The NATURE of DEMOCRACY: A set of reminders

©2019 Paul Charles Gregory

Maybe chief among the expressions being weaponised in contemporary politics is ”Democracy”. The purpose below is to combat the inflationary use of the word, to provide a set of reminders, and to introduce some semblance of order into the debate.

It is NOT the same as liberalism, whether this is defined narrowly or more broadly. The rule of law, property rights, the recourse to markets, freedom of expression and a spirit of moderation may be the hallmarks of liberalism and necessary preconditions for democracy, but they are not sufficient. Importantly, democracy must mean more than a culture of discussion. Democracy is denied when a broad consensus emerges on what is reasonable yet decisions taken to the contrary.
Least of all is democracy about equality except in narrowly defined legal and constitutional areas. It may, however, result in broad limits being placed on inequality. Hence property rights may be curtailed in extremis, for example by punitive taxation. The single-minded pursuit of equality, even just that of opportunity, entails the suppression of other values.

Voting. That is, formal votes must be held at various levels, normally through a secret ballot. Most importantly but not exclusively, with universal suffrage to elect representatives or governments. Where formal votes are denied or ignored there can be no talk of democracy. Suffrage cannot be replaced by opinion polls or focus groups. It cannot be replaced by consultation with experts, lawyers, professional associations, interested parties or pressure groups. It cannot be replaced by mass demonstrations or campaigns in social media. Exactly how votes are held and counted is another matter, more complex that meets the eye.

One universal societal phenomenon is the tendency for there to be a concentration of power (as well as, less importantly, its common corollary, wealth). Whereas some aggregation of power is certainly necessary, power easily becomes concentrated to become excessive and abusive. As such, it needs a counterweight. There must, therefore, be forces and institutions in place to disperse power.
Among those institutions is universal suffrage, i.e. the principle that every citizen who wishes to may register periodically a voice on the way society is going. To repeat: This must be a formal voice, not an informal or statistical voice as occurs with opinion polls or focus groups.
By the nature of things, this voice cannot be very precise, but neither must be it so lacking in precision as to be meaningless.
The complexity of even a fairly simple society is such that governance inevitably rests in relatively few hands. To keep governance reasonably (not perfectly) good we have systems of checks and balances. Chief among those checks & balances is universal suffrage. One function is as a corrective and another to give pause for thought.

A common error is to conceive of democracy as the rule of the majority. There is seldom a majority, only provisional coalitions of minorities. Since any minority might find itself the target, or victim, of an unfortunate coalition, each minority has an incentive to protect other minorities. Hence democracy comes to be moderated by civic rights whose purpose is that they cannot be withdrawn except by cumbersome processes which themselves are not governed by the principle of one-man one-vote. (Civic rights are not the same as human rights, but that is a separate debate.)

More important than democracy is social cohesion. Whereas governance is complex and often contested, it must enjoy some semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of a broad majority. This legitimacy may be no more than acquiescence. Universal suffrage gives expression to such acquiescence. Otherwise people will feel justified, even duty-bound, to flout the law.

The common conflation of expressions such as “liberal” and “democratic” has done much damage to public debate, seen not least in the invective against something called populism. In particular, there is an argument to be made that none of the large advanced countries which are called democracies enjoy much democratic legitimacy. Meaningful votes are few and far between, with jerrymandering and other manipulation almost everywhere.
Universal suffrage has been advocated in these lines as a crucial and indispensable element in the systems of checks and balances which sustain our political and social order. It is not the only element. Even with the filtering remedies I have proposed elsewhere, universal suffrage can only decide a direction of travel, not the detail. But failure to heed that instruction, as has been occurring widely and persistently, puts at peril social cohesion and acquiescence. Democracy is more than debate.

This essay has not dealt with the new topics of what a “demos” is or the “deep state”, nor the use of referenda to override or advise representative assemblies. It has not dealt with the boundary dispute between democratic decision-making and economic imperatives, with the seemingly coercive pleading of business interests. It has not analysed populism. These topics are for another day.