THE BRITISH ELECTION: DEMOCRACY WORKS!

Britain is in existential crisis. The union is in danger of breaking up. The country is exiting the European project of partnership. The duty of the government of the day in difficult times is to guide nation and people through. This government has instead tried to manipulate the crisis for party political gain and in defiance of its own population. That population has struck back to deny the government its reckless “mandate.” Democracy is a brutal affair. Governments that do not do the people’s work are supposed to be punished. It is democracy at work when they are.

It’s all about Brexit. The referendum settled the question of membership or not: Britain has decided to leave the European Union. But it settled nothing else, nothing about the terms of exit. All matters about Britain’s future relations to the EU are for Parliament to decide (as far as Britain is concerned).

The government, however, created a narrative according to which the referendum had also settled the terms of exit, a hard Brexit narrative. That narrative has no basis in the population which is divided down the middle on hard vs. soft Brexit. It then triggered an election in a scheme to get a majority in Parliament to allow itself to pursue its own Brexit without scrutiny. That was an attempted elective coup – and the electorate has rightly struck it down.

Before the snap election, the government had a majority in Parliament but not so much of a majority that it would not have to accommodate a range of opinions on how to take Brexit forward. That was a good political constellation for the nation in the circumstances. It was conducive to a compromise line on Brexit, corresponding to and respecting the deep divisions in the population on the matter, and to a cautious process under Parliamentary oversight. It was a godsend for a leader of stature to take the population as much as possible along in a difficult transition.

But that was not enough for this government. It turned on the people, lecturing them that it had the right to do Brexit on its own terms and that they had a duty to give it the “mandate” it demanded. Opposing views on the terms of Brexit were to be disqualified from influence.

It is a good day for democracy when the people punish a government that tries to subjugate them.

Of course, there are reasons why there is an existential crisis to manage in the first place, and those reasons are political. Britain was plunged into crisis by the unnecessary decision of then Prime Minister David Cameron to trigger the Brexit referendum (and before that the Scottish referendum). This was a gamble in which there was everything to lose and nothing to win, and a gigantic moral and political mistake. In triggering the snap election – another unnecessary election which I at the time described as “abusive” – Prime Minister Theresa May exasperated the crisis with another moral and political mistake.

Of course also, there are reasons why such grave mistakes could be made. Both the referendum and the snap election had to be ratified by Parliament. In both cases, the House of Commons did that in rapid knee-jerk fashion without putting any work into the decisions before it and their consequences, without giving itself any time for reflection and without anything like proper deliberation and debate.

So what we have here is a story of leadership failure under two prime ministers and of decision-making failure under a House of Commons that does not do its job. But also a story of the glory of democracy. When there are free and fair elections, in the end the people decide and cannot be taken for granted.

PARTICIPATION III: AN IDEA FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY

The classical theory of representative democracy is that citizens elect representatives who then do the governing until it is time for the citizens again in the next election. That puts power in the hands of the people but gives them no other role in governance than to vote.

This theory has much to it, but has been overtaken by history. The age of deference has passed. There is now an expectation that democracy will be participatory.

But what does that mean? While the classical theory of representative democracy is clean and straight, we have no theory of similar clarity for participatory democracy. Enthusiasts sometimes speak of it as the more participation, or activism, in whatever form, the better and the more democratic. But that is superficial. We have some serious thinking to do about participatory democracy in practice.

In representative democracy, the executive listens to divergent opinions in the legislature and shapes public policy accordingly. In a participatory democracy, one might think, the public is brought into the process directly and continuously. Policy then results not only from the exchange between executive and legislature, but between executive, legislature and the public.

That’s well and good but does not take us very far towards a different kind of democracy. First, representative democracy has never functioned the way the classical model has it: the public is already involved. Second, it does not give the public any other role than to exercise pressure on those who make decisions, which is not much by way of participation. Third, it leaves aside a big problem of unfairness, the interests of those who do not engage, who do not march, who do not demonstrate, who do not write newspaper opinions, who do not have think-tanks working for them. And fourth, there is a cost to incessant participation in decision-making in the form less efficient governance.

A different line might be to think of participation not only in exercising pressure on decision-making, but also in public management. The classical model here is again one that gives the public only limited roles. The government taxes the people to fund public services that are delivered back to the people. The role of the public is to pay taxes and consume services, all managed by the government.

I suggest we think of participatory democracy as involvement by citizens not only around the making of decisions but also in their implementation into practical management.

Here is one way that could be done: Services, broadly understood, are brought to recipients by agencies of various kinds. These may be public or semi-public agencies, say, thinking of Britain, the National Trust, the Environment Agency, the universities. Or they may be private, such as charities of various kind. Such agencies are engaged in works to improve social quality.

Participation in the works of such agencies could come about by government encouragement. Citizens could be encouraged to invest in causes in which they have an interest. The government could do that by pledging to match the investment of citizens. If you give £10 to a charity of your interest, the government contributes £10. If you put in five hours of voluntary work, the government matches that with five hours pay. You are given the power to decide where investments go, and the value of your own investment is doubled in the bargain (and, as a bonus, at a very low real cost to the government). You are a participant with say both in decision-making and implementation, and also, importantly, in a participation which involves both power and responsibility.

That, in a sketch, is the idea. I will elaborate in a future post.

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 2

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to assure that neither executive nor Congress is able to rule without the consent of the other. In Mr. Trump’s presidency, this balance of power is challenged.

However, checks and balances is not the Constitution’s only job. The country needs to be governed and the Constitution should provide for good governance. The duty of government, said George Washington, the first president, in his first inaugural address, is “the discernment and pursuit of the public good.”

It has become standard among observers of American politics that Washington is “dysfunctional.” The Constitution, then, is challenged not only in its ability to check power but also to provide governance.

The Constitution may well stand the test of Mr. Trump’s attempted power grab. That is not assured but is at least possible.

Whether it can be rebooted to do the job of providing good governance is more doubtful. The Washington system has been grinding into gridlock for a long time, and this problem is made more severe by the new chaotic presidency.

There is no single cause of Washington’s dysfunction. But one strong factor is the escalating power of money in political processes. The transgression of private money into democratic politics causes elected representatives to become beholden to the givers of money. American politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political tool. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors. Sponsors are increasingly organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise. In this structure of sponsorship sits the power to decide who will be elected – those the money is willing to sponsor – and what policies they can promote and support when elected – those that are acceptable to the money. The result is Congressional gridlock. President Obama explained the problem with clarity in his final State of the Union Address: elected representatives are “trapped” by “black money” and not free to make policies for the public good.

The two main criteria of good governance are effectiveness and fairness. In a democracy in which money trumps votes, governance suffers on both criteria. There will not be necessary governance if it collides with organised monied interests. Such governance as there is, will be biased in favour of organised monied interests. You could not have a better description of Washington’s dysfunction.

While Congress is the institution to look to for the checking of presidential usurpation of power, the Supreme Court is the institution that needs shaking up to control the power of money. The Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such limitations on the political use of private money as have existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is, by convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion.

How could the Supreme Court be checked? None other than Congress could do it. Is a dysfunctional and demoralised Congress, “trapped” by the workings of “black money,” going to take on the Supreme Court? Not likely.

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 1

The Trump presidency is testing the American Constitution. Mr. Trump is going about the business of being president in bizarre and troubling ways. He started by showing an intention to govern by presidential decree and issuing presidential orders right and left. That did not go well. Many of his orders were ill prepared, many have been of little consequence, some have been slapped down by the courts.

It should, however, have gone worse. He set out to govern without Congress as an equitable partner. Congress did react, for example by turning down his initial health care “reform.” But Congress as such has not stood up to a president who has tried to side-line and diminish it as an institution.

Then followed a parade of executive incompetence and irregularity – in appointments, in a failure to make appointments and fill essential posts, in stimulating internal demoralising and chaos in the White House and the broader executive branch, in the spreading of misleading and untruthful “information,” in the boastful leaking by the president himself of sensitive security information to a foreign adversary, in an attempt to make the FBI an instrument of the president personally, in the firing of the FBI director who refused to comply, in various presidential actions to interfere with and pervert the course of justice.

The constitutional system has not failed to react. Congressional committees are investigating possible wrongdoings by the president and his team. The Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the same wrongdoings within a framework of criminal justice.

There should, however, have been more reaction. There is a power struggle going on. That struggle is for an imperial (if incompetent) presidency and against Congress. It is a messy and ugly power struggle, but unless the president’s usurpation of power is resisted, facts will be established on the ground and Congress will be further diminished. Congress has for years allowed itself to slip towards irrelevance. It is now as if a president with lust for power is exploiting Congress’s confusion about itself to govern unconstitutionally.

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to check the president so that he/she cannot attain despotic power. The framers assumed that presidents may incline to despotism and that such risks need to be controlled. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the Constitution will stand this test up against the kind of president the framers feared. But it is not assured. Mr. Trump has already lashed out against the Constitution itself as “archaic” and “a bad thing for the country,” and blamed it for the chaotic state of this presidency. A possible scenario is that Congress asserts itself to check the president, that the president takes this as an attack on himself and his mandate and fights back, and that the country is plunged into deeper constitutional crisis.

It is the responsibility of Congress to check the president. Congress may still do that. But so far, Congress has not risen above party politics to assert itself as an institution. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are still allowing the president to hold the initiative and mainly responding strategically by what is expedient for their own standing and electoral prospects. That’s what members of Congress must do, but it is not all they should do.

When a president persists in ruling against rather than with Congress, a time comes when Congress must stand up and act as an institution with independent judgement that goes beyond political expediency. Whether Congress would so do, is for now an open question. It is today a weakened institution which may not be able to harness the necessary collective will. An unpalatable president may win the power struggle and prevail over a further diminished Congress.

OUR UNPROTECTED DEMOCRACIES

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in the French presidential election suffered a massive hacking intrusion days before the final vote, probably of Russian inspiration. It turned out to be of no consequence but nevertheless goes to show that democratic procedures are vulnerable to manipulation from outside. In the American presidential election, the Democratic campaign suffered similar intrusions, which there may have had some influence on the outcome.

A democratic polity is like a market economy: it only works if certain conditions are satisfied. A market economy only works, for example to generate fair prices, if there is effective competition. If one or a few dominant actors are in a position to rig prices, consumers end up paying more than they should and monopolies earning more than they deserve.

As a market economy depends on effective competition, a democratic polity depends on effective elections. Only if elections are free and fair will they generate outcomes that are representative of the balance of opinions in the population. If one or a few dominant actors have decisively more influence than other citizens or groups, the will be like market monopolists. They may rig election outcomes in the way market monopolists rig prices.

Since Adam Smith, economic theory has recognised the distorting influence of monopolies. It is therefore standard economic doctrine that markets need regulatory protection against monopolistic influence. It is also standard economic policy in most countries to exercise such regulatory protection (more or less efficiently, no doubt).

But political theory is less clear about the vulnerability of democratic procedures and their need for regulatory protection. Rather, in most democracies, the polity is wide open to being manipulated.

Hacking, such as that of Russian inspiration, is a primitive form of interference, and probably does not represent much of a danger, at least now that we are aware of the menace.

Another form of primitive interference is in outright cheating, such as to rig the count of votes or to destroy unwanted ballots. This happens, but is now not the rule in at least reasonably mature democracies.

The more sophisticated, and democratically dangerous, rigging is that which occurs during the process up to and before election day. Elections are free if no one interferes with the casting and counting of votes and fair if the process up to election day has been unrigged. It is here, in the process, that democracies are particularly in risk of monopolistic distortions.

Such distortions occur when information or nominations are manipulated. If one side is able to dominate the information that flows through the campaign, that side may secure itself an advantage over others come election day. If organised interests are able to more or less control nominations, they may win the election before anyone even casts a vote.

The one resource above others that may enable self-selected groups to attain monopolistic political influence, is money. There are other influences that come to bear but the infusion of private money into democratic procedures is the main culprit.

It is money that may enable determined organised interests to manipulate the flow of political information. With modern IT tools – big data analysis, orchestrated use of social media – the scope is enormous for systematic information manipulation, provided enough money is available to put in efforts on a serious scale.

It is money that may enable organised interests to manipulate nominations in their favour, again provided serious money is available. Here, the American case is the horror show. In a system of mega-expensive politics and non-stop campaigning, candidates for elected office are dependent on raising private money, whereby the givers of money have won control over nominations. If there is no hope of winning without private money, candidates whom the givers of money will not invest in need not try.

We know that democratic procedures need some regulatory protection. Well functioning democracies invest enormously in protecting the integrity of the vote. But we do not in a similar way protect the integrity of pre-voting procedures. We allow private money to transgress pretty freely into the domain of politics. (“Transgression” is the term coined by the economist Arthur Okun for money flowing from markets, where it has a job to do, to politics, where it is an alien influence.) That money WILL distort information and nominations because that is the purpose of the investment.

It is urgent to give democracies regulatory protection against the monopolistic influence of dark money. In his final State of the Union Address, then President Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” That’s strong language from a president, but he was right (and it was he who coined the term “dark money”). With the overpowering influence of money, as now in the American system, Obama explained, representatives are “trapped” and not free to make policies for the public good. And further: “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections … and democracy brakes down.”

America is an extreme case but it would be a mistake to think that other democracies are clean. British democracy, for example, is shot through with the corrupting influence of private money. The need for regulatory protection is universal in the democratic world.

That the need for such protection of democratic procedures is poorly understood is in evidence in the American Supreme Court. This Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such regulatory protections as existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is instead, by entirely convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion. It is also giving ideological coverage for practices of transgression elsewhere.

So there is a theoretical battle here, which should be waged primarily against the American Supreme Court, and there is a practical battle of regulatory policies, which should be waged everywhere.

WHO CALLED BRITAIN’S SNAP ELECTION?

There will be Parliamentary elections on the 8th of June. Parliament was scheduled to sit until the next ordinary election in 2020 but the Prime Minister, Theresa May, decided to call a snap election while reflecting on the matter during some days of walking in the Welsh hills with her husband.

Only it was not the Prime Minister’s decision, but Parliament’s. Technically, the Prime Minister recommended to Parliament to call an election and Parliament so did, the House of Commons the very next day.

This provision came in with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which removed the power to call snap elections from the Prime Minister. The intention of this Act is that Parliaments will sit five years, that everyone will know when the next election will be, and that Prime Ministers should not have the unfair advantage of being able to call an election whenever it suits his or her side. However, the Act also empowered Parliament to trigger an election before the end of the five years term, if there are exceptional circumstances and by a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons.

But although the snap election was technically called by Parliament, in reality it was the Prime Minister’s decision. It turned out that the Act had not practically moved that power to Parliament.

The 2017 election is unnecessary and has been triggered for obvious party-political and tactical reasons. It is exactly the kind of surprise election the 2011 Act was supposed to prevent. Why did Parliament go along with it? Even the opposition on its own had enough votes to deny the Prime Minister.

One answer is that the opposition caved in because it would otherwise look cowardly. That may be so but is not a sufficient explanation. The 2011 Act puts a duty on Parliament to consider if there are extraordinary circumstances to warrant an early election. The House of Commons, rubber-stamping the Prime Minister’s decision without delay, can hardly be said to have examined the circumstances carefully. It was simply ambushed. Remember that the House is not in control of its own agenda. It was for the government to decide that the House would deal with the issue the next day.

This is what should have happened: The Prime Minister recommends to Parliament that it triggers an early election. The House of Commons puts the matter to its relevant select committee for deliberation. That would, firstly, give the House a bit of time to collect itself and would enable debate on the matter in the press and in the country, at least a few days of time. Then, secondly, the committee would prepare a report on the proposal, putting it into its constitutional context and going over arguments for and against. The committee might make a recommendation to the House, or possibly majority and minority recommendations. Only then, and with the aid of careful deliberation in committee, would the House deal with the matter in plenum. The House would have escaped the ambush and it would be legitimate to turn the Prime Minister down if the deliberation had not turned up persuasive arguments for an extraordinary election. It might even be that the Prime Minister would not have called the snap election out of fear of being thwarted by Parliament.

Parliament might still have decided to grant the Prime Minister her wish, but it would not have been a foregone conclusion. And it is certain that without an institutionalised procedure of deliberation, Parliament could not have decided otherwise than it did.

Some general themes:

  1. It is not enough to technically empower Parliament in a certain matter. Parliament must follow up by instituting proper procedures to exercise its power with effect. Such procedures must be binding on Parliament itself so that they cannot be manipulated. The House of Commons should take control of its own agenda.
  2. The House of Commons does excellent work when given proper work to do. But in decision-making, it does not have adequate procedures and does not do the work it should.
  3. As things stand, Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.

THE POLITICS OF ANGER – WITH A FRENCH TWIST

In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?

There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.

The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.

For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.

To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.

Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.

The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.

Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.

An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.