A (partial) defence of democracy

It would be an enormous mistake to lose faith in democracy, even when it can sometimes give rise to disastrous results.

Fergus Murray
2 September 2016

 Evan Vucci / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
Supporters at a Donald Trump rally. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Why democracy?

The UK’s recent referendum on membership of the European Union has brought out an anti-democracy sentiment amongst many people. The People were asked a direct question, and they  —  we  —  gave the ‘wrong’ answer. So much for democracy, eh?

Understandable as it is to dismiss democracy when it gives bad answers, it’s not like any other approach is known to give better answers in general. So it’s worth spending some time working out how we could do democracy better. First, we need to consider what democracy is for. Although it’s often taken for granted, it’s not obvious it’s a good thing in and of itself. I see two main reasons for democracy, and though they overlap, it is where they are in tension that most disagreements about democracy arise:

  1. To ensure people have a say in the decisions that most affect their lives.
  2. To ensure things are run well, by making those in power accountable, and encouraging them to take decisions for the greater good.

It’s worth breaking down Reason 1 a little further. The single biggest reason for it is wrapped up in the second point — to ensure good decision-making, the people who should be able to hold those in power to account are those affected by their decisions. They know more about the effects, and they have the most reason to care about them.

There is another reason for people to have a say in decisions that affect them, though: it gives people agency. It’s empowering, and that’s important both psychologically, and practically. People are happier, and more satisfied, the more control they feel they have over their own lives; and people who are empowered to get things done have the ability to improve things for themselves and for everyone else. 

On the other hand, the biggest argument against Reason 1 is also implied by Reason 2. People might feel better if they have a sense of control over their lives, but perhaps it’s not worth it if they make poor decisions that objectively make things worse. This is likely to happen a lot with complex decisions affecting the lives of millions, less so on smaller scales. People know their own lives, communities and workplaces, and while everyone makes bad decisions sometimes, for the most part people have pretty good ideas about how to make things around them better, and fix mistakes. 

Representative democracy

It is for the large-scale, complex decisions that we have representative democracy, as well as more technocratic institutions with little accountability, like central banks and treaty organisations. The idea is that there is no sense trusting the population at large with decisions they can’t understand, so it’s better for us to just periodically choose which members of the political elite we consent to be ruled by.

There is a case for this. The world is complicated, and nobody understands it all; the average citizen, with limited free time and unreliable information sources, cannot be expected to understand their own country enough to have sensible opinions on every question facing it. It is the job of our representatives to stay well-informed on the issues underlying the things they are asked to make decisions about, and to make those decisions in the interests of their constituents. Doing this full-time and with advisers and researchers gives them a huge advantage over the average citizen when it comes to making big decisions, and they are elected because people think they will be better at their jobs than the available alternatives. Among other things, that selects for people who come across as intelligent, educated, committed and persuasive, all useful qualities.

Unfortunately, a side effect of electing people seen to have those qualities is that they are often remote from the lives of most citizens, tending to come from highly privileged backgrounds — which helps to provide access to education, a knack for appearing confident, and the time, connections and money to get ahead. There is no guarantee such people will actually want to make decisions for their constituents’ benefit, or have good ideas how to.

Electoral systems provide the opportunity to elect some other member of the political elite every few years, but there is often little else we can do to hold them to account. Given how public trust in politicians has collapsed in recent years in the wake of corruption, scandals and the exclusion of many popular views from formal representation, that seems inadequate. Just one British person in five trusts politicians to tell the truth,politicians being trusted less than those in literally any other profession. Representative democracy as we know it is failing us badly, which helps explain the rise of ‘populist’ politicians positioning themselves as anti-establishment. The obvious place to go for a fix would be more democracy. The difficult thing is to work out how much more, where, and how.

Direct democracy

We have the technology now to allow everyone to participate in every decision of state: Total direct democracy. However, if most people lack the time and resources to give due consideration to every question, this could be counterproductive. Passionate feelings are not necessarily correlated with well-informed opinions, and can be manipulated by demagogues. 

When people have the time and resources to engage seriously with the questions at hand, direct democracy can work well. Some differences between two recent refenda in Britain are illustrative: the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and the European Union referendum of 2016. The date of the Scottish referendum was set a full 18 months before it took place. It was scheduled at a time remote from any major elections, and was the subject of intense and wide-ranging debate between people from all walks of life as well as politicians of all stripes, in public meetings, on the internet and in private, for many months before it occurred. Democratic engagement was widespread and lasted well beyond the referendum. 

The date of the EU referendum was announced only four months beforehand, with a round of major elections in between. The media framed the debate as mainly taking place between rival factions of the Conservative party, with some input from UKIP, and largely concerning migration. Stories about the economic dangers of Leave provided an inadequately explored backdrop. This referendum received neither the time nor the mass participation required for effective deliberation on a complex question. 

Arguably, both referenda set the bar too low for major constitutional change. Perhaps such changes should require a majority of the electorate, not just a majority of those who turn out; perhaps all the major constituencies affected should agree.

In a future utopia where we’re all sustained by a Universal Basic Income16 or 20-hour work weeks are the norm and we are blessed withindependent media not controlled by billionaires, it will be worth revisiting the idea of direct democracy across the board. Meanwhile there is a place for referenda, but the whole case for democracy is undermined when it’s conducted without due care.

More representative democracy

Having political parties democratically controlled by their members has some of the advantages of direct democracy — empowering citizens to engage with policy-making and ensuring the political elite don’t have a monopoly on which ideas get an airing. It also has some of its disadvantages, in being vulnerable to influence from ill-informed participants, especially those with the strongest opinions. Members of any political party tend to be more radical than their elected representatives, who are in turn — by some measures — more radical than the party’s average voters. 

However, this is by no means true across the full range of political issues. In cases where public opinion is strongly at odds with the opinions of nearly the entire political class, existing systems strongly privilege the elite’s views over the public’s. Elites have a way of entrenching themselves by keeping ideas that threaten them out of consideration. Undoing that is a complex problem, but it’s hard to see how it could possibly be solved without widespread democratic engagement.

In recent years insurgent movements across much of the world have been challenging the legitimacy of their rulers, and the assumptions existing power structures have helped to maintain. Perhaps a wider pool of people having meaningful input to political parties could help direct governments towards policies which work for more of us.

Deliberative democracy

Given the flaws of both direct and representative democracy — largely to do with people not having the time and resources to choose wisely — we might want to consider other alternatives. Another approach is deliberative democracy, where citizens’ juries or councils are selected (with random members of the public, often supplemented by experts, or representatives of interested parties) and given time and resources to talk and think through problems carefully. This has the power to sidestep partisan politics and prevent vested interests from dominating, and a random selection of citizens will be more representative of society than elected officials are ever likely to be. On the other hand, there is limited scope for wider society to hold such representatives to account, and random citizens tend to lack many of the skills we seek in elected representatives.

This is a radical departure from the way we are used to running things, and even though the idea is an ancient one and experiments so far have been very promising, perhaps the evidence is not yet there to say that we should be replacing elected governments wholesale with lottocracies. One interesting compromise would be Tom Shakespeare’s proposal to replace the UK House of Lords (a second chamber intended to overcome some of the limitations of representative democracy) with a chamber that is one third elected, one third fixed-term appointed experts, and one third chosen by lottery. Citizens’ juries can also be convened to consider specific questions, and disbanded after they reach their conclusions.

Economic democracy

It is not just governments that wield power. Power operates at many levels, and wherever it is exercised, people should be accountable. For most levels of human organisation, it makes sense for accountability to be democratic. Without democratic input in a workplace or a community, those in charge have have little cause to listen to those affected by their decisions. A wise and benevolent leader would try to make decisions for the benefit of others anyway — but of course, much of the time they are not even supposed to take decisions for the benefit of everyone. The idea that generally beneficial decisions emerge from the profit motive anyway has been convincingly debunked

So we live in a society where many of the most important institutions — private companies — are run with little regard for the well-being of their workers, customers or the world at large, and where most people have limited control over their working lives. That would be bad enough if this lack of input just resulted in poor decisions being made by those running companies, which it does: decisions are made for the benefit of a small subset of those affected, and anyway people often have good ideas about their own work. We should also consider the huge psychological boost people get when they feel in control of their own lives, and the economic and other benefits that follow from that. Satisfied workers tend to be more productive, and customers appreciate being served by genuinely happy people. 

There are many ways for people to gain more control over their working lives: to move into self-employment, to unionise, or to join some kind ofworkers’ self-directed enterprise, like a co-op, where workers make decisions collectively. Various measures in law can help democratise the workplace: mandatory representation for workers in the boardroom, for example, or incentives for co-ops.

It is probably not a coincidence that policies which would democratise the economy, helping it work to benefit of more people, are among those effectively excluded in representative democracies, especially in the English-speaking world, since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Dysfunctional electoral systems have played their part in this. So has the news media being owned and controlled by an ever-shrinking band of extremely wealthy people. 

Local and International Democracy

In a globalised world, what national governments people can do is constrained by international agreements, and bodies like the World Trade Organisation. While these must be signed up to by national governments, each theoretically accountable to its people, there has often been little democratic oversight of the treaties and their implications, and little ability for citizens of any country to influence their operation. While the European Union is often criticised for not being sufficiently democratic, it does have an elected parliament and strong, ongoing representation from national governments. That makes it far more accountable than most treaty organisations, and the democratic case for Britain to leave the EU was undermined by the fact we are likely to be signing up for trade agreements in the future with less the democratic oversight.

In an interconnected world, there will always be difficult decisions about the most appropriate level at which power should be exercised. There is no easy way to resolve the problem that larger bodies of people can always overwhelm smaller ones, or that decisions made locally always have effects elsewhere. Perhaps power should always be wielded at the most local level feasible, but we still need mechanisms for resolving international problems and disputes between neighbours. Localism has great democratic advantages, but can come at the price of increased inequality, exploitation and inefficiency. We have not resolved how to combine effective international cooperation with meaningful democratic oversight, which is holding up progress on many of the problems of our time. 


Representative democracy is failing badly, and only genuinely radical thinking stands a chance of saving it. The rise of Podemos, Occupy, Sanders and Corbyn shows there is a public appetite for the kinds of socialistic alternatives that Thatcher and her followers always denied existed. Meanwhile the rise of Trump, UKIP and fascist parties in much of Europe demonstrates an appetite for politicians willing to tell people that their problems are caused by some alien other — foreigners, scroungers, the ‘politically correct’. People disenfranchised by mainstream politics and politicians, disempowered by their economic situation and unsure who to blame are both vulnerable and dangerous. 

The network of problems we face goes much deeper than mere disillusionment with formal democratic processes. Existing power structures show no sign of tackling economic inequality, harmful to the majority of any population and poisonous for democracy. Worse, they appear to be totally incapable of taking the kind of action required to prevent catastrophic climate change. Pushing for greater democracy when we know that much of the population sometimes wants awful things is a risky strategy, but there is little hope that entrenched elites will lead us out of this quagmire without it.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData