There is much talk of threats to liberal democracy, not least from something called populism. But the talk is shallow, not least because of a failure to define key terms.

I argue here that what we have is a liberal dispensation, not democracy in any meaningful sense. Certainly, a liberal dispensation is a very good thing to have, even if, chaotic, it is often inadequate, or less liberal than it might be, or more licentious than liberal.

Those who praise our liberal democracies fail to distinguish the two elements. I propose:

A liberal dispensation includes, at the least, the rule of law, property rights, elements of a market economy and freedom of speech accompanied by an independent press. There is no one dominant force, as there is, by contrast, in a dictatorship, or in a military state, a theocracy, or a plutocracy. In a liberal dispensation, various forces and interests are at play, but each is so weak on its own that it must seek compromise with (some of) the others. For liberalism to prosper, power must be dispersed. A liberal polity is one free of authoritarianism and is the opposite of totalitarianism.

The word “democracy” may be used in a weak sense to designate a polity where there are peaceful changes of government, normally in response to the holding of elections which are judged, in a formal sense, to have been free and fair. Sometimes though, or often, the change in government is cosmetic, with most policies remaining substantially in place.

I propose a strong sense of “democracy”. It should mean a polity where, at intervals, meaningful and secret ballots are held and the results observed. It also assumes a wide electorate, i.e. something close to universal suffrage.

My emphasis is on the word “meaningful”. Ballots are not meaningful if (i) the de facto choices are highly restricted, if (ii) disparate issues are bundled together to form packages, if (iii) in consequence people find themselves voting on different issues, and (iv) if people find themselves voting against rather than for something or someone.

But this conflation is the situation in all the major countries which call themselves democracies. It is the case throughout the Anglosphere as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, etc. and indeed Japan, Taiwan and Israel. This is mainly because politics is organised predominantly or even exclusively along party lines.

At a stretch, this dispensation might be called a party democracy but it could equally well be called a multi-party dictatorship.

Historically, there were compelling reasons for elections to be organised along party lines. Meanwhile, the world everywhere has moved on, with familiarity with novel technology, such that those compelling reasons no longer apply. Nor do the political parties of today resemble those which flourished in the past, even when they go back that far.

I have proposed that democracy be defined by the holding of secret ballots. Normally these will be to elect individuals who advocate particular policies, rather than policies themselves.

The next question is the relationship of democracy, as defined by the secret ballot, to the liberal dispensation. Democracy involves the generation of majorities, but it is not legitimate, and often it is not possible, for a majority to dictate to a minority. This is one reason that there are civil rights. For example, a prosperous class cannot be dispossessed by those who are envious, although it may be gradually replaced by those who are more enterprising or disciplined.

In any dispensation there will, for example, be people with relatively rare skills for which there is a demand. These people have the power to withhold their collaboration, whether openly or surreptitiously. De facto, they cannot be dictated to, not even by a majority. There are, therefore, limits to the power of the ballot box.

On this understanding, democracy is one check & balance among others, as is befitting in a liberal dispensation, where (by definition) no one force is dominant. Government (i.e. executive and legislature) is too vast and complex to be devolved to the general population. Even if many referenda were held on specific issues, these could not remotely cover the ground with any precision because there are too many issues and alternative avenues for each issue. So representatives are elected to mandate a general direction.

My argument is that, under the party system, there is now so little precision in the ballot box that it no longer acts as a check & a balance. Hence political parties have become the enemies of democracy.

They are, however, the friends of populism. This is true even of the middle-of-the-road parties that claim to oppose populism, which they interpret as being (extreme) right or left. Populists are accused of reducing political debate to a very few core issues, which they simplify. But this is exactly what our so-called liberal democracies do by depriving voters of any precision in the polling booth.

True, there are limits to the precision which can be offered in the polling booth, but this does not mean that there is no scope for substantial precision. There can be thematic devolution, i.e. rather than geographical devolution, to separately elected assemblies which would deal with the several grand areas of political concern. These include infrastructure, foreign & defence policy, the design of taxation, education, health provision, and criminal justice. A start could be made with an ethics assembly to address issues around the beginning & end of life, the treatment of animals, gambling, recreational drugs, and similar issues which are not divided along party lines of left, centre and right.

Equally important is the need to make (nearly) every vote count and so create genuinely representative parliaments. First-past-the-post systems fail miserably here, but so too does proportional representation because it depends on party affiliation.

The solution is a mechanism I have baptised Fuzzy Democracy, which is described and discussed at the website fuzzydemocracy.eu This uses electronic voting (possibly with paper printouts to counter any suspicion of electoral fraud). It has become feasible for people to vote according to their convictions or loyalties for any of thousands of candidates. This can be done without making the voting process onerous.

For election a candidate must obtain a given number of votes. Those falling short transfer their contingent of votes to a like-minded candidate closer to the threshold. Hence normally one casts one’s vote for an intermediary, or rather, one awards a power of political attorney. All conceivable objections and refinements are discussed at the website. The principle of a constructive vote of no-confidence ensures that the executive can provide stable government.