Democracy’s Twilight Hour

Nowhere has the anti-establishment rhetoric of the populist forces sweeping across Europe and the United States been more succinctly distilled, or with greater irony, than in former Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s Brexit call to arms: “people have had enough of experts”. It was a curious, but powerful declaration, which captured the zeitgeist as millions turned out to vote in a popular referendum that was clearly about more than just Europe.

The popularity of this ‘popular’ form of democracy is unnerving traditionally dominant parties, and there is clearly much to be addressed here in the profound breakdowns of trust and engagement it reveals. So it is a bold author indeed who publishes a book in this most precarious of times, proposing we do away with democracy altogether and create a two-tiered political system in its place, to prevent the masses from tinkering with policy-making any longer.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted quip that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” has continued to reflect the level of resigned fondness many of us feel for our political system to this day. And indeed, in his dramatically titled new book, Against Democracy, Georgetown professor Jason Brennan opens by conceding that democratic countries tend to best protect civil liberties and to uphold more socially progressive policies. Nonetheless, he contests, the relative failures of autocratic and totalitarian regimes should not blind us to the fact that too many of democracy’s most fundamental tenets are irrecoverably flawed – encouraging citizens to divide acrimoniously into “tribal” groups, and ultimately producing patchy social and economic outcomes.

Principally, Brennan believes that the practice of offering universal democratic rights, which sees political decisions incorporating the views of the “ignorant and irrational”, should be superseded by a model of epistocracy, whereby citizens have to earn or prove their right to vote or run for office. The tremendous variance in political knowledge must not be accepted as a given, but rather should mark clear dividing lines between the capable citizens to be privileged and the undeserving rest.

Brennan’s motivation here is not punitive, but rather to better reflect the true intention of the consent principle underpinning the democratic ideal; without a deep knowledge of parties’ and candidates’ ideologies, history and behaviour, as well as their policy platforms and the impact of these on social and economic outcomes, citizens cannot make truly informed decisions – just as we safeguard more commonplace interactions with public institutions, such as having an operation or signing a will.

Representative democracy is already assumed to function on the basis of citizens electing politicians they believe to be well informed and qualified to govern on their behalf. But in practice we know that so many people’s political decisions are based on other factors – some of them, as Brennan would consider, irrational in nature. The result is that the best people, or the most effective policy, do not always win the day. It is also true that when politicians abscond from leadership to chase public opinion, as they so often do these days, the policy results tend to be poor. And yet, somehow amidst all of this, the UK has just experienced a Referendum campaign for which the soundtrack was a long, desperate and furious howl of rejection of the political establishment. Too often, everyone seems to be losing.

Brennan believes part of the issue with representative democracy is that it simply gives the illusion of involvement – but that ultimately citizens are aware that their vote counts for very little on an individual level, discouraging engagement. The comparative arguments against epistocracy then – namely that it is elitist, denies citizens “a slice of the pie” and excludes the disadvantaged – are deemed irrelevant, because democracy currently fails on all of these points anyway.

There was an assumption that the information age would herald a new era of learning, but in reality, it has given us access to a greater breadth and depth of content, much of which we consume with an increasingly narrow bias towards our preordained interests. So too has the education revolution confounded expectations of a more politically astute and empowered electorate: as Brennan explains, despite dramatic growth in the number of citizens with a college degree, US political knowledge has remained relatively static for 40 years.

Rather than identify opportunities to improve this, Brennan’s focus is on realigning access to political power – at both the level of the citizen and political leaders. In a way, his vision chimes with the current UK debate around the reintroduction of grammar schools, which, depending on your view, give space for the best and brightest to achieve to their full potential unencumbered, or “skim the cream” from the system, denying less naturally academically gifted students the opportunity to rise to the challenge.

Our research into “growth mindsets” has shown how important it is for children’s lifelong success for them to have been educated in an environment that expects achievement as standard. If it also holds true that being in a politically engaged social and familial environment is one of the greatest determinants of individual political interest, would replacing rights with privileges simply reflect or further entrench existing segregation?

Brennan is right to assert that the contemporary democratic system is broken, that it hasn’t evolved to reflect changes in other aspects of our society, that it frankly doesn’t always achieve what it says on the tin. But there’s another dimension to this issue – political knowledge is just one element of democratic citizenship. There are other stakes at play here, which such a potentially divisive system would seek to undermine – namely, the fact that citizenship is to be shared, and that it comprises intangible feelings of belonging, responsibility and community. The unity that citizenship provides is an important tool of both order and effective civic functioning for governments, because it encourages cohesion, tolerance and a sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ amongst those it privileges.

It is here that Brennan’s bolshy assertion that “people should get over it or study more” begins to feel particularly problematic. Undermining the broader concept of citizenship through eroding the inclusivity of one of its tenets could make life harder, not easier, for political leaders. After all, it is this sense of being cut off from the political process – yes, even when expressed by those who have chosen not to engage with it – that becomes so socially and politically dangerous, and which gives birth to grassroots, populist movements on the fringes who feed flames of discontent. As the Referendum campaign highlighted, even a relatively prosperous and stable nation like Great Britain is already wrestling with significant divisions – between the young and the old, different cultures and faiths, urban-dwelling cosmopolitans and nostalgic small towns, the North and the South, globalisation’s winners and left behinds.

What we need now are more reasons to consider ourselves part of one story, however fragile that feeling may be – not more reasons to feel fundamentally divided.

Brennan is an acutely powerful thinker and makes a formidable case for change, or experimentation; it’s impossible to challenge his diagnosis of the limitations and failings of our advanced democracies, nor refute the aspiration for consistently better policy-making, unbound to irrational and changeable whims. It is also true, as we career towards some of the biggest challenges of any human age, the stakes have never been higher, and we seem ill-equipped to respond to them. And yet, the caustic nature of his enlightenment seems irreconcilable with creating a more unified society – something that cannot possibly be excluded from any vision worthy to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Against Democracy by Jason Brennan is published by Princeton University Press.