BREXIT – WHAT’S DEMOCRATIC?

Jo Johnson, when resigning from the government last week, said it would be a democratic travesty to not have a second referendum. Was he right? Brexiteers claim that, since there has been a referendum, the matter is settled democratically. Are they right?

No, they are both wrong. “Democratic” does not solve the country’s and Parliament’s dilemma.

A policy is democratic if it has been decided by correct democratic procedure. Hence, the referendum was democratic and the follow-up on the referendum has been democratic. But also, whatever Parliament decides at the end of the process will be democratic.

Even if a policy has been decided democratically, that does not necessarily make it a good policy. Democracy gives the people power and makes it less likely than otherwise that their representatives will embark on policies that are not in the national interest. But people power is no guarantee that representatives will not make bad decisions. Democratic decisions often turn out to be unworkable.

The fact that a policy has been decided democratically is not a reason to stick with the policy if it turns out to be counterproductive. Parliament overturns or changes its own democratic decisions all the time.

Britain is set to leave the EU on 29 March next year. If that remains Parliament’s decision, it will be democratic. That may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.

If Parliament decides against Britain leaving the EU, that will be democratic. Again, it may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.

If Parliament decides on a second referendum, that will be democratic. Yet again, that may or may not be a good policy but it will be democratic.

Parliament is in a terrible predicament. MPs want to behave democratically but “democratic” does not let them off the hook. Asking what is democratic solves nothing. The question before MPs, which they cannot avoid, is what decision is right for the country. Democracy, obviously, does not stand in the way of a democratic Parliament doing what it thinks is right for country and citizens.

DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE?

“The quality of democracy in the OECD and EU has declined in recent years. At the same time, growing political polarization has made the day-to-day work of governance and thus member states’ capacity to reform more difficult. Related to this is the fact that many governments are less inclined to engage in the broad-based consultation of societal actors during the planning phase of reforms. Governments’ communication abilities and implementation efficiency are also on the decline.

The current issue of the Sustainable Governance Indicators shows some very worrying trends within OECD and EU countries which, given the major policy challenges ahead, may seriously burden them in the future.”

These are the headline conclusions of the 2018 report on “sustainable governance” of the German Bertelsmann Stiftung. This foundation has been running its sustainable governance project since 2011, producing annual measurements of democratic quality, governance and policy performance in 41 advanced democracies (OECD and EU countries). Data is compiled on about 70 indicators for each country, drawing on the best available international statistics and expert assessment. The research team consist of about 100 country and regional experts and six in-house analysts, under the oversight of an international Advisory Board. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the research team.)

Read the full report here.

DEMOCRACY – A GOOD WORD FOR THE GOOD OLD WAY

Amidst the scramble for new-fangled forms of democracy, spare a thought for the excellence of the good old way.

Citizens elect representatives to make laws and oversee governance on their behalf. The simple design of representation by election is in fact a very smart arrangement, much smarter than is often appreciated. Is solves three problems in one go: a problem of power, a problem of size and a problem of quality.

Power. Since representatives are elected by citizens and can be deselected by them at the next election, they govern under popular control. We have one of the requirements of democracy: safe government. The problem of power is solved. The people hold power over those who exercise power over them.

Size. When the American republic was created, a way needed to be found to govern a large territory with the consent of the people who lived dispersed over that territory. The previous republican experience was that of cities governing themselves, such as in the Italian city states of the Renaissance. The previous democratic experience was that of direct democracy. Some of this could be replicated in America on the local level (and there was experience of direct town democracy before the consolidation of the federation) but a new model was needed for national (and state) government. The Founding Fathers settled for localities sending representatives to the capital to manage public affairs in the place of citizens themselves. The method of representation by election is an invention of the American Constitution. Without this invention we could not have had national democracies.

Quality. Governance should be safe but also effective. The representative method puts decision-making in good hands, which the direct democracy does not, and delegates the responsibility of decision-making to an assembly, which the autocratic method does not. One purpose of elections is to give us the opportunity to appoint those among us who are the more qualified to do the job. The advantage of decision-making by assembly is that it enables the institutionalisation of rules and procedures of good decision-making and that it offers the chance for proper deliberation. In an assembly of representatives who are more numerous than a small committee of like-minded apparatchiks, who are from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds and who are elected on different political platforms, there is a good chance that decisions will be tested by robust debate.

Although we must make the qualification that democracies always work imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly, these are real benefits in the method of representation by election. That is a method we should not easily give up on, and one we should probably value more than we do.

DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?

THE DANGER OF LANGUAGE

The Windrush scandal in Britain is a story of how the members of a group of the population during the last few years found themselves demoted to a state in which they could not sleep at ease at night out of fear that someone would come and take them away. The Windrush generation are the migrants from the British West Indies who brought their labour force to Britain after the Second World War, on British encouragement, both adults and children with their parents. (The Empire Windrush was a transport ship that brought the first contingent of organised migrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands in 1948.) They settled here, made their lives here and became British.

Recently, members of this group came under intense scrutiny from immigration authorities and many found their right to live in Britain questioned. They were harassed for documentation to prove their right to reside. They found documentation such as employment and tax and social security records, even passports, disbelieved. They were forced into bureaucratic nightmares to procure additional documentation, often at substantial financial cost. They were denied standard services, such as health care, or were forced to pay for normally free services. Some were detained, some lost jobs, some were deported or threatened with deportation, some denied travel on the threat of not being readmitted, some refused re-entry from abroad.

The refugee children scandal in the United States is a story children of migrants on America’s borders, whose right of entry were in question, having been forcefully separated from their parents. They have sometimes been detained in concentration camp like facilities in border areas, sometimes sent away to other parts of the country.

In retrospect, authorities in both countries have acknowledged that what happened was wrong, but what should not have been done was still done. In both these civilised democratic countries practices came into operation which we otherwise associate with totalitarian dictatorships. How could that have happened?

It happened, of course, because officials on the ground obeyed orders from above. It has sometimes been seen as a mystery that totalitarian dictators have been able to get officials to implement brutish oppression, but there is no mystery. When officials are embedded in bureaucratic structures of command and obedience, those in command can get almost any order obeyed. Officials may not like what they have to do, but it gets done.

But in these two stories, there has been something more to it than obedience. Officials have executed perceived orders with extraordinary and brutal zeal, even in the face of horrendous and irrational consequences. Hardly anyone in position of authority in the respective services seems to have raised any question or objection, at least on principle.

That kind zeal comes from something else than just orders, it comes from the language in which the orders are couched. Language of caution can influence officials to implement orders with common sense and flexibility. Language of aggression can bend them to bureaucratic insensitivity.

In both these stories, public policy went seriously off the rails. The reason for that is ultimately that leaders were aggressive with the language they used to promote and justify their policies. In Britain, then Home Secretary Theresa May announced that immigration policy should be designed to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, and made a great show of that hostility. Immigration officials took to looking for illegal immigrants behind every bush and turned on a minority of mostly poor and black citizens with rigid demands of proof of their legality. In America, President Trump has whipped up anti-immigration sentiments by speaking of immigrants as criminals, rapists, and as vermin infesting the country, and asked for zero tolerance in the implementation of policy. Immigration officials dispensed retribution against children, even down to taking infants and disabled children away from their mothers.

Public policy depends on leadership for good or bad direction. Language is powerful. It is a responsibility of leadership to use language with prudence. Aggressive language from up high is dangerous – not just careless but dangerous. We see that in these two stories. We have had leadership of terrible language. We have had administrative practices that belong in totalitarian dictatorships.

 

REFORM – THE IMPERATIVE NOW

All democracies are imperfect. They need constantly to be improved. Continuous and never-ending reform is part and parcel of the democratic enterprise.  If leaders and citizens think that their democracy has made it and found the Holy Grail, it is doomed.

There are two reasons behind the imperative to reform:

  1. Democracy is a process of trial and error. We must be sensitive to failures and mistakes and seek better ways. Circumstances change, for example in domestic economies or world affairs, and democratic governance must adjust.
  2. For confidence in democracy, citizens need to see that leaders are attuned to shortcomings and willing and able to work for improvements. They need to see that leaders deal with problems. Otherwise they will, with justification, see democratic governance to be incapable and gridlocked.

Professor Robert A. Dahl, in On Democracy (1998), recommend that democratic countries engage, every twenty years or so, in a thorough process of constitutional reform.

Democracy is now under threat. That goes to both values and capabilities. This misfortune (hopefully temporary) has many causes. One cause is a tendency to sclerosis in reform. If we look to the United States, to Britain, to other European democracies, to the European Union, we see dysfunctions not being dealt with. It is not dysfunction itself that is the rot, but that problems are not confronted and taken on. It is time for us in America, Britain and the EU to follow Professor Dahl’s advice and look very seriously into the ways we do governance.

The standard model today is representative democracy: citizens elect representatives to make and implement policies on their behalf. Reform can follow two paths. We can seek to repair what is deficient in the representative system, such as the organization of elections, the procedures of parliamentary decision-making, the methods for the nomination of candidates for election, the financing of candidacy and campaigns and the like. Or we can seek more far-reaching innovations towards alternative forms of democracy: participatory democracy, referendum democracy, deliberative democracy and the like.

These are not strictly alternative strategies, but there is a complicated dialectic between them. There is no known alternative to the representative system, but that system as we now see it operating on the ground needs pretty serious repair to regain credibility. If we concentrate on alternative innovations, there is a danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The search for alternative models can even contribute to further undermining the credibility of the representative system without offering any practical alternative.

Representative democracy is a model that has very much going for it. That needs to be preserved and improved, not replaced.

There is a back-to-basics message here. It would seem, as things now stand, that the recommended strategy of reform would be, first and basically, to improve the representative system, and then, on that basis, to think of innovations as add-ons in support of the representative system.

WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?

In a recent debate (at this event in Berlin), I and others were challenged to explain, no less, the meaning of democracy. I suggested a partial answer along three lines:

  1. Democracy is A PACT between the state and citizens in which the state makes two commitments, it promises citizens order and it promises to protect their liberty. Autocratic systems, even benevolent autocracies, if there is such a thing, can at best promise order, but always on the condition that citizens surrender their liberty. The democratic idea is audacious, the autocratic idea petty.
  2. Democracy is A CULTURE. A well functioning democracy is made up of a constitutional order that sits on a democratic culture. Constitutional order is necessary but not sufficient. The purpose of democracy is safe and effective rule. No constitution can provide for that without being embedded in a democratic culture. A democratic culture is one in which citizens and leaders support democratic ideas, values and practices and where these beliefs are upheld and transmitted from one generation to the next.
  3. Democracy is a continuous CONVERSATION between citizens and between citizens and leaders, based on freedom of information and assembly (the constitutional provision) and an inclination in the population to engage (the cultural predisposition). The object of this conversation is a workable (if moving) consensus on the rights and duties of the state and of citizens respectively.

It then follows that democracy can be constituted and work in very different ways from one country to another in the service of these purposes, depending on historical circumstances.

Democracy is now challenged on all three lines. Autocratic systems, such as in China, that do not recognise liberty and hence reject the double pact, are confident enough to claim moral superiority. In America and Britain, the Trump election and Brexit are symptoms of fractured democratic cultures. A consequence of fractured culture is that the conversation disintegrates into a shouting match of polarisation.