In Venezuela, Nocolás Maduro is the democratically elected president. It then follows that he is the legitimate president and that it is undemocratic and wrong to seek his ouster (ahead of the next election). This argument was put on last night’s Channel 4 News here in Britain by Chris Williamson, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party who is opposed to the government joining other European governments in recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as legitimate acting president. Who is right, democratically speaking?

Let us assume that the two following statements are true:

  1. Maduro was elected democratically. (There are questions about the honesty of the election but let us assume it was democratically sound.)
  2. Under the governance of his regime, the country’s economy is falling apart, people’s living standards are in steep decline, social order is disintegrating, and liberty is eroded by police state tactics.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Maduro has the right to be president? That sounds absurd, and as so often when conclusions are absurd there is something wrong with the underlying logic.

In Britain, the Brexit referendum resulted in a majority for Britain exiting the European Union. It then follows that it is democratically necessary for the government and Parliament to implement the majority vote. Anything else would be undemocratic and democratically damaging. That is the consistent line of the Prime Minister and many others.

Let us again assume two statements to be true:

  1. The referendum was democratically correct.
  2. Leaving the European Union on available terms would be damaging to Britain’s economy and the people’s standard of living, would reduce Parliament to a rule-taker, would put the continuation of the United Kingdom at risk, would reduce Britain’s standing and influence in the world, and would impose damage on friends and allies in Europe.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Brexit must go ahead, come what may? It would seem again that there is something wrong with the logic.

What goes wrong in these cases is a misunderstanding about democracy. Democracy is a method. It is not its own purpose. The purpose of democracy is to provide for effective and safe rule. Rule is effective to the degree that it delivers order and safe to the degree that it so does without undermining the liberty of citizens. We subscribe to democracy because it is more likely than any other form of government to make for effective and safe rule.

But only more likely. Democracy is not infallible. Things may go wrong. If they do, they should be corrected, not persisted with because the mistake was made democratically. Parliaments correct and overturn democratically made decision all the time. The American constitution has provisions for the removal from office of an elected president who is unable to manage his duties.

In the Venezuelan case, if statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Maduro has forfeited the right to office. In the British case, if again statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Brexit should not be implemented.

That still leaves the question of how, practically speaking, to overturn the outcome of correct democratic process when it turns out to be perverse or counterproductive. As can be seen in both these cases, that can be extremely difficult. But the democratic argument, in the abstract, should not be difficult. It is not undemocratic to obey the facts and change one’s mind.


  1. Professor Ringen, I generally enjoy everything you write and look forward to each new post.

    However, when it comes to Brexit, you make assumptions that are nothing more than speculation versus the facts when it comes to Maduro’s rein. Venezuela is suffering, the UK might suffer.

    Your assumptions regarding Brexit can be challenged. Why can’t Brexit lead to an alliance with the Five Eyes? Also, doesn’t Germany effectively control the EU? Does London want to take orders from Berlin? Wasn’t there a war fought to prevent this? Germany has way too much control and influence in the EU. If I was British, I wouldn’t want to be subject to the whims of the Germans, secondarily to the French. The UK should strengthen its alliances with the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, turn Five Eyes into something more than intelligence sharing.

    Anyway, my point is that what has happened in Venezuela is fact; what MIGHT happen in the UK is nothing more than conjecture. I’ve read arguments in support of each of your assumptions, but the sources are marginally credible at best, including biased think tanks, i-banks, and so on. Even putting bias aside, have you checked how accurate you sources have been in the past? My guess: not very accurate at all. Most political forecasting is garbage; that’s the reality.

    Don’t confuse facts on the ground (Venezuela) with mere conjecture (the UK).


    1. Fair enough. But if my assumptions are right, what then follows democratically? I am very ready to discuss those assumptions at some time, but on this occasion I have wanted people to concentrate minds: Take it as a thought experiment that my assumptions are right – what then?


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