Is Democracy Broken?

If my side won a contentious political fight I would no doubt call it a victory for democracy. If I felt passionately about the issue, I imagine I would hardly even care about the immediate negative ramifications. A lot of things are hard, transitions especially, but that doesn’t intrinsically mean they are not worth doing.

I start with this reflection because I do try to be aware of my own political biases – that whether or not I happen to agree with an outcome can have a significant impact on my interpretation of the process and result.

The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union came as I participated in an annual conference on the Frontiers of Democracy. On Thursday night I watched with shock – though, I suppose, not entirely with surprise – as the results came in. And while I grappled to accept that a Leave vote had actually happened, I found myself thinking – isn’t this exactly what we are fighting for?

The people had spoken.

In announcing his resignation the next morning Prime Minister David Cameron, who fought hard for Remain, praised the vote as a noble exercise of the democratic process:

…the country has just taken part in a giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history. Over 33 million people from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar have all had their say. We should be proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions. We not only have a parliamentary democracy, but on questions about the arrangements for how we’ve governed there are times when it is right to ask the people themselves and that is what we have done. 

Perhaps this is the sort of hollow and passive aggressive praise you might expect from a seasoned politician, but the fact remains: this is what democracy looks like.

Arguably, anyone dedicated to the ideals of democracy – particularly those of us who are neither UK nor EU citizens – ought to respect the outcome of vote. With an impressive 72% turnout, it seems fair to say: the people have spoken.

It is reasonable to argue, though, that the question should never have been put to a popular vote in the first place. Cameron – perhaps foolishly – promised the referendum in 2013 as a way to keep his coalition together. If he hadn’t had been so politically short-sighted and naïve, the vote would never have happened.

Importantly, one need not distain democracy in order to disfavor putting such big, important issues to popular vote. Democracy is about far more than voting. Democratic engagement means working with people to solve collective challenges in an ongoing and multifaceted way. Votes and polls may be useful tools of democracy, but real democratic work must take place every day in our schools, workplaces, and communities.

This provides a meaningful path for side-stepping the issue; remaining a champion of democracy while decrying the outcome of a given referendum. Without the deep infrastructure required for real democracy, without opportunities for people to civilly discuss the issue with those who disagree with them; without unfettered access to accurate, unbiased information, without providing the tools necessary for making a good decision, it is foolish to ask the people to decide.

After the referendum, UKIP leader Nigel Farage quickly retracted his pledge to redirect £350 million from the European Union to the National Health Service (NHS). Among the slew of stories about Leave voters who regret their decision, then, one narrative finds that Leave voters are reasonable people, experiencing real economic loss, who were lied to and misled by corrupt politicians.

If they regret their decision, it is not a failure of democracy, but a failure of democratic infrastructure. It is that broken infrastructure that democratic proponents seek to fix.

But there’s another narrative out there, perhaps even more widespread. Stories of foolish voters who never wanted to leave the EU, but who voted Leave in protest, never thinking Leave might actually win. Naïve voters who had never considered that the vote might have broad and lasting ramifications. These voters come off as stupid, foolish, and too lazy to educate themselves about the importance and impact of their vote.

Under this narrative democracy is broken: the people cannot be trusted.

This is a classic debate in democratic theory.

In designing a political system, should we trust the democratic wisdom of everyday people – building systems that promote their education and thoughtful engagement, or should we be skeptical of their – and our own – capacity; building systems that favor the input of those most knowledgeable and effected?

This is an important discussion that gets to the heart of what the Good Society ought to look like.

But while the Brexit referendum seems to perfectly highly multiple theories of democracy – whether you see it as democratic victory, a democratic failure, or a failure of democratic infrastructure – it is just one of many moments poised to have real, dramatic, and long-term repercussions.

The work of civic studies is the work of thinking about how our collective world is and should be structured. Looking around at the pressing problems of our communities, it is working together to ask and answer the question, what should we do?

In truth, I don’t know that I have any answers, but, in these challenging, complicated, and disturbingly dark days, it seems there is no better question.


2 thoughts on “Is Democracy Broken?

  1. Jason

    This is great context, and very insightful as always. I frequently vaguely recollect some quote to the effect that we may be the most informed soceity to fall due to ignorance. We may (and you probably have) consider the impact technology has had on our political process. Because we have access to so much information, we struggle to get on the same page about the facts surrounding an issue. And also, as I recently learned, answering what seems like a simple question – does higher gun ownership increase or decrease gun-related violence – is actually no easy task even for someone who is vaguely familiar with statistical methods. Faced with these challenges, it is perhaps not very surprising that we latch on to the “information” passed to us from those who we believe are well informed and represent our own views. This may result is passing on misonformation or informatiom taken out of context, which also causes us to become skeptical of information provided by the other side. The sound bite summary: in the age of information, we have an information processing problem.


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