Has 2016 shown that majoritarian democracy has failed?

Alex Oscroft questions the effectiveness of majoritarian democracy based on the events of 2016, whereas Toby Williams argues that the system has just been misused this year

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Photo: Gage Skidmore

YES: The lack of respect for knowledge, anger-driven voting, and a poisonous two-party system dooms democracy

Alex Oscroft

This isn’t an article I ever wanted to write. I’m an ardent supporter of democracy, a believer in the inherent goodness of our liberal society, and I have the utmost faith in the institutions of Western democracy to keep things ticking on as they should. For years, they worked entirely as they should, with the occasional hiccup here and there.

But the events of this year, including one particular election that has yet to come to its conclusion, has challenged all my preconceptions about how our democracy works and its ability to maintain the liberal government we take for granted. When democratic decisions are being made on the basis of anger and instinct rather than informed opinion, has the tyranny of the majority gone too far? Is there any way out of the downward spiral of anti-establishment anger, which seems to continue regardless of the successes of the current administrations? Has popular democracy lost its way?

Perhaps the most worrying trend of 2016 has been the astronomical rise of anti-intellectualism, where the opinions of those who have dedicated their lives to specific fields of research are brushed aside as “snobbery” or “pessimism”. Democracy depends on a choice being made by the voters between a number of candidates with different views, and that choice should be as informed as possible to make a vote worthwhile. Obviously there are big discrepancies in people’s backgrounds, but to completely discount expert opinion as a source of information, branding it ‘establishment propaganda’ only turns political debate into a shouting match.

From Michael Gove’s now infamous declaration that “Britain has had enough of experts” to the regular disregard of professional polling, the opinions of experts have become about as valuable as the pound is at the moment, which can only lead to a fundamental degradation of democracy’s value.

In the last year, the emergence of angry rhetoric as the motivating force for voting has been hugely unwelcome as well. Perhaps, locked in my metropolitan and liberal bubble, I’ve misunderstood the basic nature of humanity, but I fail to see how a world defined by structural racism and sexism is in any way desirable compared to the (allegedly) open and tolerant one we have today.

Arguments based on reason, evidence or even simple logic have been lost under mountains of vague but strong-sounding promises, which everyone knows are undeliverable but attract support anyway because they are so outlandish and people think they need something outlandish to make their lives better. The situation we are currently in, where Brexit negotiations are going ahead without any idea of what people want out of Brexit (hard? Soft? Squishy in the middle?), shows the rhetoric that won the campaign for Vote Leave is lacking in terms of factual basis and concrete evidence. The Leave campaign, as with all modern movements, was designed to be all things to all people, which works fantastically for winning votes, but for implementing a platform, it lacks the certainty and definition needed to make it successful.

The failure of majoritarian democracy on an institutional basis is the result of a polarised two-party system. The nature of political systems in the US and UK means they naturally polarise to form two large and vaguely-defined blobs sprawling across their respective wings’ political spectrums. Particularly in the United States and to a slightly lesser, though still very significant, extent in Britain, the fixation on only two major parties makes nuance a rare commodity. It’s clear this no longer serves its purpose of representing the views of the electorate. With steadily-shrinking turnout and increasingly issue-driven politics, the major conglomerate parties of the 20th century are becoming steadily less relevant to people’s individual views. But they still maintain their stranglehold on national politics purely because of an electoral system that always favours broad churches over narrow foci.

As Churchill – admittedly not a role model in many things, least of all race relations – said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Majoritarian democracy has failed to produce the stability and order it promises as an electoral system. Trying to find a simple, partisan answer to every question has devolved into a shouting match of emotion, barely covering the bigotry underneath (shared by both sides – I’m sure I’m displaying plenty of it in this article). I’m not going to pretend I’m in a position to offer a solution, and even if I were, I wouldn’t know where to start. When neither side of the same coin can bear to be next to each other anymore, there’s little hope for the cashier.

 

NO: If majoritarian democracy has delivered unpopular results that is only because it has been abused and misused, not because it is inherently flawed

Toby Williams

This year has certainly been a calamitous one for the status quo. Globalisation is cracking at the seams. Nationalism is on the rise and conflict seems more likely than ever. The blame can be laid at many feet, but not at that of majoritarian democracy.

Brexit was not the fault of democracy. Neither was it the fault of a majoritarian referendum. It was the fault of a political class whose agenda had become so distant from those they claim to represent that, when presented with an opportunity to reject it, the electorate jumped at the chance. I cannot deny that it may not have happened had the method been less majoritarian. A more consensual supermajority would probably have prevented Brexit. Yet to blame majoritarian democracy would be like blaming the car in a crash caused by a drunk driver. Yes, without the car, it probably wouldn’t have happened; that doesn’t really mean the car has failed

Democracy is the vehicle through which the will of the people, whatever that may be, is translated into political action. If the electorate behave like drunkards, then political actions will follow suit. Of course, Brexit is bad, but to impose the (good) European Union on people, against their wishes, is a far greater evil.

It seems as if there’s now a group which exists in many societies around the world—the internationalists without an identity, as Theresa May would say—who’ve decided what’s best and that everybody should follow their edicts regardless, and if majoritarian democracy doesn’t facilitate these policies, then it has failed.

But this is plainly wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. If majoritarian democracy permitted this ‘tyranny of the minority’, then it would, by definition, have failed. Pandering to the wishes of an elite few, even if their views did possess some objective superiority, would be a failure of democracy. In enabling the masses, the millions of ordinary people who make up the vast bulk of humanity, to reject the decrees of a small elite, democracy has succeeded.

Yet, surely, permitting an unelected government to rule over a divided Britain for another four years does nothing to elevate the will of people? It could likely do the opposite. Again, however, this is not the fault of majoritarian democracy but rather the quirks of Britain’s bizarre constitution. The very fact it does not require fresh elections after such a seismic shift in the political landscape is the source of the problem. It is not a failure of majoritarian democracy. It is a failure to implement it.

Such universal implementation, however, brings risks with it. You only need look to Colombia’s calamitous referendum result, rejecting a peace deal to end a 40-year civil war, to see these risks brought to bear. If there had been no referendum, then the peace deal could have been signed and the conflict could have been stopped. Contrary to popular belief, democracy seems to have perpetuated war.

But just for a moment, consider the alternative. If there had been no referendum, or if a rejection of peace required a supermajority, then the Colombian people may have been forced into a peace they did not consent to. You only need remember Versailles, and the 25 years that followed, to see the consequences of unpopular peace. Majoritarian democracy is not preventing peace—the Colombian people did that. It would only have failed had it not translated their rejection of peace into policy. It is only on these terms we can judge its success.

Despite this there may be one final factor which could drive the nail into the coffin of majoritarian democracy. It comes in the shape of the fourth horsemen of the democratic apolcaplyse himself: The Donald. We don’t yet know the outcome of the Presidential race, but if Trump wins, it will create a cacophony of discontent around democracy and many will say it has failed. To simply reply by claiming that democracy has no responsibility in governing the will of the people may seem insufficient for many.

But why so? Over the past few decades a perplexing attitude seems to have developed that ‘democracy’ will save us. That we need not fear the casual racism in the pub or the sexism at work because ‘democracy’ will stop it from getting out of hand. It’s as though we are addicted to bad things and democracy is some silver bullet which provides the cure. Yet it can’t. But just because it can’t does not mean it has failed.

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