09 Sep

In Defence of Democracy

Posted By polity_admin_user


By Roslyn Fuller
I won’t lie – when I got the email from Polity asking me to write a book defending democracy, I was delighted. Yes, wedging writing an entire book into your life on a short timeframe means you don’t get a lot of sleep, but that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to defend the idea of government by the people against the flood of attacks that have gained mainstream currency in the wake of Trump and Brexit.

Some of the more salient points of this barrage that are dealt with in this book include:
– Profs. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ celebrated claim that people are so irrational that they change their votes based on irrelevant events like shark attacks
– the idea that British people voted to Leave the European Union because they are uniquely racist, and that Bernie Sanders voters consist chiefly of white men who see the septuagenarian politician as an identitarian focal point
– that an ability to answer political trivia is an appropriate measure of voting capability
– that people simply don’t know what is good for them as evidenced by California ballot initiatives like Proposition 13

Although this book is a short polemic, I tried to do the opposite of cherry-picking and focussed on what I considered to be the strongest arguments against democracy. However, even these ‘strongest’ arguments were so bizarre that I just could not help making fun of them. And that urge was redoubled when it came to the many proposals out there for cutting the pesky people out of the government process.

These include:
– extreme free-market capitalism (represented by Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan) that involves removing as many policy areas as possible from public overview
– only allowing the ‘knowledgeable’ to vote, a theory known as epistocracy and elaborated by Georgetown Professor Jason Brennan
– adopting a Chinese approach of government by virtuous, competent bureaucrats or ’eminent’ persons, as advanced by Canadian philosopher Daniel Bell
– pre-vetting political candidates for acceptable policies and generally keeping government out of public view (advocated by Brookings Institute fellows Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes)
– randomly selecting teensy-tiny numbers of people and re-educating them via ‘respectable’ ‘experts’ while simultaneously depriving anyone else of political agency (a process commonly known as sortition and a firm favourite among academics)

While I was, during the writing process, amazed at the kind of confidence that makes so many of these thinkers feel justified in depriving others of their civic rights for their own good, I also felt that their overblown egoism gave me carte blanche to let my sarcastic, critical side off the leash. There are many things this book is – subtle isn’t one of them.

Alas, however, life is not all fun and games, fully one-third of this book is devoted to my own theory for transitioning to a real, participatory democracy where people are able to vote directly on the issues that affect them. In doing so, I tried to avoid the oversimplified ‘final chapter’ that often consists of bullet-point inanities like ‘be more civilized to each other’ and ‘get money out of politics’, while simultaneously steering clear of the obsessively charted out ‘solution’, where the writer’s enjoyment of plotting in minute detail vastly outstrips their ability to implement.
Instead I’ve tried to outline a process towards democracy that is flexible enough to be realistic but focused enough to get the job done.

This involves:
– using technology to enable mass online participation (something already well underway in several countries)
– offering pay-for-participation (ideally through a form of basic social income)
– tethering debate and deliberation to concrete decision-making, rather than encouraging open-ended, unresolved social media battles
– redeveloping political leadership into rewarding but less formal channels focused more on policy development and influencing rather than decision-making per se
– utilizing random selection to choose virtually powerless officials to engage in executive tasks (a method utilized in ancient Athens)

If that sounds like a long-term plan, it’s because it is.

In this book I criticize libertarians, free-market liberals, socialists, technocrats and centrists. I don’t fall into any particular camp (a lifelong affliction) and I can therefore say with some confidence that everyone will find their own part of this to hate.

I’m also aware that in some sense In Defence of Democracy is a real buzzkill. After all, so many people just got done setting their hair on fire and running around screaming about racist idiots who change their votes based on shark attacks and who need to be put back in a carefully controlled classroom for their own good, and here I am intent on bursting their bubble. I don’t expect to be thanked.

It’s easy to defend the popular and facile, to say what you know will gain righteous applause, and avoid what you feel to be true but is certain to offend. It’s a lot harder to be the person who always goes around pointing out the elephants in the room. But this – democracy – is simply too important of an issue not to do so.

Someone had to defend government by the people from the rising tide of anti-democrats and I’m delighted, and grateful, that I got to be that person.


In Defence of Democracy is now available from Polity.