Is it just a coincidence that the completion of the male franchise in the UK in 1918, a move championed by Labour, was followed by Labour’s emergence as a serious contender for power? And why indeed did the American Rust Belt swing as it did for Trump? Might it have had something to do with a perceived self-interest in mining and manufacturing jobs? Or is it really explained by some weirdly local sense of what was good for the US as a whole?
Most voters are not, as Brennan grumbles, given to a laser-like focus on optimal public policy design. But my suspicion is that self-interest, to a far greater extent than he concedes, shapes where they end up—whether it is conscious or unconscious, individual bias or groupthink. Indeed, in the Victorian era, when an educated elite last suggested denying votes to the masses, they were sometimes explicit about this. That least-apologetic of whiskered reactionaries, Lord Salisbury, warned in the 1860s that “the pretence of political equality” could only lead to “bad leaders instead of good.” Why? “Every community has natural leaders, to whom, if they are not misled by the insane passion for equality, they will instinctively defer.” By dint of what? “Intellectual power and culture,” to be sure, but also “always wealth.”
The money question has never quite gone away. In the 1980s, the right embraced the poll tax because it resented the way that poor people could vote for costly local services, pushing up rates while their own bills were rebated. As recently as 2011, Daily Telegraph writer Ian Cowie was proposing that the vote should be restricted to those who pay tax. Against Democracy ends up drifting in the same direction, suggesting that if political donations increase the clout of the rich this could be good news, because they tend to be better educated too. Finally, it emerges that in Brennan’s Republic of Scholars people of means who are too thick to pass the franchise entrance exam may still “be permitted to vote, but only if they pay a penalty of two thousand dollars.”
Salisbury had it right, then, in suggesting that there is indeed “always wealth” in play when it comes to deciding who should hold power. It is an insight that runs through Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. Its cover image uses Trump’s sweep of hair (a bold stroke in a book published before the US election) to dramatise just how wrong elections could go in plutocratic times.
There is much shared ground with Brennan—in observing the grotesque distortion involved in what passes for debate, and the lousy way in which the electorate is served by the leaders it chooses. But where Brennan is keen to blame the voters, Van Reybrouck stresses withering civic institutions, and the social media echo chamber—developments that might explain why elections are going awry at this particular time. He casts his eyes far and wide, including to corners of the Earth where the state of citizens’ knowledge is less dismal than it is in the US. And instead of relying on polls, he draws on thousands of years of history, and more practical recent democratic experiments.
Like Brennan, Van Reybrouck wants to reduce the import of universal elections, but—unlike the American—Van Reybrouck would replace them with something more egalitarian. His inspiration is the jury system and ancient Athens. Back there, temporary positions of power were randomly filled by citizens drawing lots. Yes, if that happened today, it could end up with Brennan being ruled over by his plumber. Some will think this sounds like madness, and fear being subjected to the interminable caprice of the same idiots who landed them with Brexit and Trump. But reflect on this: juries—who decide on invariably consequential, and frequently complex questions—are one of the most trusted institutions we have. Some jurors are prejudiced and stupid of course, but long experience encourages the faith that after due deliberation, even in a group of 12, the good and true wins out.
Extend “sortition” to political office, and there would no longer be any point in corrupting political donations; the gulf between the governing and the governed classes would close. Indeed, from Athens itself to the city states of medieval Italy, Van Reybrouck explains just how often it has been done. Elections, he explains, were devised as an elitist alternative—to prevent privileged sorts being evicted by the luck of the draw. They fare much better running political campaigns, which can make full use of their confidence and material resources.
In our own times, an element of “tombola democracy” has made a practical contribution to the governance of many cities—being deployed, for example, in the service of crime prevention in Manchester. And in the Republic of Ireland, citizens chosen by lot recently contributed to a major review of the constitution, which paved the way for the acceptance of gay marriage.
Van Reybrouck hails all this without lapsing into fanaticism. He acknowledges that from Athens onward, citizen rule has been tempered by other systems that allowed for more specialist input. This would need to happen again. Whether or not this caveat is enough to persuade you to embrace his schemes, we can be grateful that someone is grappling with the frail state of elective democracy. Because, as things stand, government of the people has come to feel like government to the people, and cynical populists, with no practical programme beyond division, can clean up by pitting the masses against an ill-defined “elite.” Abolishing the distinction between the governing and the governed is one way to address the missing link, and achieve real “government by the people.” Or, if it helps steal Faragiste thunder, “government by real people.”
Where Brennan is pessimistic about the potential of his fellow humanoid “hobbits,” Van Reybrouck bursts with optimism about how wise ordinary people will turn out to be if they are given the space to think things through properly. Both authors cite evidence that looks credible enough in support of their divergent perspectives. In the end, I suspect, it is the sort of question where instincts run so deep as to dictate the footnotes on which you choose to rest your case. Like the argument about whether humans start out as a blank slate, the debate about whether or not the average citizen has the potential to rule competently is likely to rumble on without end.
Democracy is not without its problems. Its conflict with liberalism is likely to intensify, and is going to present enlightened democrats with some profoundly uncomfortable choices. Safeguards, most especially an independent judiciary, will become even more important. But however capricious unschooled voters might be, I would rather take my chances on their good sense than imagine that education so enlightens the rich that they will rule in the interests of beauty and truth, rather than squalid self-interest.
Reform institutions, and—by all means—chivvy your fellow citizens, despair at them when they get things wrong, and insist on their right to change their minds in such cases. But always defend their right to have a say. For whatever the many frustrations of this system just remember that, like the man said, it is the worst of the lot—apart from all the alternatives that have from time to time been tried.