In this article Jeff McCracken-Hewson examines the growing disillusionment in western democratic countries with what he describes as ‘the myth of democracy’, through a critical examination of four recent books that look at democracy and its present challenges. Jeff is on the executive committee of the Victorian Fabians and has a longstanding connection with the Australian Labor movement. He is also a member of the UK Labour Party and currently divides his time between Australia and the UK.
Mounk, Yascha. The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Runciman, David. How Democracy Ends. Profile Books Ltd. 2018.
Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton University Press, 2017
Bell, Daniel A. The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2015
Only 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy is working today. That is down from 86% in 2007.
People no longer believe what I am calling “the myth of democracy”: that free and fair elections put the people in charge and ensure that we are governed for the good of all and that only democracies can be relied on to deliver that outcome.
Only 8.5% of Australians think the federal government is mostly or entirely run for the benefit of all. 53.6% think it is mostly or entirely run for a few big interests. The rest think it is half and half.
Trust in governments appears even lower among people in democracies than in states deemed to be undemocratic. “Right now the biggest risk for democracies is that the public no longer sees them as democratic,” says Dalia Research. When asked “do you feel that your government is acting in your interest?” 64 percent of respondents living in democracies said “rarely” or “never”. In non-democracies 41 percent said the same.
In response to this, people have elected strong men to stand up for the people against vested interests. In America Trump was elected and we have seen Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary and one might add Putin in Russia. All people with massive popular mandates who are hostile to many aspects of western democracy.
Many people feel this cure is worse than the disease. They fear these strong men will destroy the democratic freedoms of speech, assembly and so on, the rule of law, the checks and balances on the power of elected leaders and, in the process, they will destroy the protection of minorities and in effect democracy itself.
This is a conundrum. If democracy is supposed to guarantee popular sovereignty but it doesn’t and if unconstrained popular power is actually a threat to democracy itself, where do we go from here? What is democracy? If it was working as we always believed, we couldn’t have got into this situation.
This article examines the arguments of four recent books on democracy and its present challenges and uses them to look for a way out of this conundrum.
Yasha Mounk in The People versus Democracy and David Runciman in How Democracy Ends seem to me typical of a despairing liberal establishment which finds that people no longer trust them or listen to them but turn instead to “populists”, most notably Trump. They are also typical in having, I suggest, no credible response to this.
Moving on from pointless breast beating, Aachen and Bartels in Democracy for Realists assemble the empirical evidence on the role of elections and the realities of power in democracies. And Bell in The China Model shows that Chinese meritocracy can make as good a claim to offer government “for the people” as Western style democracies.
I conclude that democracies, like all regimes, are inevitably run by elites. In order to fix our democracy, we need to connect the elite more closely to the people and to redress the power balance between wealth and the rest of society. We would probably need massive support from a grass roots movement to carry that through. That would be democracy in the literal sense of the word: people power.
Yacha Mounk, lecturer on Government at Harvard University, sees the election of Donald Trump as a threat to liberal democracy whose significance is “difficult to overstate”.
Mounk subscribes to the myth of democracy: he sees it as “a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy". He feels that populists like Trump, Orban and Erdogan are “deeply democratic: much more fervently than traditional politicians.” But they “disdain basic constitutional norms … In Russia and Turkey, elected strongmen have succeeded in turning fledgling democracies into electoral dictatorships. In Poland and Hungary, populist leaders are using that same playbook to destroy the free media, to undermine independent institutions, and to muzzle the opposition.”
Mounk fears that Trump is starting to take America down that road. He looks back to the time when muzzling the opposition was safely in the hands of “governments and big media companies [who] until a few decades ago enjoyed an oligopoly over the means of mass communication … [and] would likely have refused to air [Trump’s] blatant lies.” But the internet has changed all that.
What, then, is Mounk’s solution? He feels that our current problems arise above all from the huge inequality that has arisen in America and other countries in recent decades. And he lays out a comprehensive programme to deal with this: taxation, the welfare state, universal health care, investment in infrastructure, research and education and so on.
All very fine, but if democracy has failed to give us that, how are we to make it happen? “Clinton” he says at one point “needed to convince voters that she was passionate about changing the status quo”. At another point he says: “Opposition parties desperately need the infusion of energy and enthusiasm that activists could give them.” So, is the solution a passionate political leader, pursuing a radical policy of equality, mobilising a grass roots movement? If so, why is the name of Bernie Sanders – maybe the one person who could have stopped Trump - not even mentioned in this book?
At one point Mounk concedes there is a converse danger: “rights without democracy” in which “the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats.” Isn’t that what he should be worrying about – not the other way around? Isn’t that what is happening today? Isn’t that why we have Trump?
Professor David Runciman, Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, believes that the election of Donald Trump signals the inevitable end, sooner or later, of democracy.
In his inauguration speech “Trump lambasted professional politicians for having betrayed the American people and forfeited their trust … He insisted that his election marked the moment when power passed …. from Washington, DC back to the people.” Runciman is appalled. “Who would be able to stop him? When he had finished speaking, he was greeted in our lecture hall back in Cambridge by a stunned silence.”
Runciman does not entertain the idea that maybe Washington really is the problem and Trump is the symptom. He shrugs off the “common complaint against twenty-first century democracy … that it has lost control of corporate power.” He asks: “Why shouldn’t [American democracy] take on Google and Facebook? .... it is not impossible. It takes political will.” But why has this will been absent and where is it to come from? This is the key question and Runciman, like Mounk, is quite uninterested in it.
He then rambles through a rag bag of ideas.
Why not “turn the democratic state into a vast corporation (‘govcorp’), with its own unelected CEO [where] Citizens become nothing more than customers.” Or maybe since “computers are becoming more intelligent every year … Eventually it is going to be wiser to let them take the decisions and govern us." Didn’t someone have the idea of “developing an AI named Nigel, whose job was to help voters know how they should vote in an election, based on what it already knew of their personal preferences.”
Or would it be better if “the right to participate in political decision-making depends on whether you know what you are doing.” What about “an actual exam, to screen out citizens who are badly misinformed or ignorant about the election”.
Then again, what about “Epistocracy … rule by the people who know best [or] Technocracy … rule by mechanics and engineers.”
And on and on.
“What is my solution?” asks Runciman. “I do not have any”. But he does have a word: “solutionism”. “If solutionism is part of the problem, simply proposing solutions is not going to be the way to fix it.”
Can anyone wonder that people turn to a brute like Trump, who will at least do something?
Achen and Bartels are compelled, by a mass of empirical evidence, to reject the myth of democracy. Their belief that “democracy makes the people the rulers and legitimacy derives from their consent”, that “ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do [and] what the majority wants becomes government policy … turned out to be false.”
Christopher Achen is a professor in the Politics Department at Princeton University. Professor Larry Bartels is the Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.
They find that people vote according to long established loyalties. They often have little knowledge of political issues and do not know, or even necessarily agree with, the policies of the parties they vote for.
Many citizens “do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time”. Where people do have “specific policy views” one study showed that they were not “strongly correlated with party preferences (averaging just .07).” People are more likely to take their opinions from the leaders they support than to choose representatives based on opinions they have formed themselves.
In reality, “the great majority of citizens pay little attention to politics … voters … make choices not on the basis of policy … but of … their social identities. …. . Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events …. determined by powerful forces, but … not the ones that current theories of democracy believe.”
In short: “for thinking about democracy, rational choice liberalism is a scientific error”.
How then do parties win and lose control of government? There is a small percentage of people who switch loyalties from one election to the next. A party typically starts to lose some support from the moment it takes office. This is amplified if things go badly, whether it was their fault or not. Achen and Bartels call this “blind retrospection”.
For example, “incumbent parties … were punished at the polls for declines in their national economies in the wake of the Great Recession, regardless of how they fared relative to other OECD economies.” Parties have lost office if they presided over natural disasters like bad weather and shark attacks. Predominantly, though, it is the economic experience of voters in the six months leading up to the election that is the strongest factor.
Taking all this together, Achen and Bartels find that “it is possible to account for recent presidential election outcomes with a fair degree of precision solely on the basis of how long the incumbent party had been in power and how much real income growth voters experienced in the six months leading up to Election Day.”
They caution against the view that that “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” They find that "the adoption of initiative and referendum processes in many states has mostly empowered 'millionaires and interest groups that use their wealth to achieve their own policy goals’". Or they have led to short-termist cake-and-eat-it decisions that seem patently illogical or unwise.
How then is policy made in liberal democracies? “In every society, policy-making is a job for specialists [for] political elites of one kind or another, including elected officials, government bureaucrats, interest groups, and judges …. Some … are powerful; others are not … The resulting differences between them in getting their way are enormous. Sheer group size helps, but wealth, social prestige, and access to media of communication and persuasion often bring greater power.”
Their conclusion: “In our view, the ideal of popular sovereignty plays much the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era…. The fiction of popular sovereignty is … useful to … powerful interests who profit from its fallacies”.
Daniel A. Bell, Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University, asks his Western readers to suspend their conviction that “liberal democracy is the only defensible form of government …[that] one person, one vote is the only morally legitimate way of selecting political rulers” and to consider the case that we might have something to learn from China.
The Chinese describe their political model as “vertical democratic meritocracy … electoral democracy at lower levels … policy experimentation at intermediate levels … political meritocracy at the top.”
At the bottom, local village and township leaders are elected. But there seem to be many caveats. “At the local level … politics is easily captured by small groups—party branches …, clans, capitalists, religious organizations, and criminal gangs.” So it is perhaps not surprising that “One study showed that the majority of farmers who participate in village elections do not support direct elections even at the township level.”
In the middle, policies are typically tried out in individual provinces and regions and those that succeed are promoted nationally. Sensible, but no real challenge to Western ideas.
At the top, though, it is very different.
Leaders are not chosen through one person/one vote multi-party elections. They are appointed through competitive examinations and through an assessment of their personal qualities and of their performance at lower levels. They come up through the ranks. And there is no real distinction between government, officialdom and the Communist Party. It is a meritocracy.
One Chinese minister described “the criteria used to judge ability and virtue during the process of recruiting and promoting government officials“ as follows. “At lower levels, close connection with the people is particularly important. At the higher levels, more emphasis is placed on rationality … Cadres are also expected to set a model of corruption-free rule". Great efforts are made to ensure the openness, transparency and fairness of the process.
“The training process [for cadres] includes programs for public administration at various levels of government, consulting experts, learning from best practices abroad, rotational career postings through different sectors, as well as the cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged by means such as limited periods of work in poor rural areas.”
Bell takes a slightly more cautious view: “the system is still in its early stages and plagued by imperfections: officials are selected and promoted not just on the basis of ability and morality, but also (if not more so) on the basis of political loyalty, social connections, and family. The political system is notoriously corrupt”. But he concludes that “few, if any, officials get anywhere near the top without a comparatively good economic record .. most of the top leaders in China have an unusually high level of economic understanding and competence (compared to leaders in electoral democracies…”
For all its imperfections, the system seems to work remarkably well. Its record in propelling China to international leadership is spectacular. “Not only has [China] eradicated famine, it also has a much better record on malnutrition than, say, democratic India. And China’s last full-scale war was with Vietnam in 1979.”
It is not surprising then that “Survey after survey shows that the regime enjoys substantial popular support … Chinese citizens trust their political institutions more than in any of the eight societies included in a recent Asian Barometer Survey, including democratic societies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan.”
Have they not just been brainwashed? Bell reports that “millions of Chinese study and travel abroad and return to China without changed political beliefs … they are no more “brainwashed” than American academics, and probably less so than “average” Americans exposed to (manipulated by?) mainstream media in the United States.”
Many in the West will find this inexplicable. If the elite in China does not have an electoral process to keep it honest, what does that job?
We might ask Mounk and Runciman the same question. What makes members of their democratic political establishment reliable guardians of the public good, qualified to exercise checks and balances over elected leaders? No doubt they would answer that it was the principles they are committed to, their professional ethics, their moral framework, their experience, their expertise and the process by which they reached their positions. The Chinese might with great justification answer in a similar way.
An important criterion for promotion through the ranks in China is your record of delivering economic growth and harmony in the positions you have held. This aligns the interests of cadres with those of the people they govern. The state elite in China is also driven very explicitly by a set of values based on an evolving mixture of Marxism and Confucianism. Whereas in the West public integrity has been corroded by the neo liberal creed of "greed is good".
Western readers will also ask: is not China in reality characterised by massive inequality, massive corruption and is it not in reality money and connections which buy high office? All these charges have validity, as they do in the West. But Bell asks whether China is not in fact dealing with all these issues quite effectively and he lists a wide range of initiatives that are being taken. Xi Jinping has launched a massive anti-corruption initiative. How else can corruption be tackled? That is how we do it also. Many commentators in the West will say it is just a cynical way of dealing with opponents, so he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. But many informed observers believe this is genuine.
Bell notes that “According to Transparency International, democratic countries such as Indonesia and India are perceived as more corrupt than China; in … Indonesia, corruption seems to have worsened since … democratization”. In democratic India “162 out of 543 members of the lower house have criminal records”
Finally, Western readers may feel that China will have to become an electoral democracy in time. But there are strong reasons against. “The worry remains among many Chinese, and not just those in positions of power, that fully democratic elections could bring China back to its chaotic days of civil war and weakness vis-à-vis outside powers … Chinese leaders can take a long-term view in policy making ... If China were to become an electoral democracy … any demagogue without political experience could become leader: a Communist Donald Trump”
So, everything seems to come back to Trump.
“Democracies”, then, like all political regimes, are run by elites. A tiny percentage takes the complex decisions which are needed minute by minute. It has to be that way. “The people” cannot actually govern any more than “wealth” actually governs: any more than wealthy investors actually run the companies, the political institutions, the lobbying groups and so on that operate in their interests.
People in elites are driven by many forces: their social origins and identities, their principles, their beliefs, how they see the public good, where they see their own advantage and so on. Just like everyone else.
How then can we get an elite that acts “for the people”? The claim of Western democracy is that elections every few years – along with all the democratic freedoms, checks and balances and so on – give us that. But they don’t. One could perfectly well argue that the Chinese system of meritocratic rule has a better claim to do that and is actually more truly democratic than ours.
One of the biggest obstacles to clear thinking about democracy is a simplistic view of people. We imagine, to paraphrase Achen and Bartels, a “rational choice” individual. But this individual does not exist. It is as much a myth, it is as much a “scientific error”, to borrow their words again, as the rational economic individual of classical economics.
Both are fictions which limit our ability to question the existing order. We need instead to see people as they really are: emotional, moral, social, tribal, generous, greedy, illogical and so on. And we need a view of political economy as it really is and of democracy as it really could be, in a real world with real people.
But for now the direction of travel seems clear.
We have just lived through a long period in which one interest, private capital, has been freed from all constraint: free markets, free trade, freedom from taxation, small government, a neutered trade union movement. Public assets have been flogged off to it and globalisation has largely freed it from the influence of national governments. “Greed is good” has been held up as an ideal.
During that same period membership and activism in trade unions and political parties fell dramatically. It has been estimated that in 2005 the ALP had only 7500 active members nationwide. MPs came to be predominantly middle-class professionals and staffers. Politics lost all connection with the mass of the people.
At the end of that period we have seen the destruction of equality and with that the destruction of any real popular influence over government, any real democracy.
We need to restore the balance of power between big money and the rest of society. The electoral system does not of itself do that. If anything, it favours the power of wealth. To challenge wealth, we need a currency that is stronger than the dollar. I suggest that currency could be people power, democracy in the literal sense of the word. In America, with Sanders, and in Britain with Corbyn we are seeing mass popular movements emerging. On 23rd October in Melbourne, 170,000 people, mainly trade unionists, took to the streets to demand a change in the rules. There were demonstrations all around Australia.
It is possible that a party with mass grass roots support could restructure the ruling elite. There is much to do. We need to take back into public ownership the essential services that were flogged off to be run for profit. The private sector needs to be taxed and regulated so that it operates for the public good. We need to break the stranglehold of wealth over the media of mass communication, though the internet has already done that to an extent.
We may then get closer to good government of the people for the people. And government by the people in the sense that its power depends on grass roots mobilisation. We should of course make our electoral system as fair as possible through regulation of political donations and so on. But the electoral system of itself cannot deliver democracy in any real sense.
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