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Anyone looking at the current state of the United States and the United Kingdom – the former bitterly divided with a hooligan running for president again, the latter both literally and figuratively falling to pieces around our ears – would be justified in adding some expletives to the question: what has gone wrong with what were once touted as leading examples of democracies?
It would take an entire book to answer that fully. A short answer is that neither the US nor the UK is a democracy in much more than name.
In fact, they are oligarchies – the US a timocratic plutocracy, the UK a civilian version of a stratiocracy.
They sustained themselves as models of democracy so long as the players who knew what they were doing kept the pretence going, and as long as sufficient distractions – including a modicum of economic security – stopped everyone else from noticing. But the disintegration of both countries’ political orders is now revealing the truth.
Both countries have periodic elections and alternations of political party majorities in their legislatures. But both countries use the First Past the Post voting system – intrinsically undemocratic because it narrows choice to two parties, in the UK perennially producing minority-based governments, in the US entrenching division in a constitutional order which in all its other branches (Senate, presidency, Supreme Court) does not even pretend to be democratic.
The limitations of these FPTP polities has been cruelly exposed in recent years – not least among the reasons being the advent of social media.
Their corrosive effects – fostered by cheap far-reaching and dishonest micro-targeted political advertising and the grip of tendentious viral messaging – have got into the cracks in the ramshackle structure of both quasi-democracies and revealed a key point about them: that government has been diverted from its original purpose of governing to the purpose of keeping a cabal in power.
To see how, a recap is useful.
Modern democracy has a short history.
As an ideal, a hope, it can claim the late 18th Century as its birthdate. As a reality, it has yet to exist anywhere, though its forms – periodic elections being the most obvious one – give the impression that in some imperfect way it nearly does.
But that short history is also the history of the way the institutions of would-be democracy have been progressively mastered by the people who devote themselves to running states with a view to implementing their own beliefs about how they should be run: politicians. The result has been something worse even than government run by politicians: it is government run by politics.
By this I mean that decisions in government are heavily influenced by purely political considerations about what will benefit the ruling party, particularly in regard to keeping it in power. This is the dominating factor in public policy formation and implementation.
What should be the exclusive duty of government – to serve the economic, social and security interests and welfare of all the people – is subordinated to what will play well enough for enough voters to ensure the governing party’s re-election.
A staring example of political calculation resulting in the very reverse of what is in the interests of all the people is Brexit, a project run by and for a cabal. The fact that it has backfired so spectacularly on the country shows that nothing about the country or its people was, so to say, Brexit-apt. But the point can be exemplified in a million ways besides – and is as obvious as anything can be.
In states with a FPTP electoral system, one-party government is the norm and the potential for that party to squeeze every drop of advantage for itself from its time in office and for its prospects at the next election is enormous.
The calculations are utilitarian: you only need the largest minority of the vote, even if that – as it normally is – is an absolute minority of the votes, to get your hands on all the levers of power. Accordingly, you can disoblige the majority providing that you advantage the relevant minority – because the fact that there is always a diverse palette of interests in any population, the vote is always split more than three ways, so by appeasing the right minority and you can get home and dry.
A nation is a jumble of minorities and individuals, from among whom majorities temporarily arise over particular matters at particular times. This gives rise to a ‘Myth of the Majority’ in harmful ways.
For example, the lovely city of Paris is banning electric scooters on the grounds that they are annoying and disruptive. A referendum was held earlier this year on whether they should be banned and 90% said they should. However, that was 90% of a 7.5% turnout – meaning that the indifferent 92.5% of Parisians now find themselves wondering what they really think about electric scooters – their convenience, environmental friendliness, usefulness to the young, provision of transport home at night after the metro stops running, and so forth.
If anything shows what a joke referendums can be – and at very least how essential thresholds and supermajorities are – the Paris example is a good one. So too is our toxic friend, Brexit. Sixty-three per cent of the electorate (74% of the population) did not vote to leave the EU – which at very least means that the majority of those who did not vote were sufficiently indifferent to the status quo that, if the UK had not left the EU, they would not have minded.
But the entire population was dragged out, losing its EU citizenship and freedom of movement and economic opportunities, with woeful effects on the UK’s economy and international standing, and empowerment of the worst elements in British political life (Johnson, Truss, Braverman and their ilk), on just over a third of the electorate’s say-so.
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This is why James Madison so strenuously warned his readers in ‘Federalist Paper No. 10’ about the danger of faction (political parties) and why, two millennia before him, Livy hailed the Roman Republican ideal of government by law not by men, meaning constitutionality as a safeguard against party-political greed for gain or power. Madison said that, since human nature will inevitably give rise to factions, what a state needs is a good constitution that will ensure that government is aimed at the benefit of all the people and not just the factionalists and their supporters.
It is the failure of the US and UK quasi-democracies to heed Madison’s warning that has led to the current situation.
It is blindingly obvious that what passes for a ‘government’ in today’s UK – hanging white-knuckled onto power, asset-stripping the state for the benefit of cronies, polluting and degrading the state’s institutions – is the very paradigm of a faction in a factionalist state. Trump’s ‘MAGA’ has stripped the US’s version naked too.
What is so dismaying is that the UK’s only realistic alternative party of government in the current FPTP system seems to just want to keep playing the same old game. And if Trump or, soon enough, another version of him possesses the White House again, what beyond the theatricals of democracy would distinguish him from the kind of political arrangement in which a Putin or a Xi flourishes?
AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University