The electoral results of both the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election have both been a shock (to say the least) to those of us on the left. It is very tempting to give up on the idea of democracy in light of such terrible decision-making on the part of voters. The will of the people has never seemed so wrong. The goal of democracy and its champions has always been to have governments that better represent the will and interests of the people they govern, and it is this search that has led us to the modern liberal democracies we see all across the world today; there isn’t an inhabited continent without at least one example of a (perhaps imperfect) liberal democracy. However these election results have highlighted something that political scientists and theorists have noticed for a while, that, to paraphrase Hamlet, there is something rotten in the state of our democracy. Our democracy is broken, and we must fix it.
What is Liberal Democracy?
Before we look at why our democracies are broken, we must first outline what we mean by democracy in this context.
Since the formation of the original democracies in Ancient Greece, the term democracy or demokratia, literally people’s rule or people power, has come to be interpreted in many different ways and has taken many forms. To the Ancient Greeks, none of the democracies of today would meet their criteria. Communist dictatorships, for example, that claim to be democracies like the former East Germany (officially the German Democratic Republic), are democratic by the standards of their own ideology. The idea of democracy that we know today did not come into being until the 19th century, largely through the formation of democratic regimes in Britain, the USA and later France.
What we typically mean when we refer to democracy today is liberal democracy. This means a democracy that conforms to the standards of classical liberalism in having free and fair elections between multiple competitive parties, a separation of powers between different government branches (legislative, executive, judicial), the honouring of the rule of law in everyday life, and the protection of equal rights and liberties to all peoples within the state. Naturally, few liberal democracies perfectly embody this ideal – but all at least attempt to meet these criteria. Due to the shifting in meaning of the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ since the 19th century, the use of the word ‘liberal’ in this context does not assume anything about the modern political allegiances of a liberal democracy.
Liberal democracies thus form the majority of democracies in the world today and indeed, thanks to the spread of democracy over the course of the 20th century, they are also the majority form of government in general (at least in theory).
Political Apathy and the Failure of Democracy
Political apathy and disengagement has long been the common disease of democracies the world over. Over the past half century, voter turnout in most of the world’s major democracies has declined. In the USA turnout for presidential elections, among those eligible to vote, voter turnout has been stuck hovering around the 50% mark for decades – giving it among the lowest voter turnouts in the developed world. In the UK, the turnout is usually higher. However since the millennium, the voter turnout across the UK has dropped as low as 59% in 2001 and just 66% at the last general election in 2015. This means a third of the UK electorate did not vote, that is almost 15 million people – which is more than sufficient to change the result of an election.
Political apathy and low voter turnout are the poison upon which our democracies are choking. The fewer people turnout the more the political debate in the country is warped and pushed towards the interests of those who do vote. The result of this being that it is easier for elite interests and ideologies to dominate policy. One reason the British government for the past six years has felt confident enough to push through damaging austerity policies has been that they disproportionately affect the poorer and more vulnerable sections of society – sections that are traditionally less likely to vote than the more affluent middle class. Equally, governments will happily cut funding to students and young people but would never dream of the same cuts to state pensions because young people often don’t vote whereas the elderly typically do.
The sad fact is that in part thanks to poor voter turnout and political apathy on the part of significant sections of society, our politicians and political parties do not represent the people at large but instead represent the interests of white middle and upper middle class ‘baby boomers’ (people born in the post-war baby boom 1946-1964). For this reason, I have long supported the idea of making voting a compulsory civic duty. Whilst those who have a genuine reason why they fail to vote obviously shouldn’t be persecuted, there is no real reason why people who are able and eligible shouldn’t vote. As I have argued, their decision not to vote affects us all and damages our democratic society. In countries where voting is compulsory, for example Australia, the turnout is never lower than 90% and the result can far more accurately claim to represent the will of the people and be a real democracy.
The reasons for this political apathy and disengagement are numerous and complex and a full accounting would be an essay in itself. A common reason given by voters for not voting is the belief that their vote does not matter or will have no effect. At least in democracies with a majoritarian electoral system like first-past-the-post (such as the UK and USA) this is actually quite true. In countries using FPTP, the vast majority of votes cast are utterly worthless in determining the outcome of the election due to the tendency of this system for creating so called ‘safe seats’. A ‘safe seat’ is one where due to the concentration of a particular party’s supporters in one area the seat always goes to a particular party – thus making any votes cast against that party’s candidate totally useless (as if they had never voted). For example, if you live in most rural areas in England, chances are you’re in a Conservative safe seat which means that unless you are a Conservative party voter, your vote may as well not count because the concentration of Conservative party voters is so high in your area that the Conservative Party always wins that seat.
It is through this system that governments can get a majority of seats in parliament without a majority of votes cast because our system grants preference to those parties whose voters are concentrated in particular areas with only a handful of swing seats making the difference. It is for this reason that smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats or the Greens cannot make much headway in parliament because their supporters are more spread out around the country. Personally, I do not think this is democratic, and while it may preserve the notion of ‘one person one vote’ it certainly does not preserve the core goal of democracy which is to represent the will of the people.
The US has similar problems with its electoral systems. Besides also using FPTP for most elections, the most undemocratic feature of the US system is the Electoral College which elects the president. Although the writers of the US constitution are often remembered as champions and pioneers of democracy, the truth is far more mixed. Several of the founding fathers, such as Alexander Hamilton, were sceptical of the idea of giving the common people the power to elect the president. They felt they were too easily manipulated and too politically illiterate to be trusted not to elect a demagogue or tyrant. To avoid this risk, they created the Electoral College, an assembly of some 538 individuals elected on a state-by-state basis who are pledged to vote for the candidate of particular party. Most states appoint electors on a winner-takes-all basis, with the party with the most votes getting all that state’s electors. As such, the people of the United States elect their president only indirectly and not by popular vote. This is why on two occasions this century alone a president has been elected who did not have the popular vote – George W. Bush in 2001 and Donald Trump this year. It is perhaps therefore understandable why so many Americans do not vote when their votes have such little weight behind them.
In countries with fairer electoral systems such as proportional representation they tend to have higher voter turnouts – not perfect, but certainly higher than the UK or USA. For example, in Germany the turnout for federal elections since the millennium has fluctuated between 79-70%, whereas UK voter turnout in the 21st century has at its height only been 66% (2010). You find similar results in other countries with proportional representation i.e. higher voter turnout. Admittedly, even countries with proportional representation there has been a decline in voter turnout but it hasn’t been as deep as in those countries with first-past-the-post.
Another reason for the growth of political disengagement is that people in general have lost faith in politicians and the political system. There are many reasons for this distrust. There is no doubt that there are many corrupt politicians and political corruption scandals (like the 2009 UK MPs expenses scandal) that have undermined public trust in politicians considerably. Furthermore, due to the way politics works, politicians often fail to deliver on their manifesto pledges or promises which can be disappointing and disillusioning for supporters. This failure doesn’t necessarily have to be the result of lies: Barack Obama disappointed many American voters by his failure to bring change to the country, however, this failure was in large part due to the hostility of congress to his reforms rather than him having lied about it.
Nevertheless, political corruption and manifesto failures alone do not necessarily provide the full picture of why politicians are often characterised as greedy, deceitful and untrustworthy in the public imagination.
The Toxic Media
A larger factor in the collapse of confidence in politicians is the influence of the modern media in shaping public opinion. The media have always been good at shaping public opinion even before the advent of mass electronic media in the 20th century. However, as new media types have developed and are able to reach more and more people the power of the media has grown. The advent of the 24-hour TV news services from the 1980s onwards has transformed the journalistic landscape into one of increasingly ferocious competition for audience shares and ratings, and many have argued this has led to a decline in journalistic standards. This has led to journalists making claims without validating the facts – largely due to a desire to get an opinion or news item out in the public domain as quickly as possible. This has increasingly allowed journalists to get away with greater and greater editorial bias and has allowed the news to be dominated not by fact but by unchallenged opinion.
Journalists have also, particularly in the UK and USA, cultivated an adversarial politics of personalities where one side is encouraged to tear down the other through character assassination rather than real debate on issues. This has long been symptomatic of American politics in which presidential candidates are often ranked based on their personal attributes rather than what they are saying. However, since the 1990s it seems to have also seeped into British politics, with opposition figures like Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn demonized or undermined because of perceived personality defects rather than actual discussions about what they think on key policies. Many are turned off by this kind of politics and it only serves to encourage political disengagement.
As journalists have long known, there is no news like bad news. People are more inclined to read an article, buy a paper or pay attention to the news if it the events it describes are negative or bad. This has led to disproportionate reporting of scandal and political failure which has created the impression that it is more common than it necessarily is. When politicians do make progress or do the right thing it is often under reported or not reported at all.
The arrival of the Internet – in particular, the development of social media like Facebook and Twitter – has had an enormous impact on journalism, so much so that today it is estimated that as much as 62% of Americans get their news from social media. This is likely to increase as time goes on. Unfortunately, social media has severe shortcomings as a news service. Owing to the fact that most of us prefer to fill our Facebook and Twitter accounts with people and pages whose views align with our own social media there has been significant echo chambers, which has seen our news feeds develop into a medium in which there is a merely a parroting back of those views we already hold rather than, say, being a medium in which we are exposed to new opinions or ideas. This can be dangerous because it means people, particularly the less well educated, come to live in a world where their opinions are never challenged. Instead, their opinions are reinforced constantly, and as such they never change or evolve. For progressives, this is problematic because it means that we can never reach those on the right. Furthermore, this is problematic for progressives because we can never change their minds. They are stuck in a world of misinformation that exists only to remind them that they are correct.
The echo chamber of social media took on even more sinister dimensions during the recent presidential campaign in the US with the emergence of ‘fake news’. This is the phenomenon where individuals or groups are paid to create fake news stories that appear to be from legitimate sources but are false and are used to spread misinformation and lies about a particular candidate. They take advantage of the fact that the majority of social media users will share things without fact checking or in some cases even reading what they are sharing. Most of the examples of this fake news are Pro-right wing, and during the US presidential campaign such fake news stories were mostly directed against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. For example, we had stories suggesting the Pope had supported Trump, and that Bill Clinton had raped a young girl – all of it false. Although it has been difficult to trace these fake news stories to their source, it is clear that Donald Trump has only encouraged this kind of misinformation. Through his Twitter account he has helped to fan the flames of many right wing conspiracies and made all kinds of claims totally unsupported by facts (for example, his recent baseless assertion that there was mass voter fraud at the election which was the reason why Hillary got more popular votes than him).
Naturally, there are calls on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to find a way to reign in this growing fake news industry for the good of our democracies. Exactly how this could be done is unclear, though there have been suggestions that social media users could be encouraged to report fake news to the website admins who could then delete them or block them. Another possibility might be the creation of algorithms to recognize fake news stories and automatically block them.
Overall, this is part of an alarming trend in politics towards a post-truth age wherein a politician’s words are judged not on their factual accuracy or truthfulness but on how appealing and loud they can make their lies. Look at the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK and we can see how the Leave campaign was able to spread lies and disinformation about the EU so effectively whilst the Remain campaign was ignored despite largely telling the truth. Again, this is partly the media’s fault, they gave the Leave Campaign and Donald Trump lots of publicity and coverage because what they said was more shocking and attention-seeking than their opponents (even though what they said was largely baseless).
Our democracy is sick and has been made so by archaic electoral systems, political disengagement and toxic trends in media reporting. No society can flourish with poor leadership. Yet, that is increasingly what our democracies are creating. However, democracy can be saved, creating pressure for constitutional and electoral reform is one way to do this. Furthermore, looking towards proper independent oversight of the media with real powers to punish journalists for lying or for other unacceptable journalistic practices would also be a step in the right direction. Something must be done or democracy will continue to decline making our world a more dangerous and more illiberal place.