Democracy in the 21st Century: Mind the Gap - RSA

Democracy in the 21st Century: Mind the Gap


  • Social brain

In recent months there has been a surge of books, articles and blog posts discussing the shortcomings of democracy and how we can begin to improve on our system of democratic governance. In light of this, in a series of blog posts I aim to discuss what an effective democratic system might look like in the 21st Century.

The spike in interest in this area is a response to a number of factors, which may include:

  1. The rise of populism 
    The ability of Trump to gain the Republican presidential nomination and a majority of Britons to vote for what economists widely agreed was strongly against their economic interest has provided a profound shake-up to established political thought.
  2. Democracy’s seeming inability to really get to grips with society’s biggest problems 
    Democracy has proven itself to be both cumbersome and lethargic in either bringing about positive change or positively moulding change coming from elsewhere. At its best, democracy is the most effective, efficient and fair mechanism for ensuring the gains from grand institutional changes – e.g. globalisation – are equitably shared, with the winners compensating the losers (the utopia of inclusive political and economic institutions expressed in ‘Why Nations Fail). The EU referendum result is an expression of democracy’s failure in this area. What’s more, the inconvenient truth is that there appears to be very little evidence for a causal relationship running from democracy to development around the world. The awkward example of China’s vast success in poverty alleviation is testament to this.
  3. Continuing lack of faith in our democratic institutions 
    There exists a well-established disconnect between our faith in democracy in theory and in practice. The overwhelming popular faith in the intrinsic value of democracy is striking. Ask the average person on the streets of Britain which is the best system of governance and few will argue for a return to monarchical rule. Yet belief in the practical application of our democratic institutions remains alarmingly low. Ask another average person, either from today or 50 years ago, what their view of politicians is and it’s likely that their answer will be laced with a fair amount of loathing.
  4. Advances in technology
    Advances in technology mean that – at least in theory – democracy can now be taken to its logical ends. As Princeton University’s Peter Singer points out, “The technology we have now makes it possible to abolish representative democracy entirely and give every citizen a vote on every question that legislatures now decide. Wouldn’t that be the most faithful way of applying the democratic ideal of giving every citizen an equal voice?” The nascent possibility to fully realise this democratic ideal has of course led many to question whether this is truly desirable. Moreover, with the spilling-over of politics into social media – facilitated by technological advances – the boundaries between political debate and entertainment have become increasingly porous and confused.

These are intricately intertwined and each articulates – or can be used to articulate in the case of technology – a certain democratic dissatisfaction. Establishing and unpicking the root causes of this is no doubt a complex task, but perhaps part of the answer lies in the large gaps that exist between some of the claims and implicit assumptions of democracy and the case in practise. Here I suggest four such gaps, which are again interlinked:

  1. A victory in an election provides a democratic mandate to rule
    One claim often made by politicians in power is that they have a democratic mandate to implement the policies outlined in their election manifesto – it is often used as rationale for a particular political strategy. For now, let’s assume that when people vote, they do so having fully read and understood each party’s manifesto and without any kind of emotion or bias. Taking the example of the 2015 general election, the Conservatives gained 37% of the vote in a turnout of roughly 66%. That means less than 25% of those eligible to vote actually chose to approve the policy promises of the Conservative party. Taking the population as a whole, less than 18% did. The approval of just a quarter of the electorate at best signals a very weak democratic mandate. A further illustration of this centres on whether the EU referendum result provides a democratic mandate to end freedom of movement. As Oxford University Professor of Economic Policy Simon Wren-Lewis points out, even if a majority of leave voters did so to end freedom of movement, it wouldn’t necessarily translate into a clear mandate – after all, “a majority of a majority can be a minority”. As such, in cases of binary democratic choices, the exact democratic mandate is often very difficult to pinpoint.  
  2. Voters make fully informed choices
    The world of the 21st Century is one of daunting complexity. The implicit faith that each voter is capable of analysing the merits of each election manifesto relative to their preferences over the next five years and coming to some kind of accurate prediction about which set of policy promises will serve them best seems to be misplaced. 
  3. Voters make rational choices
    In reality, voting is an expression of values at least as much as it is an endorsement of a certain set of policies. Interesting research in the aftermath of the EU referendum suggests that personal values are a good predictor of which way somebody was likely to have voted. Moreover, advances in behavioural psychology have provided strong evidence that humans don’t always make decisions in a purely rational way.  For example, researchers at Colombia University have found that subliminal exposure to a national flag can shift a voter’s preferences distinctly to the right, and Alex Todorov, of Princeton University, has shown that ‘inferences of competence based solely on facial appearance’ are a good predictor of the outcomes of U.S. congressional elections, even if the exposure to a candidate’s face lasts just a second.
  4. Preferences are fixed
    Democratic engagement through voting once every five years in a general election assumes that preferences are fixed and consistent. More drastically, a vote to leave the EU is interpreted as permanent preference, as it seems highly implausible that the UK could ever re-enter the EU having Brexited.  Clearly, a deeper understanding of the nature of preferences is needed. It appears far closer to the truth that they are variable and endogenous to the social system. Preferences are malleable and vulnerable to simple, repeated messages, particularly given the prominence of social media in our lives.

Combining these four gaps, it seems democratic engagement that is largely limited to a general election once every five years is unlikely to result in a government highly representative of the will of the people and well placed to enact change. Seen in this light, the continuing problems of our democracy are perhaps unsurprising – if the government does not accurately reflect the will of the people, it is unlikely that the people will find the outcomes satisfactory.

But how then do we achieve a government more accurately reflective of people’s preferences and better able to translate these into lasting social change? To move us in the right direction, democratic reforms should aim to narrow the gaps expressed above. They should acknowledge that general elections and binary referenda only provide, at best, a snapshot of the preferences of a minority of citizens at a fixed moment in time. They should also recognise that the notion of voters making fully informed, rational choices is unlikely to be realistic, and that the preferences expressed in these choices are by no means fixed. 

Later posts in this series will discuss some ideas for change expressed in the books, articles and blog posts alluded to above. As my colleague Josie Warden recently pointed out, the answer to our problems is more democracy, not less. But more democracy in the sense of developing a democratic system better connected to the realities of the modern world – highly complex and rapidly evolving, inhabited by busy people with limited cognitive reasoning power. Our democratic institutions must be more energetic, genuinely engaging and reactive – not a tick in a box every 5 years.


Follow Andy on Twitter @andynorman810 


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