Brexit hurts, but don’t let it turn us away from a more direct democracy
Post-Brexit, trust in ‘the people’ is pretty low. Democracy seemingly let us down in the Scottish ref, the recent Columbian referendum and in the ongoing flirtation between the electorate and Donald Trump in the States: heck, we can apparently even blame it for Hitler. Suggesting, therefore, that in the politically challenging times we live in we should be forcefully arguing for more democracy, for investing more power in ordinary citizens, not just as a point of principle but also as a solution to many of our problems, is not a popular stance to take. Yet as we shall see there is a strong moral and practical imperative to do so, enough to please the idealist and the pragmatist alike.
Let’s start with the obvious: it’s morally right for people to have as much control over their own lives as possible and should therefore be the norm from which any departure should have to be fiercely justified. When people tell you that ‘the average voter’ is an idiot, they almost always seem blissfully unaware (I can’t decide if this is irony or not) that that includes them. The abstract ‘them’ is an uneducated moron, but ‘we’ are not, ‘their’ opinion is foolish, but ‘ours’ is not.
The existence of ‘experts’, those with superior intellects, far above those of the average voter needs to be questioned too. Cognitive psychologists would argue that you need at least 10,000 hours practice or training in a field to become an expert, and that expertise only really applies to small fields of knowledge. One might be able to become an expert in European fisheries policy, for instance, but none of our MP’s or MEP’s can legitimately be called ‘experts’ on the entirety of the European Union.
What’s more, they certainly wouldn’t be able to use such ‘expertise’ to decide whether we should stick with or leave the EU. This is because almost every major political decision at some point or other comes down not to this or that policy or ideology, but values. This doesn’t, of course, mean knowledge doesn’t matter when it comes to democracy: knowledge of a topic can help us decide how an issue impacts on our values, but it’s unlikely to alter those baseline moral arbiters, and nor should it. Even experts will be governed by their values too: ceding decisions to them simply narrows the pool of values considered legitimate in the decision making process.
Even if we ignore the fact that political decisions are almost always value-driven, if all we’re bothered about is being clever, more democracy is a smarter choice. James Surowiecki in his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ runs through the evidence to highlight how even groups of individuals with relatively little knowledge of a topic can, more often than not and contrary to popular opinion, outperform experts when their knowledge is aggregated. Going against the popular images of mindless mobs and ignorant masses, large groups make smarter decisions than small ones or ‘expert’ individuals.
Focusing on what the ‘average voter’ (whoever they are) knows when assessing the merits of democracy misses the point: democracy is about the combined reasoning and opinion of the group, not its lowest common denominator, the ‘picture of the world’ that all our collective knowledge pieces together to make. What’s more, the research in political science suggests strongly that good government relies upon an active, informed and engaged citizenship, voting, protesting and mobilising in their communities: a strong civic and political tradition in a country where citizens have real scope to influence decisions breeds effectiveness and good governance (check out Paul Whiteley’s ‘Political Participation in the UK’ and Robert Putnam’s classic ‘Bowling Alone’ for the evidence). We trust the many all the time, whether it be in markets, google searches or betting, because it works, so why not in the most important area of all: our political system? Doing so, the evidence suggests, will not only please the idealists’ dream of people power, but will satisfy the realists’ desire for smart decisions.
All this doesn’t, of course, mean democracy always gets it right: there will always be a Trump or a Brexit, but on average, the decisions made by the many will be better than the few (and the few have made plenty of mistakes over the years too). There are, however, certain conditions under which democracy becomes both wise and vibrant and we need to start structuring society to reflect these needs better. Surowiecki highlights four key ingredients for a wise group: diversity, decentralisation, aggregation and individualism.
Diversity ensures many individuals of differing opinion are part of the decision making process: boosting representation of minority groups not just in Parliament but in local councils, internal party structures and activist and pressure groups too, as well as news outlets assessing how often they give credence to minority groups and ideologies could all help make our democracy smarter.
Individualism means individuals within a group not being overly influenced by perceived group norms: the constant argument of ‘I won’t vote for that party/person/policy because they’ll never win’ is a good example of how decision-making processes are distorted by lack of individualism (the equivalent of this is a stock market bubble or crash, where individuals invest or divest money because everyone else is: perhaps the above example leads to a ‘democratic bubble’ which has partly been burst by Brexit). An education system that teaches us to challenge societal norms and prizes original, creative thinking would likely aid here too.
Decentralisation means individuals being able to ‘diversify and draw on specialist knowledge’. This means we should be looking at greater devolution of powers to local councils, greater community control over schooling and energy and greater workplace democracy, where those closest to the problems are the ones finding the solutions. This of course, also allows room for expertise, be it academics, civil servants, or certain sections of the political elite: note, however, in this approach the elite are part of a wider form of democracy, and placed in the decision-making process along with others, for a specific purpose, rather than us just blindly assuming they will always will make the best choice.
Finally, we need aggregation, a system of assessing group decisions accurately, where no voice is ignored. Proportional representation in national elections is an obvious way of edging us closer towards this, for first past the post marginalises millions of voters’ decisions and fails to accurately aggregate public opinion.
What’s more, the very act of allowing folk to make these decisions will help too: a more directly democratic system will actually alleviate many of the objections people have to it in the first place. The findings from political engagement studies, my field of research, suggests that you need political efficacy to engage, but it’s a two-way system: engaging also gives you higher levels of efficacy, with the same potentially being true of political knowledge too.
In short, bemoaning that people aren’t smart or skilled enough for us to be able to inject more democracy into the system gets things backwards: giving people more scope to engage and more power over their local communities is one very good way of making them better democratic citizens. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t solve all our problems, but it will be a start.
We need to move away from the dangerous notion that democracy frequently produces bad results, and that instead we should retreat behind the apron strings of our political elite. We need a culture that encourages citizens to protest, to organise, to innovate, to challenge officials and to have a more direct say in the decisions we as a country make. When ‘ordinary’ people are given control over their lives, and when they come together to decide collectively on the development of the country, more often than not (and more often than when a handful of elite ‘experts’ do instead), it works out better for everyone. In an era marked with political and economic instability, and growing problems on a truly global scale, from inequality to climate change, we cannot afford to fall out of love with democracy.