In defence of the people


In defence of the people

The only problem with democracy is that there is not enough of it.

Roslyn Fuller

Topics Brexit Long-reads

When I began to study democracy over a dozen years ago, few of the so-called cultural elite were in a rush to argue against it as a form of government. After all, practising democracy was what made them the ‘goodies’. Yes, they may have made a lot of mistakes, they may have lied once or twice, but when the other options were dictatorship and Communism, all they had to say was the magic word ‘democracy’ and the grumbling over these indiscretions would quickly subside. Not only did the elite at this time not question the value of democracy — they actively promoted it as the self-evident, one, true path. It was seen as the end of history. The very word possessed such talismanic power that you could even get away with attacking whole countries and killing all kinds of people just so the ones who survived could have democracy.

Then these gatekeepers of good manners lost a referendum (Brexit) and an election (Trump) and decided that democracy was totally passé. The volte-face they performed was rather breathtaking in its coordination, like a little shoal of well-disciplined fish avoiding troubled waters with mindless accuracy.

Philosopher Julian Baggini proclaimed in the Guardian that ‘Plato and Aristotle get a bad rap these days for their rejection of democracy. But the substance of their objections was spot on.’ The Independent ran articles arguing that some things are just ‘too important to be decided by the people’, and accusing British MPs of hiding ‘behind the vapid UKIP mantra – the so-called will of the people’. According to political-science professors there was ‘nothing democratic about Brexit’, which was to be regarded as a ‘great pretence of democracy’, since quite suddenly ‘the notion that 50 per cent plus one [was] an acceptable threshold [was] a fiction’.

Journalists told us that it was ‘time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’, that the Brexit referendum was a ‘blunt axe wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens’, that we were about to be overrun by the ‘tyranny of the mob’ and that (just in case anyone had missed the point) ‘the problem with democracy is voters’.

A volley of academics chimed in to decry the idiocy of the masses and offer various solutions that would mitigate the effect of ‘the people’ on government. Brookings Fellows Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes argued for politics to return to ‘smoke-filled rooms’ with candidates hand-picked by party insiders. Professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ research that purported to show that people are so irrational that elections are won and lost on everything from shark attacks to the weather gained a rapturous audience. Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan’s plea for disenfranchising the stupid and ignorant was treated as some kind of plausible innovation. And pundits contemplated, with seeming seriousness, Canadian Daniel A Bell’s argument for the West to turn to a Chinese model of government by an unelected virtuous elite.

In my new book,In Defence of Democracy, I spend some time on demolishing these arguments – lavishing particular attention on ‘Sharknado’ (Achen and Bartels’ claim that Woodrow Wilson lost voters in New Jersey in the 1916 presidential election because a Great White shark was munching down their tourists), as well as Bell’s argument for a virtuous elite that turns out to require about as much virtue as landing a middle management position at PwC does (yes, that much), and could, according to him, be instituted if the West were ever really rattled by a major terrorist attack (think he forgot to use his inside voice on that one).

Not only do very wealthy oligarchs tend to democracy-scepticism, suddenly the chattering classes are also convinced that the big problem with democracy is… people

The long and the short of it, however, is that for the first time in a long time, not only do very wealthy oligarchs tend to democracy-scepticism — suddenly the chattering classes are outstripping them in their conviction that the big problem with democracy is… people.

Now, you may be thinking if the problem is indeed ‘people’, what alternative alien race are anti-democrats planning to populate their wondrous societies with? Aren’t they people, too?

Yes, but they are the right kind of people. The problem is the other people, who, according to anti-democrats, are stupid, irrational and unwilling to take the time to develop informed preferences.

Voters today, as Achen and Bartels put it, harbour thoughts as irrational as those of Ancient Egyptians blaming the Pharaoh for the Nile failing to flood, and are unable to ‘distinguish the effects of shark attacks and droughts from the effects of tax policies and foreign wars’.

Now, having never met anyone in my life who has actually confused the effects of a shark attack with the effects of, say, a sugar tax (and this despite the fact that I am a veritable lightning rod for attracting weirdos), I’m pretty sure this is just the kind of theory academics come up with in order to sound interesting.

In reality, the average person, being, it must be said, per definition average and therefore not much to write home about, is really quite stable and straightforward, with preferences that seem fairly sensible. Rather than running off on a tangent following every encounter with aquatic predators, his or her opinions tend to be fairly grounded and resilient.

Indeed, way back in 1998 an American study concluded that, ‘Public opinion is remarkably well-structured and overwhelmingly partial to the policy status quo’. When asked to choose between different public-finance options, the majority of participants consistently chose to cut defence spending while rejecting other options like raising or lowering taxes, increasing the deficit or decreasing domestic spending ‘usually by overwhelming margins’.

In other words, over 20 years ago, Americans wanted to cut their bloated and euphemistically named ‘defence’ spending and use that money to fund public services while maintaining tax levels, rather than do what American politicians have done: continue to increase defence spending while engaging in a wholesale war over whether they need to raise taxes on the middle class or gut public services.

What Americans wanted back in 1998 was simple, painless, and arguably could have saved everyone a lot of trouble. Perhaps having the brakes applied to the otherwise limitless military-industrial complex would have mitigated enthusiasm for the attacks on Iraq, Libya and Syria, in turn avoiding waves of destabilisation, mass migration and the power vacuum that allowed terrorism to flourish. At the same time, the funds saved could perhaps have taken the worst edge off meth and opioid addiction, violence and declining infrastructure.

Good thing elites were around to make sure those kind of straightforward policies weren’t put in place and to save voters from their ignorant irrationality.

That study is not a one-off, either. Benjamin I Page, co-author of the famous ‘oligarchy study’; tells us that ‘Americans’ poll-measured, collective policy preferences have generally been real (not coin flips or doorstep artefacts), stable, consistent, coherent and responsive to best available new information and reflective of citizens’ underlying values and interests’.

A third scholar, Morris P Fiorina of Stanford, claims that voter preferences tend to move very slowly, and that on many issues, including ‘hot-button issues’ like abortion, they have hardly changed since the 1970s. While party activists have hardened their positions into complete pro- and anti-choice camps, most ordinary people remain somewhere in the middle.

That shouldn’t be too surprising: given the constraints of the time-space continuum we inhabit, the conditions of life don’t change much, and absent a change in conditions, a change in opinion is unlikely.

Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848
Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848

There is a similar case to be made for Europe. Studies show that the majority of Europeans, including the British, are still generally onboard with top-line EU goals like promoting peace within Europe and are willing to credit the EU with achievements here.

When asked what would be the single greatest consequence that an EU collapse would bring with it, a surprising number of respondents stated this to be losing the benefits of a trading bloc to counter superpowers like China and the US. Indeed, in France and Denmark this was rated as the greatest potential loss by more respondents than selected losing the Euro or the ability to travel freely across the EU.

So… people like to be able to travel across the EU, they find the Euro handy and they see the value of the EU in protecting them from hyper-globalist competition from China and the US, where labour laws are considerably less stringent. So far, so good.

But there are a ream of other things that the EU does and aims to do, like forming a European army; deregulating and privatising public infrastructure, like the energy sector and postal services; limiting national governments’ ability to subsidise industry; disempowering elected national lawmakers; updating the common fisheries policy; and, of course, rather watering down some of the traditions that so many Europeans are so attached to through harmonisation. The moment in time where Europeans really said yes to these things after an open and honest discussion is hard to pinpoint, making one wonder if they ever really said ‘yes’ at all.

The last time any substantial number of Europeans were asked for their opinion was during the referenda to adopt the so-called Constitution of Europe in 2005. While 10 referenda were planned, only four were held: two in favour of adopting the constitution (Spain and Luxembourg) and two against (France and the Netherlands). Subsequently, the project was abandoned and only Ireland would get a referendum on the constitution’s replacement, the Treaty of Lisbon, which it also initially rejected.

Following the Constitution of Europe debacle, it would have been possible to start talking seriously about the potential benefits of immigrant labour in propping up pensions, or the precise use-cases for a future European army, or what advantages Europeans expected to reap from a trading bloc. But I’m guessing these expectations would on the whole not involve lower wages and less steady jobs, or the slow dismantling of the welfare state. I’m guessing that many Europeans don’t want to get into the kind of pax-Americana adventurism that that nation decided to inflict on itself, or allow Germany and France to get more involved in their erstwhile African colonies. At the same time, some of them might want other things, like transfer payments from rich to poor regions. Since no one ever seems to ask in any really conclusive way, I guess we’ll never know.

But if over a quarter of western Europeans are able to twig ‘trading bloc’ as the single greatest potential loss of the European Union falling apart, despite this being a neglected narrative, it doesn’t seem like they’ve missed the theoretical benefits of membership. It’s that some of them are just not in love with the EU package on offer. And since the EU takes a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude on this, some people will inevitably choose the highway.

Britain’s Leave vote may be the result of a jumble of factors, but it wasn’t just some irrational, ill-informed bad-hair day. Commentators should really have been tipped off by the fact that more than 3.8million voters (12.6 per cent of those who cast a ballot) supported UKIP in the 2015 national election, and over five million (30 per cent) supported the Brexit Party in the 2019 European election. That is a pretty resilient vote spanning four years, and holding up in the face of a persistent media barrage focusing on the negatives of Brexit.

But while elites have been strong on the negatives of what they don’t like, they haven’t spent much time on why their preferred option – in this case remaining in the EU – is so great. Instead, like their American counterparts so frequently do, they insist on offering a relatively bad package that doesn’t fully take account of underlying preferences. People aren’t opting out, because they are ignorant of the consequences of their actions, but rather because ‘elites’ have decided they don’t need to make a compelling case for why their ideas are good ones, as one would need to do in a democracy. They believe their ideas simply are good and people who don’t agree with them need to be cancelled.

As the 1998 American study on public opinion put it:

‘on the face of it, the problem the public creates for policymakers is that it does not want what its leaders seem to want… the portion of the electorate that seeks something for nothing is decisively in the minority. Most people recognise that they cannot have budget trade-offs both ways.’

Since then, years of participatory budgeting exercises – where citizens get to decide on how a portion of the budget is spent – have shown this to be true. Because they aren’t ignorant idiots, people tend to choose sensible and boring things during participatory budgeting exercises, like disabled access to the public library or repairing the street lighting, and they do so from Brazil to Paris to China.

Ruling elites believe their ideas simply are good and people who don’t agree with them need to be cancelled

Participatory budgeting, which is available in digital form and therefore can be rolled out en masse, has also shown something else – that the trap of lousy alternatives elites offer up is no longer necessary.

In the internet era, the days of ‘ban-all-Muslims Trump’ vs ‘Goldman Sachs Hillary’, and ‘neoliberal EU’ vs ‘no EU at all’ are fast sliding into the past. There’s simply really no need for binary choices presented at intervals of years.

‘Elites’ like to talk about the possibility of a second Brexit referendum so that they can overturn the first one and forget it ever happened, but modern technology means that Britain could have held a hundred referenda in the time the Brexit bickering has been going on. Three years would have been plenty of time to go over the pros and cons of multiple trade strategies quite thoroughly. Everyone would know where everyone stands and there would be a basis of aggregate opinion upon which to move decisively forward in whatever direction.

But since this would be based on what average people want, average people would likely start to add a lot of interesting issues like tax evasion and protecting jobs into the mix. You’ll notice there are no calls for this. Indeed, there is merely a push to castigate the majority for not wanting exactly what the elite want them to want in precisely the form it is offered, and to get rid of democracy wholesale as the only logical solution to this ‘problem’.

It’s exactly because democracy on a larger scale is now possible, because communications have become so simple and cheap that elites have come out to try to preserve their privilege by axing what is probably one of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation: one person, one vote. We’ve seen above the kind of hatred they are willing to spew in order to get that, and the kind of strange theories they are willing to spin in their attempt to relieve people of their rights – precisely because technology would enable the exercise of those rights on a more continual basis and would no doubt reveal voter preferences that they prefer to ignore.

I could say that what elites really need to do is get people on board with their programme, but most people never will be on board with it, for the good reason that it isn’t in most people’s interests. Changing your electricity company every 12 to 18 months to avoid being shafted is a right pain in the neck that no one gets around to – not in most people’s interests. Corporate forum-shopping for low wages isn’t in most people’s interests. Gutting health services – not in most people’s interests. Sky-high property prices that set off a real-life game of Monopoly – not in most people’s interests.
There’s a big, unbridgeable disconnect between the average person’s interests and elite interests. And in a direct democracy that would be settled quite quickly, in the interests of the average person.

It’s not because the average person is too stupid and can’t identify his or her own best interests that elites are so down on direct democracy – it’s because we are too smart.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the director of the Solonian Democracy Institute and author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose. Her new book, In Defence of Democracy is out now.

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Topics Brexit Long-reads


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