In the American mid-terms, candidates who “should” have been rejected were elected and others who “should” have been elected were rejected. Incumbents cannot take voters for granted. That’s democracy: do the people’s work or get thrown out. In Brazil, Bolsonaro was thrown out.

Striking in the mid-terms was that extremist candidates were rejected. The voters corrected mistakes that had been made in the previous nominations. That makes sense. Voters turn out in large numbers to make up a broad cross-section of the population. Common sense prevails.

Not so in nominations. America relies mainly on primaries. Turn-out is typically low, whereby the decision is in the hands of relatively small numbers of self-selected voters. In such circumstances, fanatics are more likely than others to participate and hold the swing vote. That gives extremist candidates an advantage, and also forces other candidates to take extremist positions in order to secure nomination. A main reason, for example, that the National Rifle Association has disproportionate influence in American politics is that it can mobilize its militants to participate in primaries in sufficient numbers to get candidates to commit to pro-gun policies. That’s how it comes about that gun regulations are in demand in the population but do not get implemented in law. It is also in this way the Donald Trump has been able to exercise his malign influence in the Republican Party, a spell that broke in the these elections.

Also remarkable in the mid-terms was that the elections were carried out correctly and peacefully, and that outcomes have been respected. Elections have enormous authority because they are grounded in a rock-solid theory. We know what “free and fair” elections are and how they are conducted. It is therefore not possible in an established democracy to disrespect the outcome of correct elections. Donald Trump tried but failed. It was the robustness of the election system that saved America from his attempted coup d’état. Bolsonaro flirted with non-acceptance of an election loss but was unable to carry through.

We have no similar theory for nominations, no recipe for “free and fair nominations.” As a result, nomination processes are all over the place. It is for want of solid theory that we can make ourselves believe that nominations by primary elections, with their inevitable bias, are a “democratic” way of doing it. We are in need of guidance for how to do it better. The absence of such guidance from a theory of nominations is a big shortcoming in the political science of democracy.

Candidates who stand for election are tested. We have seen that on dramatic display in America. Candidates who seek nomination are not similarly tested. That also we have seen on dramatic display in America, where in many places it gave candidates an advantage at the stage of nomination to be truth deniers and conspiracy peddlers. 

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live


American elections. High drama. After Tuesday, America will move in one or other direction. Americans increasingly see themselves as belonging to tribes which are each others’ enemies. If that is their world, they better use their vote. The outcome will be decided by who does not vote.

Look elsewhere to see the importance of the mundane business of voting. Last week in Brazil, the sitting president was ousted by a vote of 50.9% for his opponent. It is not a cliché to say of that election that every vote counted. In Britain in 2016, by 52% of the vote in a referendum, it was decided to leave the European Union. Older voters voted to leave, younger ones to stay. But the young did not turn out in sufficient numbers to save the day. Had as many of the young as the old voted, Brexit would not have happened and young Britons would have held on to their future in an open Europe.

Voting is not in high regard. Many do not bother to participate. Young people in particular tell each other that it does not matter, it’s all the same. Political scientists recommend models of democracy in which voting is secondary, such as “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy.” Theorists of “rationality” rubbish the vote because it does not bring the voter any “utility.”

But voting is THE core instrument of democracy. It gives citizens not only voice but also power. It is by the vote that citizens can threaten their representatives to deselect them (as just happened in Brazil) and thereby hold their use of power under control.

In How Democracies Live, I issue a warning against the reinvention-of-democracy literature. “Since democracy as we know it has run into trouble, let’s just consign it to the scrap heap of history and start all over with something new and better.” That is to underestimate what we have achieved, such as in the forceful instrument of the vote, and also to “give succor to the autocrats in Beijing and Moscow who boast superiority for autocracy precisely because they are able to claim that western democracy has proved impotent.” My recommendation is that we resolve to salvage democracy, not to reinvent it.


Brazil may now be heading for a more or less orderly transition of power in Brasilia, but hardly a peaceful transition in the country. The defeated candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, has indicated collaboration in the handover but not acknowledged that he lost the vote. Having long undermined confidence in the election system, and with violent protests unfolding in parts of the country, he in his first post-election statement spoke of “injustice in the electoral process.”

Democracy rests on basic norms being adhered to, certainly by leaders. One such norm is “election results are respected.” After an election, leaders are expected to explicitly accept the outcome. Such rituals are part of the fortification of democracy itself. It they are ignored, it is shocking and destructive. Norms cannot be imposed, they are adhered to by convention. That is why it is so utterly disruptive if they are thrashed. We cannot legislate for the acceptance of norms. Democracy needs leaders who are attuned to upholding basic norms. Citizens, too, of course, but where leaders lead citizens follow.

Leaders who are ready to impose damage on democracy itself are not fit to hold high office. Bolsonaro has shown himself unfit. Another obvious case is Donal Trump, whose refusal to accept the election loss is tearing apart the fabric of American democracy. In Britain, Boris Johnson, a serial norm-breaker, proved himself so unfit for office that his own Members of Parliament finally forced him to resign.

Candidates for high office are tested in competitive elections. But that is not enough. Too often, unfit candidates are able to stand and it is then difficult for voters to spot who they are. My conclusion is that candidates should be more carefully tested earlier in the process, at the point of being nominated or of presenting themselves as candidates.

One way in which that could be done is by a simple fit-and-proper-person test. Such tests are commonly used in business and organisational life. Central banks vet candidates for directorships in financial services for fitness and propriety. No one can serve as a juror who is deemed unfit for jury service. Candidates for political office should be tested no less carefully. To ask of candidates that they have a minimal suitability to act as their fellows’ representatives is not to negate the principle of universal eligibility.

My recommendation is that candidates for local and national elected office should be obliged to file with the relevant electoral authority a self-declaration that he or she (1) does not have a history of (serious) criminal convictions, (2) does not have a history of (serious) insolvency or bankruptcy, (3) does not have a history of having withheld (serious) income or property from taxation, and (4) authorises the electoral authority to check the veracity of the self-declaration and commits to providing the authority with relevant documentation. If unwilling to file, they would be disqualified from standing. If it later emerges that they had filed falsely, they should be dismissed from office.

There would be multiple benefits:

  • Dodgy candidates would be discouraged from standing.
  • Unfit candidates would be identified early and prevented from standing.
  • Unfit candidates who make it through to office could be dismissed.
  • Citizens would be able to better trust their political leaders.

Under such a regime it is, for example, unlikely that Donald Trump could have become a presidential candidate and impossible for him to have refused insight into his tax records. America would have been saved much distress.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.