Democracy under siege

Battle of Ideas festival 2018, Sunday 14 October, Barbican, London.


Over the past year, debates about democracy and its woes have been ubiquitous. Liberal democracy seems under strain from a wide variety of foes. There are worries that tech giants and algorithms are undermining elections and corrupting democratic discourse. Liberalism itself seems embroiled in a civil war over democratic principles, such as free speech and universalism. Populism is variously claimed to be a threat to democracy or its very embodiment. The Economist’s recent manifesto for liberalism concedes that ‘Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving… political philosophies cannot live by their past glories; they must also promise a better future. And here liberal democracy faces a looming challenge.’

Few are willing to come out in public and argue against democracy explicitly. We’re all democrats, it would seem, but there are very different ideas of how much involvement the general population should have in running the affairs of state. In the UK, both sides of the Brexit divide claim to be the true democrats. Those arguing for a ‘People’s Vote’ claim that those who instructed the government to negotiate Brexit must have the final say and suggest this is ‘a demand for continued democracy. Or, to borrow a phrase, for voters to “take control”.’ Leavers see such campaigns as yet more evidence of attempts at undermining the greatest democratic vote in British history and shows that many are unwilling to accept the result of a democratic vote.

Ironically, while many voted to leave the EU because they see it as an undemocratic barrier to popular sovereignty, the EU sees itself as policing the democratic values of its member states. In September, the European Parliament voted by 448 to 197 to initiate Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. The same procedure had already been commenced against Poland in January. The European Commission has accused the governments of both countries of being in breach of the EU’s ‘core values’. Meanwhile Barack Obama recently mounted an uncompromising attack on Donald Trump, saying his administration has ‘violated’ a host of ‘basic’ democratic principles of American democracy, including the rule of law and freedom of the press. Trump’s supporters in turn seem to view him as renewing democracy by ‘draining the swamp’ of undemocratic technocrats such as Hillary Clinton.

Arguably, the present populist surge is a rejection of a managerial style of rule, at odds with popular sovereignty. Removing government action from democratic influence has been a trend in liberal democracies, as more and more policy is outsourced to unelected quangos at arm’s length from our elected representatives. For example, very few countries allow politicians to set interest rates, a decision that is left to unelected central bankers. Given the complexity of political issues today, it is argued, perhaps there is a case for leaving more and more decisions to the experts. Surely we can’t trust the electorate to be informed enough to know what’s best for society in a globalised world?

Such is the suspicion of the demos, it has even become fashionable to admire the ability of autocratic and one-party regimes, from China to Singapore, to ‘get things done’ and to prefer manipulating big data sets to convincing people. Indeed, part of the outrage against both the Brexit and Trump votes seems to be a response to the rejection of ‘right thinking’ experts. For many critics, the views of better-educated people should carry more clout than the rest of the electorate. The idea of an educational test for voters has been floated, too. The economist Dambisa Moyo has asked if ‘migrants are required to pass government-sanctioned civic tests in order to gain citizenship… why not give all voters a test of their knowledge?’

All this begs the question, what is democracy and what threatens it today? Is it time to give more power to The People? Or is this just a populist ‘dog-whistle’? Can liberalism renew itself sufficiently to save democracy? Do we need a new philosophy to win the hearts and minds of new generations to the virtues of democracy?

Zanny Minton Beddoes
editor-in-chief, The Economist

Daniel Moylan
former deputy chairman, Transport for London; co-chairman, Urban Design London

Steve Richards
broadcaster; political commentator; presenter, BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster; author, The Rise of the Outsiders

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!