Not the end of democracy – not so fast

Democracy is in crisis. So many believe. David Runciman’s recent book has the title, ‘How Democracy Ends’. He takes a very different approach from Yascha Mounk – see my last two posts.

Democracy it seems cannot survive on its own. It needs (Runciman suggests) the shock of war, or something akin. The coming together after war. It also needs targets: the widening of the franchise, a shared vision of a society where everyone has a vote, was one such.

A target readily becomes a vision, with optimism and even idealism wound in. Trade unions were the vehicle for the working man, the Workers Education Association for the middle classes extending a hand up to the working class.

Now we all have the vote. And, for older generations, they’ve seen no further advantages in wealth or status come their way. Arguably the reverse. No matter that in terms of comfort and lifestyle most of us score more heavily now. We’ve lost the vision. For younger generations there’s the perception that their parents’ generation had it better than they have. They’ve never had the vision.

Those in power, in business, in the City, and indeed in the cities, small ‘c’, those down south, especially the south-east – they have the status, and the wealth. And they flaunt it. (In past times the division of wealth might have been seen as part of the natural order – but no more.)

Older generations now sense that they’ve found a voice, calling out against change – wanting to return to the old safe areas. (The old borders, real and metaphorical.) The institutions of democracy take a hit, with some hefty encouragement from the media.

For younger generations it’s a different issue – they see themselves as outside the system, not so different from previous generations you might say. But they’re not indifferent: typically they are issue-driven, and social media have taken the insistence and passion of their beliefs to another level. To the extent that political scientists like Yascha Mounk are asking the question, ‘can liberal democracy survive social media?’

Not quite as alarmist as ‘How Democracy Ends’. Mounk is talking of liberal democracy, and survival, not an endgame.

Democracy has always been inadequate to the task. That’s written in to its unwritten constitution. So much is expected of it. So much more demanded than it can readily deliver. Incompetence is the other side of the coin: always there to a greater or lesser extent, and always will be. ‘The blunders of our government’ (to quote King and Crewe’s phrase) reflect back on democracy itself.

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Old-style deference, working to middle, middle to upper class is no more. We, the people, across all classes, have asserted ourselves. There are no ‘betters’. We the people call the tune, and there is indeed a specific ‘will of the people’, which can be identified – and if we can’t do it ourselves, then there are others who will do it for us.

We’re in a battle against a globalised world, against the City, against elites, and vast inequalities of pay, against real pay doing no more than hold its level over the last thirty years, against the EU, against immigration.

Democracy isn’t doing it for us. We don’t worry that it’s a lot to ask, we deem democracy to be in crisis.

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In David Runciman’s view it’s a mid-life crisis, and that assumes old age and death. He does argue in defence of democracy that unlike any other system it has inbuilt recovery mechanisms – but they may not be enough.

I think Runciman, and many another, have got it wrong.

Our focus should be on how democracy can best take on and deal with the challenges that society faces. The hard work, the argument, the big picture, the detail. Talk down the ability of a democratic society to make the right decisions, we make those decisions harder. Short cuts. Apparently easy answers. Looking back rather than forward. Fringe even extreme views gain currency.

This is where the distinction made by Mounk (see my last post) between liberal and illiberal democracy becomes key. Where is the vision if we reduce democracy to no more than a convenient and hitherto just-about-effective modus operandi? Or, worse, to a Trump-inspired transactional nationalism?

In our current Brexit context, how are we to deal with the worldwide and EU-wide immigration issue if all we can think to do is tighten our own border controls? How do we take on big business and big money, if we’re obliged for want of other allies to kow-tow to the USA? And just how much power might a free-trading ‘Anglosphere’ wield in a world out east driven by the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?

To borrow a phrase, liberal democracy needs to take back control.

Runciman puts up Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan and the sociologist Max Weber as proponents of a mechanistic de-humanised view of society, where we cede power to the state out of self-interest, defending ourselves against an innate tendency for society to descend into violence.

He is curiously shy when it comes to liberal democracy. (It doesn’t get a mention.) But he’s clear regarding representative democracy, which in its contemporary form is ‘tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffective’.  The more gloomy we are, the more old Hobbes comes to the fore. And characterised in this way, why bother to save it?

His shyness extends to the role of the individual, who hardly gets a mention. (Though he does appear as a depersonalised online unit.) Liberalism brought the individual into play – the individual finding expression in democracy, and democracy in the individual. We have rights and freedoms, as long as we do not trespass on those of others. Yes, it is a minefield, an almost impossible task, there is no ideal world, progress can only ever take us so far, and we will lose ground as well as gain it – but that, if you want, is the stuff of democracy.

Democracy is not, to use Churchill’s characterisation, the least worst form of government. It is a bloody miracle we’ve got this far: we are fools to disdain it.

What we have to be focusing on is making it more robust. And that of course means the liberal democracies, not the emerging illiberal democracies of Hungary, Brazil, Turkey. Venezuela. It is not democracy as a system that should be at issue, but rather the scale of the problems we’re faced with.

Democracy has to adjust to deal with many challenges – and that (taking one example) has required and will require ceding of power upward to supranational bodies, with the European Commission the most controversial example, but balanced by a devolving of greater responsibility to local levels. Democracy works best at multiple, and connected, levels. The debate should be about structures of accountability, from local to supranational. The transactional approach cheered on by Donald Trump, with self-interest and specifically national interest always paramount, throws the issue into sharp relief.

Denigrate democracy, treat it with disdain, or part of the problem, or at best as suffering a midlife crisis, then you open up the other possibilities which Runciman discusses in his book – oligarchies (specifically  epistocracies – see below), pragmatic authoritarianism (as realised in the Chinese model of state capitalism), and liberated technology (internet utopias and  accelerationism, whereby a liberated economy and liberated networks, ‘crack the future open’).

Epistocracy, government by the best, is considered (though ultimately dismissed) as a serious alternative to democracy. Runciman quotes the American philosopher, Jason Brennan author of ‘Against Democracy’ (2016): ‘Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary it does most of us little good and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.’ Runciman acknowledges that attaching power to knowledge can create monsters, but he leaves us in no doubt that he has some sympathy with Brennan’s direction of travel.

His conclusions – ‘Mature, Western democracy is over the hill …(it) will almost certainly have a drawn-out demise … democracy is not us. The demise of democracy is not our demise …’ I could continue, but I will desist.

Above all, what we miss in Runciman, as we do in Hobbes, and in the cheerless bunch of prophets he enlists to make his case, is any role for the positive aspects of human nature, for enterprise and compassion working together, for vision, ideals and aspirations – for new goals, for coming together rather than falling apart, for instinctively supporting rather than denigrating. For notions of liberty and responsibility. For any evidence that he’s taken on board any of that great liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill, and his precursors, to John Rawls, Amartya Sen and beyond.

The challenges facing society are terrible and wonderful, depressing if we wish them to be, exciting if we will ourselves to see them that way. We need champions not purveyors of doom, optimists not nay-sayers, a little bit of joy to put up against the gloom.

Connected, need I say, to a hard pragmatism. There need be no end to democracy, any more than there as been (pace Fukuyama) or ever will be an ultimate triumph.

‘Yes we can,’ was only ten years ago.

The rise and rise of populism (2)

I referred in my last post to immediate actions which can be taken to combat the rise of populism. In this post I look at what I described as the deeper crisis.

I’m taking Yascha Mounk’s book ‘The People versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it’ as my starting-point and primary source. For Mounk the fundamental distinction is between what he describes as ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Looking first at illiberal democracy, Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey, and Poland and Brazil as might be, all come to mind. ‘While the form populism takes may initially be democratic, its long-term effect is to undermine not only liberalism but democracy as well … attacks by populists on independent institutions and the rule of law ultimately erode the conditions for free and fair elections …’ It is these independent institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a free press, which define liberal democracy. To this list I’d add representative multi-party government, based on regular elections and changes of administration and policy as the electorate dictates.

Illiberal democracy too readily turns into dictatorship.

But illiberal democracy, and the support it gathers to itself, doesn’t arise from nothing. It is popular dissatisfaction with existing systems and institutions, and a sense of exclusion, which have driven the rise of populism. Mounk and others have defined this as ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Much of this is inevitable and unavoidable. The technocratic challenges of our time require bureaucratic agencies, independent banks, and international treaties and organisations, all of which put distance between the ordinary man and woman and the elites which have taken charge of these institutions. Independent agencies in the USA include the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Trump has the EPA and the Federal Reserve firmly in his sights. But perhaps, in Mounk’s view, the most powerful ‘independent agency’ in the world is the European Commission. The European parliament has little power, so career bureaucrats call the tune.

Following on from the demise of the Breton Woods currency controls in the early 1970s, banks have become ‘key institutions deciding on whether to focus on minimising inflation or unemployment’. The European Central Bank followed the example of the  Bundesbank in terms of independence from government. Donald Trump rails against Jerome Powell when the Federal Reserve pushes up interest rates.

The extension of judicial oversight ‘is another way in which important issues have been taken out of democratic contestation’. The power of Supreme Court judges in the USA is more than ever evident. The Supreme Court in the UK plays a much less overt role in political affairs but sections of the press have attempted to paint it as a creature of the elite.  The European Court of Justice has also been attacked, much more vociferously.

The nature of political campaigning, American hyper-capitalism, and illicit funding (think Arron Banks) in other countries, have put further distance between legislatures and the popular will. Wealth and education, and personal and professional experience, put legislators in a class apart from their constituents.

‘At a minimum, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In many developed democracies these mechanisms have become significantly impaired over past decades …many supposed democracies resemble competitive oligarchies’.

The ‘popular views’ highlighted by Eatwell and Goodwin (see my previous post) are directly relevant here. (Social media should also be added to the mix.) ‘If these long-term drivers are not confronted in a concerted and intelligent manner the rise of populism is likely to continue.’

This would lend credence to the arguments of those who take a more root and branch approach – who see the very institutions of the modern state, and the captive professionals who work for them, as lying at the heart of the problem. For them ‘returning power to the people is both the obvious solution and a straightforward task’. Take on the independent banks, the bureaucratic and international agencies …

And yet, Mounk argues, they are fundamental to our continuing prosperity. (Though not money and its perversion of the electoral system).  Remember the origins of the European Union, rebuilding the continent after the Second World War. (The issue is not how to do away with the EU and the European Commission, but how to make them more accountable.)

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Likewise international treaties such as the Paris Accord are fundamental to our futures.

Constitutional courts in many countries have a proud record.

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In Mounk’s words, ‘undemocratic liberalism … is woefully under-theorised …a better understanding of its nature and its remedies [my italics] is of much more than academic interest’.

I’d argue this is a massive understatement. The rise of populism has brought issues which were systemic but held in the background to the fore, and we need to understand what is at stake – by ‘we’ I mean the wider public. Democracy is not enough of itself. It does not, as experience around the world have shown, have its own inbuilt survival mechanisms.

Liberal democracy provides that mechanism, ensures the balance of forces and the representation of all people and interests. Or so it should. Its failure to do so brings illiberal and ultimately undemocratic forces into play – to the detriment of all.

 

 

 

The rise and rise of populism (1)

Theresa May has today come back with a draft Brexit deal from Brussels. Will it get through her cabinet meeting later today – will it get through parliament in the coming weeks? The convolutions over recent months have been extraordinary, and occupied newspapers, TV, parliament and civil servants, and intruded overly into all our lives. Our time could have been better spent elsewhere.

I wrote when I set up this blog that ‘zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future’. We have done too much of the latter over the last two years. It is the reality of the moment we have to address.

In this blog and the following one I’m looking at the rise of populism and, with the help of an Economist article and a new book from the political theorist Yascha Mounk, attempting to put it in context.

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Bagehot (Economist 3rd November) is on the look-out for ‘intelligent explanations’ for Brexit and specifically the rise of populism that lies behind it, and he finds guidance in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s book ‘National Populism’.

The authors identify ‘four Ds’ that they believe explain populism:

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

distrust of established elites: 58% of Britons think that ‘politicians do not listen to me’;

deprivation: ‘a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation … tipped the balance for significant groups of voters,’ in Bagehot’s words;

de-alignment: it’s true that Labour and Tories together at the last election won 82% of the vote, but ‘Brexit cuts like a knife though both main parties’.

Bagehot argues that all this should warn ‘the political elite should not to take the decision to re-fight the 2016 referendum lightly if the opportunity presents itself’.  Those whose opinions were ignored ‘could be dangerously radicalised if the vote went in favour of Remain’.

This is a dangerous argument in itself. If Brexit is a pathway to disaster for the country, as Remainers believe it is, and as events are proving, then we who might be immune to ‘dangerous radicalisation’ should not back off because we fear it from the other side.

Bagehot’s other conclusion, that nationalist populism will be an important part of British politics for decades, is probably true – but not certainly so.

Disinformation and dishonesty and simple deviousness (Ds again) played a significant part in swinging the referendum vote. (Or as a local leaflet has it: ‘manipulation, mistruths and campaign violations.’) They will be harder to counter as long as the media play the polarising game: restricting UK media ownership to fully resident and full UK-taxpaying citizens would be an important step forward.

But we have the media we have – in the UK and the USA. Looking beyond, we have immediate actions we could take, if the will is there. But there is also a deeper crisis, which immediate actions can ameliorate but not resolve – a crisis for democracy and for liberal democracy, in the very institutions which have underpinned our democracies in the post-war years. I’ll return to this in the post following.

As for immediate actions …. I don’t believe answers lie in new democratic institutions, citizens’ forums and the like, but returning power to local authorities would be an important step. Likewise, nation-wide investment in infrastructure: starting in, not ending in, or not even reaching (I’m thinking of HS2), deprived areas.  And a curtailing of arrogance among the elite – de-eliting the elite. Many MPs have a close relationship with their constituencies (see Isabel Hardman’s new book, ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’): all need to do so, and the ‘club’ atmosphere of the Commons, and all signs of arrogance among MPs, need to be stamped down on hard. A surfeit of posh Tories and democratised Trotskyites hasn’t helped.

Fewer ‘free-traders’ would also help: arguments that there exist ‘free trade’ alternatives to the EU and the single market reassured many Leave voters that there was a real alternative to the EU. I grew tired of ‘free-traders’ referring to an economists’ ‘commissariat, as if there was a plot afoot among mendacious economists to fool the nation in the interests of … who? … global capitalism, I assume.

But immediate actions can’t level out the playing field between a rampant banking and global business sector, and the wider business sector, between a brutally acquisitive oligarchy for whom wealth brings power and influence, and the ordinary person, out of London, out west, or north, or east.

I’ll address this wider context in my next post.