Monday, September 17, 2018

Does Democracy Only Work When It Gives Educated People The Results They Want?

"The reason I am beginning to question democracy is that it is producing results I profoundly dislike." Matthew Parris, Spectator, 12 November 2016

John Stuart Mill back in the 1800s argued the educated should have more power in political decision making as they had more knowledge, or at least what he considered the right form of knowledge. He was opposed to equal voting rights for fear the uneducated would outvote the educated. This debate continues today but takes the form that we may have too much democracy. That we need to find better ways to mediate and limit the impact of the uneducated on decision making.

I have trouble with using terms like the elites or the establishment but there is a view that democracy has gone too far in giving ordinary people influence over decisions. This has been reflected in many articles written since Trump and Brexit, for example:

The Case Against Democracy New Yorker
The problem with our government is democracy Washington Post
Democracies end when they are too democratic New York Magazine
The British election is a reminder of the perils of too much democracy LA Times
Two eminent political scientists: The problem with democracy is voters Vox
The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants New York Times

There has also been renewed academic interest in the future of democracy with books such as How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die and The People versus Democracy.

Too Much Democracy?

There is a view that democracy no longer works if you give people too much direct involvement and do not have sufficient moderation by educated people. In the US for example, there is a view that too much power has been given to ordinary citizens in choosing presidential candidates in Primary elections and that party leaders should vet candidates for competency and sanity before the people can vote (E Herch, New York Times). A similar argument has been made in both the UK Labour and Conservative Parties, namely that letting party members vote directly without moderation, such as restricting who they can vote for, results in unsuitable candidates such as Corbyn being elected.

There is also a view that too much direct democracy leads to populism and instability. This argument doesn't just apply to western democracy. A recent Washington Post article 'The Middle East doesn’t lack democracy. It has too much' argues "The main source of stability in the Middle East remains the dictatorships and the monarchies where the popular will has little impact on government."

One the key reasons for mitigating direct democracy goes back to Plato and his view that democracy is unacceptable as a form of a political system because it distributes power equally to those who are unequal in wisdom. Fast forward 2,000 years and education remains one of the big divides in politics. However, a study of voting in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (The Great Revolt) found that what mattered more than your personal level of education was the level of education of your community. Geography matters and the educated people that run areas of society, such as higher education or the legal system, tend to live and socialise in communities with other educated people.

Reactions to Trump and Brexit 

Trump and Brexit were so far from the expectations of educated communities that their initial reaction was denial. They assumed the Brexit and Trump votes only happened because people were lied to or misled, or were simply not bright enough to understand the consequences of their vote. Whereas they, the educated, could see through the lies. They believed that information and explanation would enable the uneducated to understand the implications, enabling them to make the rational decision to vote the right way.

When these arguments fell on deaf ears this denial quickly gave way to anger. The insulation of educated communities, where they may not know any Trump or Brexit voters, made it easier for them to assume that those who voted for Brexit or Trump were bigots or racists. Not necessarily the best stance to take if you want someone to change their minds.

Anger remains but has now been channeled into opposition and reversing the decisions that were made, either with or without a further election. Martin Kettle in The Guardian says "Brexit is stupid" and "When an electorate does something wrong, such as elect Berlusconi or make Donald Trump president, or vote for Brexit, it isn’t the end of the matter." My use of italics.

The anarchist Emma Goldman once said  'If voting changed anything they would make it illegal.'' Many of those that supported Brexit or Trump are also cynical and believe it they vote for something the educated elite disagree with, the latter group will simply subvert or change the decision. This may be a conspiracy theorist view of the world but it is given credibility by certain actions. For example, forcing the public to vote again in the case of EU referendums in Denmark and Ireland. Or the recent New York Times Op Ed, where a member of 'the resistance' states that unelected senior officials are actively trying to undermine the elected President's policy agenda. In the UK many Brexit supporters feel the active campaigning for a second referendum by the media, academics and institutions to stop Brexit reflects their power and ability to reverse a democratic decision which they don't agree with.

This feeling that the public are ignored is reinforced in a myriad of small ways. For example, when the UK  Natural Environment Research Council held a public poll to name a UK ship, the overwhelming winner was 'Boaty McBoatface'.  The NERC decided to ignore the vote and call the ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

My personal worry is that if Trump is removed through a legal process or Brexit doesn't happen, then trust and faith in democracy may be significantly undermined. When people no longer believe in democracy what happens? Will these people simply become less interested in politics or will they take every opportunity to disrupt things. In such an environment will populism flourish still further? Worse still, will people feel that democratic processes are no longer sufficient to achieve the changes they desire?

The Rise of Technocracy

One solution put forward to mitigate the impact of uneducated people in a democracy is more technocracy, broadly rule by experts. Already western democracies have taken take large areas of decision making out of the reach of democratic control and put it in the hands of experts. The best example is monetary policy which has been given over to central bankers.

The theory is that experts know best and many decisions should not be subject to political whim or influence by uneducated citizens, and that rational deliberation by those that understand the issues will produce better results. This begs the question of better results for who and how expert are the experts? The American elite experts presided over a significant increase in public debt, pursued a catastrophic war in the Middle East, and allowed financial markets to very nearly destroy the global economy. The experts then persuaded governments to pay out trillions of dollars to bail out the banks. In Europe the European Central Bank pursued policies that drove up youth unemployment to intolerable levels, with more than fifty percent of young people unemployed in southern European states.

Is The Future More Deliberative Democracy?

There has always been a debate about the nature of democracy and the use of representatives and institutions to mediate decisions. This goes back as far as Plato and Socrates. A recent Brookings Institute report More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it argues "the best way forward is to rebalance the reform agenda away from direct participation and toward intermediation and institutions." They argue "building more direct input from the public into the functions of government is likely to lead to more fragmentation, more stalemate, more flawed policies—and, paradoxically, less effective representation.”

Larry Bartels also argues "most people are not making rational decisions based on the real-world impact they will have on their life, in part because they just don’t know." Others argue people don't have time to pay attention to politics and some argue even when they do get engaged in politics they "make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not an honest examination of reality." (Sean Illing, June 2017)

One solution put forward to bridge these issues is deliberative democracy. The forms of deliberative democracy vary but in essence they are underpinned by authentic and rational deliberation which can include groups of lay people involved in the deliberation and the decision making. The focus is more on the quality of the process of reaching a decision than the outcome of the process. It does assume though that you can create a rational consensus.

Recent studies cast doubt on the integrative capacities of deliberative democracy, the ability to listen, accommodate and to overcome differences. For example, When We Stop Talking Politics:The Maintenance and Closing of Conversation in Contentious Times 2017. This study of a contentious period in Wisconsin politics found that "in periods of polarisation and fragmentation, political talk may break down, unable to tolerate differences that reveal deeper divides."

This study reinforces my own fear that the integrative capacity of deliberative democracy may be diminished in a world where views are increasingly polarised and there is less common ground. There is some evidence that citizens have become more ideological (Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008), that their attitudes toward ideological opponents are more extreme (Lyengar et al, 2012) and that they increasingly distrust ideological opponents in power (Hetherington & Rudolph, 2015).

Recent events have made explicit many of the concerns about democracy and its limits. Unfortunately a widespread view that democracy only works if educated people are able manage the process, to keep outcomes within what they deem to be a sensible range, will only increase rather than decrease polarisation.