Anticipating better democracy

Democracy is one of the great triumphs of civilisation. But the way democracy is practised, in the UK and in the wider world, leaves a great deal of room for improvement.

In short, recent events show the risks of populism, which is a perversion of democracy.

Can we improve democracy, so that it avoids the siren allure of populism? Can we take steps so that the best insights of the entire population rise to the top of political discussion, rather than being buried in a sea of confusion, rumour, innuendo, and downright lie?

In an age with increasingly rapid communications, and with growing alienation of large parts of society, these questions are pressing. This article is the first in an envisaged Transpolitica series, “Anticipating better democracy”, that tries to catalyse some answers.

There’s more to democracy than majority decision-making

Democracy is a system where the majority decides. It’s where leaders need the approval of the citizenry. But it’s not mob rule.

Democracy allows the majority to appoint leaders. But it does not permit the majority to ride roughshod over the opinions of the minority. It avoids placing absolute power into the hands of the winning coalition. The minority have important rights too.

Democracy enables political disagreements to be handled by discussion rather than by physical force. It avoids the powerful retaining power simply via their ability to summon armies and command the police. It allows the citizenry to vote leaders out of office, once these leaders no longer have sufficient popular support. Democracy therefore addresses the dangerous human trait in which people who have risen to a position of power tend to become overly confident in their own abilities, surround themselves by yes men, veer towards autocracy, and brook no dissent. Done right, democracy allows the opposition to speak truth to power.

To be clear, democracy is more than the simple fact of an election. Democracy is about the climate that prevails, both in the run-up to an election, and in its aftermath.

A democratic transition

To avoid a region descending into chaos after an election takes place, democracy requires the loser of an election to swallow hard, congratulate the victor, and to stop contesting the result.

John McCain concession speech

For example, when John McCain realised in the early morning of 5 November 2008 that he had lost the US Presidential election to Barack Obama, he called upon his own supporters to recognise that Obama was a good man:

My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving…

Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day — though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her Creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited…

Some of his supporters booed, on hearing these words, but McCain proceeded:

Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama. I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.

Nevertheless, whilst a democratic decision provides a milestone landmark, it’s not necessarily the end of the journey. The party that lost an election does not vanish into nonexistence. There is no iron law of democracy that says a losing party must give up its ideological understanding once the voters have spoken against it. Instead, it can regroup, and be ready to offer a renewed understanding to the electorate in the changed circumstances of the future.

Changing circumstances

In some cases, it may not take long for circumstances to change. This is especially the case when a democratic decision has taken place in a particularly confusing environment, and where greater clarity emerges soon after the vote has taken place. In such a case, the voters may justifiably feel angry about being deceived by the way the campaign was conducted.

In this article, I’ll avoid focusing too closely on the contentious circumstances of the recent EU exit vote in the United Kingdom. Opinions clearly differ, forcibly, on that score. I’ll just note in passing that even Kelvin Mackenzie, former long-time editor of the right-wing Sun tabloid newspaper, has expressed his own “buyer’s remorse” for voting for the UK to leave the EU (despite having previously campaigned hard for that outcome).

Kelvin MacKenzie remorse

Circumstances are changing fast.

But let’s concentrate, for now, on some steps that might be taken to improve the calibre of democratic decision-making – steps that might avoid future examples of widespread voter regret (and major voter distress). I’ll consider two suggestions.

Holding politicians to account?

The Advertising Standards Authority has firm rules about the kinds of claims that companies can make in their advertisements. Thank goodness.

But no such rules apply to the claims that politicians make, in their campaigns. Columnist Alan Travis observes as follows, in his recent article “The leave campaign made three key promises – are they keeping them?”

While legal action can follow in the case of a commercial contract or the public flotation of a company if false statements are made in, there is no advertising code that requires political statements to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

It’s tempting to ask: Why not?

If politicians knowingly bend the truth, in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in commercial communications, and major financial damage results, shouldn’t they be sued as a result?

However, I see this as potentially dangerous ground. The threat of being sued could clamp down on free speech.

To make this work, the emphasis would have to be on evidence that the politician definitely knew their claims were wrong, but went ahead with them regardless.

Before we get to that point, we can accelerate an important recent political trend. That’s the trend of improved, quicker fact-checking.

Fact-checking politicians’ claims

One of the most impressive organisations I’ve encountered recently is Full Fact – which describes itself as “the UK’s independent factchecking organisation”.

Full Fact Logo

Their website continues:

We check claims made by politicians, the media, pressure groups, and other voices in public debate, and push for corrections where necessary. We also work with government departments and academic research institutions to improve the quality and communication of technical information at source, and campaign for greater transparency in the public arena.

We don’t support any view or political party. Our mission is to improve the quality of public debate, and to equip the public with the best information possible to make up their own minds. We provide links to all our sources so that you don’t have to take our word for anything – you can also check for yourself.

Our commitment to transparency extends to our funding…

In a profile article, the Financial Times gave a couple of examples of claims checked by Full Fact:

Leave’s claim that Britain sent £350m a week to the EU was “wrong” because it ignored the UK budget rebate, it found. The CBI’s claim that membership was worth £3,000 a year to every household was “not credible”; and so on…

In other words, claims on both sides of the debate were found wanting.

Full Fact have accomplished a great deal with only a skeleton team. But with more support (including volunteers, funding, and other resources) there’s much more that can be accomplished.

Of course, much political debate happens in dimensions removed from facts. And facts are often capable of multiple interpretations. So fact-checking, by itself, won’t cure all the shortcomings of our present-day practice of democracy.

But we can anticipate the growth of a fact-checking culture, with the following positive outcomes:

  1. Everyone will come to expect that claims made by politicians are routinely, quickly checked
  2. Alongside phrases like “Google this”, which are already commonplace, we’ll more often hear phrases like “Fact check this”
  3. Politicians who make claims that violate independent fact-checking will be treated as pariahs. (There probably won’t be a need to sue them in courts of law for their wilful misstatements. They will, rightly, fall foul of the court of public reputation.)
  4. Newspapers that make claims that violate independent fact-checking will, likewise, become pariahs.

Fact check true or false

If only…

If that kind of culture had been in place in the past, the misstatements of a certain leading UK politician, from his days as a newspaper journalist covering EU affairs from Brussels, would not have gone unpunished. And the UK may well not have come near its present political crisis. I’m referring to Boris Johnson. As stated by his former journalist colleague Martin Fletcher,

For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU – and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson.

I know this because I was appointed Brussels correspondent of The Times in 1999, a few years after Johnson’s stint there for The Telegraph, and I had to live with the consequences.

Johnson, sacked by The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quote, made his mark in Brussels not through fair and balanced reporting, but through extreme euro-scepticism. He seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue.

The Telegraph loved it. So did the Tory Right. Johnson later confessed: ‘Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.’

Next steps

Will this cultural change be sufficient to fix the current ails of democracy? Of course not. But it’s an important step in the right direction.

Transpolitica plans to publish more articles on anticipating better democracy. If you’d like to submit a contribution, please get in touch.