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.

THE ENGLISH ILLUSION

British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.

 

WHY DEMOCRACY V: EQUALITY

At the ballot box, every citizen is equal: rich and poor, capitalist and worker, man and woman. Each has a vote, and no more influence than sits in the vote, and all votes count the same. Then and there, for a moment, power is equalised.

The logic of equality is commanding. It is when citizens are equal politically that a system can be democratic. To the degree that there is political equality, the political agenda reflects the balance of opinion and of interests in citizenry. To the degree there is political inequality, special interests will distort the agenda.

Political equality coexists with economic and other forms of inequality. Away from the ballot box, the rich and the poor are all but equal, nor are the capitalist and worker or men and women. The professor who has a reputation to lean on, the ability to write persuasively and access to space in high-minded newspapers or websites, has more influence than the immigrant who is just passably literate in his adopted language. Once you step out of the voting station, you step back into a land of unequal power.

But the fact of manifold inequalities, even rampant inequalities, does not mean that there is no political equality. In free and fair elections, there is equality of opportunity and impact. Under a democratic constitution, people have equal rights (if not necessarily equal ability to make use of rights). Under the rule of law, people are equal before the law (if not necessarily equal in their ability to work the law to their advantage).

The situation of the humble citizen is vastly different in any democratic system from any autocratic system.

The coexistence of political equality and other inequalities is unavoidably uneasy. Near to a century ago, Justice Louis Brandies of the United States Supreme Court warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That was at a time of economic crisis combined with extremes of inequality in wealth. But he was wrong. Democracy in America survived, possibly because of political responses in the policies of the New Deal to excesses of economic inequality. Economic inequality is a strong force in society, but so is political equality.

Could economic inequality reduce political equality to irrelevance? It would seem that the answer in the first instance is, no. Where democracy is established and has taken root, the fact of economic inequality does not in itself turn political equality into an empty shell of formality. However, it would also seem that a high level of economic inequality combined with other conditions could make political equality redundant.

In an elegant book on economics and politics titled Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, published in 1975, the economist Arthur Okun gave the relevant conditions the name of “transgression.” Economic inequality is not a threat to political equality by its mere existence but becomes a threat if economic power is allowed to transgress from markets, where it has a role, to politics, where it by democratic principles should have no part.

The crude mechanism of transgression is corruption. If money is allowed to buy public policy, political equality is reduced to a pretence. A contributing cause to democracy not taking hold in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union is entrenched corruption.

The sophisticated mechanism of transgression is to use economic power to usurp political power in ways that may not be technically corrupt or illegal but which nevertheless destroy the impact of political equality. The increasing sway of private money in American politics in recent years is of this kind. Politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political resource. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors and have thereby become more beholden to the givers of money. Sponsors are now organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise and are increasingly able 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. Furthermore, monied interests have added organisational power to their already formidable economic power and have become able to more decisively dominate language, agendas and discourse.

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union Address in January 2016 to warn against “democracy grinding to a halt.” In Washington, he explained, elected representatives are “trapped” by the “imperative” of raising money, which pulls everyone into the “rancor” of having to outshout each other. “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

FRENCH AND BRITISH ELECTIONS – THE LESSON FROM DIFFERENT OUTCOMES

Europe is in the grip of a rumbling political earthquake (as is the US). But two recent elections turned out very differently. Why?

In France, the challenger, Emmanuel Macron and his new party, La République en march, won decisively, first the presidency and then a strong majority in the National Assembly. In Britain, the challenger, Jeremey Corbyn and the Labour Party, did surprisingly well but still lost the election, taking 55 fewer seats in Parliament than the governing Conservative Party.

National circumstances matter, of course, but there is more to it. These were entirely different battles.

In France, Macron represents no established political camp and has stormed the political citadel with a brand new party of his own making. His movement does not define itself on the traditional left-right divide but responds to the new politics of open society internationalism vs. populist nationalism. It is radical and progressive not in the old meaning but in respect to a new political landscape.

In Britain, the battle was between the traditional foes from within the political establishment and was fought on traditional left-right issues, as if nothing had happened to the political landscape since the 1950s. The Labour Party brought to the election a challenge to some of the government’s policies, but no challenge on the big issues of the day or to the way politics is made. As with so much in Britain’s current political culture, Labour’s campaign was entirely backwards looking.

In France, the election has brought hope that a regime is in the making to undertake much needed reforms and shake French society out of its paralysis of sclerosis and despondency. That hope may be frustrated, but for now there is something new and relevant in the air.

In Britain, now that the dust has settled, it would seem that the challenger did not bring enough of a challenge to the established order to win. Any promise of something new and relevant in the air was missing.

The new political landscape in Britain is defined, most urgently, by Brexit. On this issue, Corbyn’s Labour kept strategically silent, not challenging the government’s hard Brexit stand out of fear of alienating hard Brexit voters. You could not have a clearer manifestation of old politics. In France, Macron took the dark forces of populist nationalism head on and saw them off.

Beyond Brexit, the big issues of the day are environmental sustainability and social justice in the context of global capitalism. On none of these issues did Corbyn’s Labour rise to the challenge. On environmental sustainability, the campaign had nothing to say. On social justice, there was, in the old politics way, promises to various constituencies – students and welfare recipients – and to tax the rich. All worthy, but there was no analysis of the logic of global, information based capitalism and the meaning of social justice in that context.

Specifically for Britain, there are also burning issues of constitutional reform. The Labour campaign, again, as if being designed for a bygone age, had nothing to contribute.

The lesson from these two election is that the meaning of what is “radical” is changing. Political movements that define themselves as progressive and want force should take note. Old politics radicalism now has no traction.

 

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.

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.