THE BLOG

What's Up With Democracy?

06/02/2017 12:40 GMT | Updated 06/02/2017 12:40 GMT

The election of Donald Trump, and the result of Britain's recent EU Referendum have called democracy into question. How can a just political system produce such bizarre results? The 52% who voted for Brexit, and the millions who voted for Trump are faced with an altogether different dilemma: why don't the losers just shut up? They lost fair and square - get over it, stop protesting. Both questions point to the fact that we need a bigger understanding of democracy.

Britain and America pride themselves on being beacons of democracy. However, there is a tendency in both countries to reduce democracy to voting, and to conflate democracy with freedom. Crucially, democracy means more than elections, and elections do not always guarantee freedom.

First, we should recognise that elected governments can trample on the rights of minorities. The US has had regular elections since its foundation, but this did not prevent the enslavement of black people across the South, or the introduction of Jim Crow. Clearly, elections were not enough to guarantee freedom. Indeed, the oppression of racialised minorities, albeit in different forms, continues in western democracies to this day. Countries which genuinely love liberty need checks and balances to ensure that elections do not create elective dictatorships.

Writers and thinkers have been alive to the threat posed by elected governments for a couple of centuries, and have suggested a variety of mechanisms to protect individual rights. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated independent judges and educated lawyers who used the courts to champion freedom. James Madison proposed legal protection of individual rights to limit government power. There are also other mechanisms that could be considered. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed that elected governments should be limited by a tribunate - a body which 'while it can do nothing . . . can prevent anything.' In recent days a US tribunate could have stopped Trump's immigration order in its tracks, preventing chaos and upholding the rights of Green Card holders, while the judiciary scrutinised and clarified the order.

Popular surveillance is another check on tyrannical power. Voting happens once every few years. But between elections the people have a duty to keep an eye on their government, to check they are fulfilling their promises, and to monitor them for signs of corruption. The free press, and a free high quality education system, are essential parts of this process. Therefore, all democrats should be concerned when government, or any powerful group, gains too much control over the media, or when the independence of education is threatened.

Secondly, we need to recognise that elections can hand power to large groups whose interests oppose those of the people as a whole. In Britain, a government can be formed on the basis of 36% of the vote, and therefore this is a real danger. Selling social homes to large property companies at knock down prices clearly make a minority of people very rich. But the consequence is that, in Britain today, one family is made homeless every five minutes, and an entire generation will struggle to acquire affordable housing. What is good for a section of society is undemocratic because it creates big problems for 'the people' as a whole.

Protest is an important protection against sectional interests using government power for their own ends. Strikes, demonstrations, trades unions, protest groups like the Black Panthers, opposition parties, Stonewall, as well as feminists around Spare Rib, have all played an important role in exposing situations where elected British governments have oppressed minorities. The great Caribbean intellectual CLR James advocates small organisations: organisations which foster self-organisation among disenfranchised groups, in order that their voice be heard and their demands be taken seriously. This is democracy at its most radical because small organisations are a way of empowering every section of the people.

Protests against elected governments are often described as undemocratic. But this assumes that elections are the supreme democratic mechanism and that they confer unlimited authority on the elected. Protest is an essential part of democracy, otherwise elected governments can become another form of tyranny.

We are right to value democracy, and to demand free, fair, regular, competitive elections. But an election is not an end in itself. Elections do not guarantee freedom or good outcomes. Democracy is much more likely to function well, when the rights of all are guaranteed by independent courts, even if this offends the majority. And elected governments are much less likely to become tyrannical when the people keep tabs on them through a free press, and when people are willing to protest. In fact, and this is not an alternative fact, every healthy democracy needs trouble makers.