Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Can we stop the 'Democracy is beautiful' platitudes? This vote was a travesty

In the West we are brainwashed to always view more democracy as better. But the Brexit fiasco shows how inappropriate referenda are.

Being a Swiss person in England on Saturday, British journalists were keen to get tennis star Roger Federer's take on the Brexit chaos taking place around him. He gave a politician's answer. "It’s nice to have democracy here, that you have an opportunity to vote. It’s a beautiful thing."

Really Roger? You think what we've seen over the past days is "a beautiful thing?"

David Cameron expressed similar sentiments in his resignation speech after losing the vote. "The country has just taken part in a giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history," he said. "We should be proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions."

I'm not sure how many people in the UK are feeling proud right now. Certainly nobody I know. They are not proud of the pound's calamitous fall. They are not proud of the xenopohobic and racist attacks taking place across the country. They are not proud of the reports of 'bremourse' by leave voters who didn't understand the implications of their vote. They are not proud that "what is the EU?" was the second-most googled question in the UK the day after the vote. And they are certainly not proud of the self-interested decision of Cameron to call the referendum, and the self-interested decision of Boris Johnson to urge for leave.

After 20 years of lies about the EU by the British political and media elite, this was an impossible referendum to win. How do you undo 20 years of public manipulation in two months?

Knowing what I know about the deep lack of knowledge amongst the British public about what the EU is, I always expected this referendum to vote leave from the moment it was announced (and there's my blog entry to prove it).

"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely," said Franklin D Roosevelt. "The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." Considering that British people receive no education, from their schools or their media, about what the EU is, there was never any hope of this being a successful democratic exercise.

Referenda are wrong

"The referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues," declared UK prime minister Clement Attlee in 1949. Margaret Thatcher said she agreed with Attlee after she took over the Conservative Party in 1975. 

I've long argued that referenda are dangerous for people, especially minorities, as evidenced by the raft of anti-gay referenda in the United States the 2000s. They frequently yield racist, xenophobic results, as in referendum-obsessed Switzerland. And they are usually decided based on issues that have nothing to do with the question being posed, as in Ireland's first rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. The looming threats of referenda across Europe have paralysed Brussels in trying to act to solve the euro crisis over the past six years.

As The Independent wrote yesterday, "Some things are too important to be decided by the people". I would adjust that to say 'some things are too complex to be decided by the people'. We live in representative democracies for a reason. We elect people who have the time and intellect to grapple with the big decisions and make tough choices on our behalf. More than two-thirds of the British Parliament are against Brexit. Yet they have been bypassed by this populist coup. 

That may be "more democracy", but is it more "democratic"?Why are we brainwashed into thinking that more democracy is always better?

If you need to do it, do it right

Even if you believe that referenda are sometimes necessary on big societal issues, there is a way that they are typically conducted in Western Democracies and Cameron didn't follow this model at all. The UK is very inexperienced with referenda, having conducted only two over the past 60 years (the first EU referendum in the 70s and the alternative vote referendum a few years ago).

In a column entitled 'Britain's Democratic Failure', Kenneth Rogoff outlines just how non-traditional this referendum was:
"The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences."
"Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not."
"Most countries require a “supermajority” for nation-defining decisions, not a mere 51%. There is no universal figure like 60%, but the general principle is that, at a bare minimum, the majority ought to be demonstrably stable. A country should not be making fundamental, irreversible changes based on a razor-thin minority that might prevail only during a brief window of emotion."
Trump parallels

I know that the Brexit-Trump parallels I keep drawing in this blog must be getting tiresome. But bear with my for one more. 

I've watched the US primary elections unfold this year with dismay. It seems insane to me that we've ended up in a situation where the entirety of the Republican party leadership loathes Donald Trump and yet he is going to be the nominee. There are obvious parallels to what's going on right now in the UK's Labour Party.

It's especially insane to me because the entire practice goes so fundamentally against what the founding fathers intended for American democracy. The two American political parties only started holding public votes to choose their presidential nominees 30 years ago. Before that the nominees were actually chosen at the party conventions by party members, as they are in almost all other democratic systems in the world (including in the UK).

Even when these public primaries were set up, the Republicans and Democrats inserted a system of checks and balances by mimicking the electoral system through which the president is elected. The nominee would still be chosen by the party member delegates at the convention, but the delegates would pledge to honor the outcome of the public primary vote in their state.

Of course, there is nothing legally binding them to honor that vote. There is nothing 'legal' about the whole enterprise, these primary elections are not even real elections. They're an exercise run by the two political parties.

Yet, we've created an impression among the American public that these are actual elections, so much so that people would be outraged if delegates made the (completely logical) choice to ignore the suggestion of the public vote and vote at the convention with their heart.

The founding fathers didn't even trust the people to elect the president at all. There is no national election in the United States. Even the presidential election is conducted at the state level. Each state has 'electors' who have pledged themselves to a particular candidate. 

When you vote for cadidate A in state X, you are actually voting for the elector of state X who has pledged themselves to candidate A. But there is nothing legally compelling that elector to honor their pledge. That's why, in 2000, all eyes were on the electors to see if any of them would decide to betray their pledge. None did.

All of this is to say that we have drifted far from the intentions of the founding fathers in our Western democracies. We have laboured under an impression that more democracy equals better democracy. In the process, we've ended up with democracy run amuck.

Who can honestly say this is working? This obsession with direct democracy has brought us Trump and Brexit. What will it bring us next? We need to start thinking about different ways of making our big societal decisions.

1 comment:

Hugh Barton-Smith said...

As a fully paid up diehard fan of traditional representative democracy, I really want to agree. Yes, the "obsession with direct democracy" has ushered in the Age of Stupid: witness the "mandate" for Chavez cheerleader Corbyn or the pressure to reject glyphosate in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence (notably Germany and France pleaded with EC to find a way to avoid it that didn't involve them taking on their ignorant protestors).
But the demand for this referendum, just like that for the first Scottish referendum became irresistible. No doubt a similar level of demand will arise for a second Scottish referendum in a relatively near future. Those demands come associated with a judgment on what is fair and Britain does not have a constitution that sets a higher percentage threshold.
Fundamentally a government's legitimacy is not a legal matter, but a question of whether a population accepts its governance. And as its impossible to shove the genie of direct democracy back in its bottle by force, we have to wait until people are again willing to be sufficiently deferential towards those better equipped to make decisions and accept that more democracy means less. Perhaps the mood in the UK now is such that a referendum on never having referendums or setting the bar higher could be won. But I doubt it.
I remember challenging EP social media guru Stephen Clarke years ago about his enthusiasm for social media politicking, which even then I equated with mob rule. Didn't go down well. And for the moment this is what people seem to want for the foreseeable future.
Tempting as it is to consider smarter algorithms to help them decide "sensibly", this would be the modern version of a religious inculcation or fascist coercion. And would end even less well. Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride...