What is… Democracy?

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher Auditorium 2Crisis of Political Language

Recent years have seen a renewed debate about what democracy is and which procedures we should use to decide who is in power. While some viewed the vote for Brexit as a positive blow for popular democracy and against unelected institutions, others questioned the wisdom of making such a far-reaching decision by such blunt means as a plebiscite. Even many supporters of Brexit argued it would have been better brought about as a result of normal parliamentary politics, but the fact that all the major parties were pro-EU indicated a persistent gulf between parliament and voters.

In 2012, the public decisively rejected a change in the Westminster voting procedure from ‘first past the post’ to the Alternative Vote system. Since then, however, the UK’s system of democracy has remained in a state of flux. Responding to the idea that government needs to be brought closer to the people, the role of devolved national governments has continued to expand while new local elections have been introduced for city and ‘metro’ mayors and even for police commissioners.

Nevertheless, a sense of widespread voter apathy persists, and some critics have started to propose a more far-reaching re-appraisal of established forms of democracy. In August, the Electoral Reform Society argued that the ‘first past the post’ system meant millions of votes in the general election were ‘wasted’ and called for a more proportional voting system. Some argue for reinvigoration through an injection of youth and propose by expanding the suffrage beyond adult citizens to include 16-year-olds. Others agitate on behalf of more direct democracy, for example, local assemblies enacting policy, citizens juries, or even deciding the government by random lots – a system that harks back to ancient Athens. Many are suggesting that digital technology can fundamentally transform the idea of democracy, by providing opportunities for an ‘always connected’ citizenry to engage day-to-day in the processes of government. With advocates of participative forums gaining ground, is it time to call time on ‘representative’ democracy – and look to a new form of active politics?

But there seems to be a serious gap in these debates: a clear, shared understanding of what democracy is and why we might value it. Calls to reduce the voting age seem more interested in the idea of engaging young people than valuing democracy as such, and interest in digital technologies seem more driven by a Silicon Valley attitude of ‘fixing’ technical issues than genuinely empowering people. While almost everyone formally agrees that democracy is a good thing, in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, many are questioning whether democracy is even ‘the least worst form of government’, as Churchill famously put it.

Naturally, these debates are not new. From Plato’s critique of Athenian democracy to Burke’s attack on the French Revolution and his defence of the autonomy of MPs from their electors, serious and profound thinkers have struggled over the nature and value of democracy. But in a world dominated by at best instrumental defences of democracy and at worst outright denunciations of the ability of ordinary people to govern, it is worth asking again: What is democracy?