“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
One of the many fine things that Winston Churchill never said.
Much though I admire Churchill’s perspicacity, I’m not sure I would have agreed with his rather patrician solutions, for all his advocacy of democracy elsewhere as the ‘least worst’ system. But perhaps ‘events’ are forcing us to confront the difficult possibility that democracy too has its limitations – or at least that it is a great deal more flawed than we in the West have chosen to believe over the past century.
Democracy is normally extolled as a pure virtue, as though the right to collective self-determination is in itself synonymous with good decision-making. Yet there are a number of issues at present of questionable wisdom, that might nonetheless have some legitimate, if simplistic claim to be democratically-based. The obvious one is Brexit, though we might also consider the current presidency of the U.S.A., and also the regimes in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Russia as part of the same.
But is it possible to advocate democratic decisions where the outcomes are patently malign? I am not primarily thinking of Brexit here, although it still qualifies. If a consenting nation (as with an individual) genuinely wishes to inflict harm on itself, then as long as there is no damage to anyone else, it can presumably be left to it. But as soon as the decision to do so impacts on dissenting others, then it becomes possible to question the moral legitmacy of the decision.
In reality, there is probably never a situation where such a decision brings no harm to anyone other than its proponents; Brexit is just such an example, because even if it were certain that the move would do no damage to other countries or to the wider integrity of the EU, there are still the 48% (plus?) in Britain who do not support it. And as the present situation shows, when a zero-sum situation of this sort is in prospect, support for the basic rules which democracy needs in order to function (such as respecting the result of a fair defeat) rapidly falls away. And all the more so when there are clear grounds to doubt that the defeat was indeed fair.
Another misconception is that democracy is a single entity when it is not. Almost more important than the basic principle are the means by which it is enacted. While the concept of a majority is simple enough, this is not helpful when there is more than a binary choice at stake. It does not address the problem that has long bedevilled First-Past-The-Post systems, namely that the winner is often the largest minority, rather than a true majority. The side-effects of this have been well-rehearsed, including the fact that binary voting systems effectively totally disenfranchise even large minorities (and sometimes even majorities) – exactly the situation with Brexit. Resentment and dissent are the likely outcome. Conversely, proportional systems often deliver indeterminate results – and while one might argue that this is a more accurate reflection of a difficult reality, it risks simply transferring the real decision-making to unseen horse-trading elsewhere before a result can be declared.
Gandhi observed that truly civilised countries are those that show their weak (and minorities) care – in other words the compassion that a democratic majority still needs to have for its ‘losers’ if it is to retain any general consent. By this measure, Brexit seems to be leading Britain to a less civilised place, as are other issues in certain other countries.
But in a sense none of the above is the real problem with democracy. That is what critical thinkers call the Framing Error. One of a long list of logical flaws, the framing error states that people make decisions based on what they perceive and believe they ‘know’ – which almost by definition is far from being the complete picture of a given situation. This can occur both spatially (we can’t see what is going on elsewhere) and temporally (we tend to draw artificial limits in our minds about where we attribute causality). We compound these difficulties by further framing our outlook with our own psychology, intellectual abilities, and preconceptions.
We then ask people to make serious decisions based on what they think – or think they know. People debate – and vote – in a condition of varying but widespread ignorance, which we all have, but which almost no one acknowledges. At one level it can be argued that this is not important: in a true democracy people should be free to make their votes based on whatever criteria they like, including limited vision or outright ignorance. But when, as discussed above, the repercussions of this right extend to serious impacts on millions of other people, not to mention entire countries, it is hard to argue that there should be no limits.
Faith in democracy rests on the fact that in a collective of millions, outlying views will be rare enough that the ‘sensible’ majority prevails. But as once again in the case of Brexit, one person’s sensible moderate is another person’s extremist. In some parts of the world, this is the stuff of which genocide is made.
Another risk is that ‘sensible majorities’ tend to vote for the status quo, not necessarily because it is the optimal solution, but because it is what falls most frequently within their inevitably limited field of vision – not to mention the innate human aversion to change. But there are plenty of cases where radical action may well have prevented later disaster: had the British electorate not voted against electoral reform and the introduction of elected mayors and other forms of regional representation, it could be argued that many of the discontents that led to Brexit might have found alternative, less harmful outlets. In this case, as with the various causes to which Brexit has been attributed, failure to take a long enough view is a serious impediment to accurate thinking.
Ironically, British democracy, much trumpeted by Brexiters, has never addressed many of the shortcomings discussed above; they certainly seem unconcerned about problems caused by framing errors.
Democracy is normally advocated on the ground of the entitlement that it brings to every person to participate in collective deliberation. But its more important quality is that it also places responsibility for the outcomes on those same individuals.
Neither, regrettably, do many Brexiters seem to possess much awareness, much less concern, for the longer-term dilemmas that this throws up, such as how to reconcile two fundamentally opposing worldviews in a coherent national identity. Telling pro-Europeans to “get over it” does not begin to do the issue the justice it needs – and nor do the current Prime Minister’s exhortations to set aside the differences. Historically, the British model that Brexiters and nationalists trumpet is actually the source of the problem: for many years it only feigned democracy, while ensuring that real power remained vested in the Executive and the social class from which it was mostly drawn. ‘Ordinary’ people had no real say – and correspondingly little responsibility. They could safely lay the blame for the nation’s errors firmly at the door of others.
Nowadays, the situation is reversed: in a pendulum-swing from the above, the people have arguably been given too much say – the ability to make momentous decisions without much awareness at all of the responsibility that goes with self-determination, for being informed and able to deliberate seriously before casting one’s vote. And no number of televised debates will do much to rectify a situation where almost everyone is reduced to voting on confirmation bias simply because they have no ability to do otherwise. This is without the routine rejection of what ‘expert’ opinions are available – the only alternative is (and was) to vote largely on prejudice or ignorance.
From a longer-term perspective, this nation’s travails are largely own-goals. Most of the errors of social and economic policy derive from the prevalence of class-derived vested interests, and many of the supposedly democratic reforms have been hobbled by the fact that Britain has a fundamentally flawed electorate that is used to zero-sum, false-dichotomy thinking, a great deal of shouting and confrontation – and now the ability to make decisions without any appreciation of its responsibilities for informing itself and attempting to address its framing errors first.
It’s not easy to know where this leaves us – but I am reminded of a quote from my favourite psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”
A healthy democracy absolutely needs an active, thoughtful, open-minded and articulate electorate. It also needs a system that adequately reflects the nuances of opinion and shifting alliances that result from having this. These are things that Britain increasingly seems to lack; no matter what the mechanics of the system, I suggest that the country can as a result no longer be considered properly democratic.