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To defend democracy, we have to reform it

A key risk for modern democracy is a political class disconnected from voters and now voters are revolting against it.

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Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and not, report being disappointed by democratic performance.

London

DEMOCRACY may be "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time", as Winston Churchill famously said, but that does not mean democracy is good enough. Voters know it, and they are as mad as hell about it.

According to the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey, an average of 51 per cent of citizens in 27 countries surveyed report being dissatisfied with democracy, while 45 per cent are satisfied. If that 51 per cent does not seem high to you, note that the figure is 55 per cent in Britain, 56 per cent in Japan, 58 per cent in the United States, 60 per cent in Nigeria, 63 per cent in Argentina, 64 per cent in South Africa, 70 per cent in Italy, 81 per cent in Spain, 83 per cent in Brazil, and 85 per cent in Mexico. This sentiment is not unique to one social group. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and not, report being disappointed by democratic performance.

That should not come as a surprise. In the past 250 years, almost every human endeavour has changed beyond recognition - except democracy. We vote every four or so years for candidates about whom we know little (and we do so in person, often with paper and pencil!). This process is mediated by political parties, which are often less than fully democratic themselves. We elect large groups of people known as parliamentarians, who meet in ornate chambers and, following arcane rules, discuss at length and with great showmanship subjects they understand only superficially. Sparks fly, yet little illumination occurs. Many social and economic problems remain unaddressed. Four or five years later, the cycle starts again.

Since democracy began taking root in Western countries after the American and French revolutions, innovations have been few and far between. Direct citizen consultation or participation, as in ancient Athens? Not really. Systematic expert input into highly complex and technical discussions? Very seldom. Intensive use of technology to expedite the process? Thanks, but no thanks. No wonder today's young people, weaned on the immediacy and the results-now culture of the digital era, are sceptical of representative democracy.

The list of imaginable reforms to democratic practice is as long as it is challenging. Some of the necessary changes, like reducing the role of money in campaigns, are obvious. Others veer toward the adventurous. Referenda are unsuited to complex issues that do not lend themselves to a yes-or-no answer (think Brexit), but could we not move towards more direct democracy at the local level, where voters are well informed about the issues - build a park here, re-route a highway there - at stake?

Perhaps we could use technology to move from voting every four years with little information to voting more often with better information. Or we could combat lack of interest and low citizen turnout by making votes tradable - not for money but for other votes, so that you can vote twice next month in that referendum you really care about. Alternatively, votes could be storable, allowing voters to cast more than one in elections they feel strongly about.

The rules of democracy matter, but elected politicians matter just as much - and they too are thoroughly discredited. In the same Pew report, an average of 54 per cent of respondents said that politicians in their country are corrupt, and only 35 per cent said that elected officials care what ordinary people think.

Some of those politicians are discredited because their sins are so glaring. As Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil put it in 2018: "Of the four presidents elected after the 1988 Constitution took effect, two were impeached, one is in jail for corruption and the other is me." No wonder that some Brazilians report feeling nostalgic for their country's repressive military dictatorship. Those same Brazilians voted to elect Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has insulted women, black people, and gays.

But the problem is bigger than just a few bad apples. In his famous essay Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber warned that a key risk for modern democracy was that a political class would arise, disconnected from voters. Such a political class did indeed emerge, and now voters are revolting against it.

Political parties are a case in point. Once upon a time, they had roots in society. Conservative parties were linked to various churches, neighbourhood clubs, and business associations. Socialist parties had their base in the trade unions and what was once called the industrial proletariat. Today, those institutions are fewer and weaker, and so are political parties. One political scientist has called today's parties "hydroponic" - floating above society but with no roots in it.

That is why nowadays conventional political parties tend to have leaders who themselves hail from the well-heeled professions, the upper echelons of universities, or from successful businesses whose founders have acquired the financial stability needed to be able to devote themselves to politics. The potential for a fundamental disconnect with voters is huge.

And the arrogance of that political class has not helped: just think of Hillary Clinton describing Trump voters as a "basket of deplorables".

The standard refrain is that citizens vote for that politician with whom they would like to have a beer. But rather than sharing a drink with the average voter, leading politicians spend too much of their time with others like themselves - bankers, businesspeople, top civil servants, and high-flying academics.

To ascertain which politicians can be successful today, Yascha Mounk calls for a "reverse beer test": it is not that voters prefer the candidate they would rather have a beer with; they prefer the candidate who would rather have a beer with them. Too many democratic politicians fail this test.

Anti-establishment voting has the name of the game in many recent elections. Fury against traditional politicians caused the failure of Germán Vargas Lleras and Geraldo Alckmin, the "safe" establishment candidates in the 2018 Colombian and Brazilian elections. Each had the support of the local business community and the traditional media. Both went home after disastrous results in the first round of voting. Anti-establishment rage also doomed Hillary Clinton's campaign and brought about the current populist government in Italy. And it could also be behind the dismal primary performance of Joseph Biden, the establishment candidate par excellence, in the first three contests.

And of course, the hyper-charged environment of social media, with its echo chambers, makes the job of anti-establishment populists much easier. Want to discredit a candidate for office in five minutes? Post a picture of him or her riding in the first-class section of a plane or in the back of a shiny black car. The picture will be re-transmitted tens of thousands of times, collecting many comments along the way. Not one of the comments will be kind.

The message is clear: dissatisfaction with democracy is the perfect breeding ground for authoritarian populists. Strongmen, whether actual or potential, have little vested interest in democratic reform. Liberal democrats do. They should be the ones leading the charge. PROJECT SYNDICATE

  • The writer, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.