Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado
“A democracy is only as good as its demos.” Discuss.
What does this mean?
To me it means that a democracy can only serve its people’s best interests, to the extent that the majority of its voters know what is in their own best interests, understand all the factors affecting those interests, and vote accordingly. This formulation is based on a number of implicit, though obvious assumptions. Let them be made explicit, and be examined.
(1) That the decision of the demos on any given issue is imperative. Whatever it decides is done.
(2) That any such decision is decided by votes that can be counted accurately, and which accurately represent the will of the demos.
(3) That such decision is majoritarian.
(4) That the purpose of a democracy is to serve the best interest of the demos.
This means that, given the choice between two courses of action, however drastically different, say war or peace, capitalism or communism, a difference of one vote alone, in favour or against, should decide the outcome, and that it should, without deviation, hesitation or repetition, be put into practice. There are, however, more assumptions to be made explicit, less obvious than these.
(5) That the demos knows what is in its own best interest.
(6) That all votes are of equal value.
(7) That it is possible to put the voters’ decision into practice, with the consequences that they intend, and without unintended consequences.
(8) That the interest of the demos can be defined inclusively, despite explicit differences in self-perception among different parts of it.
Let us now examine each of these assumptions. We shall find that a constant distinction operates: that between direct and representative democracy. In the case of direct democracy, such as that of ancient Athens, or, to a much lesser degree, modern Switzerland, certain situations hold. In the case of representative democracy, such as, say, that of America or most EU countries, others hold.
Examination of assumptions
- That the decision of the demos on any given issue is imperative: whatever it decides is done.
This assumption, in direct democracies, means that any such decision is immediately put into effect by the demos itself. Whether the demos actually has the power to do so unaided is another question.
In representative, as opposed to direct democracies, with a standing, all purpose delegated government, the efficacy of this assumption is based on a number of subordinate assumptions:
(a) That a standing government exists which is materially capable of putting any decision of the demos into effect. (This, in view of the international security, political and economic situation.) For instance, in the case of Greece in 2015, its people voted for a certain economic policy, which proved impossible for its elected government to put into effect, because doing so depended on outside factors over which the government had no control.
(b) That the representative government of an actual demos chooses, in a given case, to do so. For the representative government may reflect a previous or different state of opinion, both regarding persons (parties) in government, and policies they are to implement. This may mean that an election of new representatives is called for. This is arguably the case after the Brexit referendum of 2016: the composition of the Parliament, mainly Remain, does not reflect that of the demos, which showed a relatively small majority for Leave.
- That any such decision is decided by votes that can be counted accurately, and which accurately represent the demos.
In democracies where voting is compulsory, this presents no problem: the electoral roll is, with very few exceptions, the same as census of enfranchised population. In those where voting is optional, decisions for the whole population may be made, not on the basis of the opinion of the whole enfranchised population, but only on that of the more motivated voters. It may be questioned whether this advantage to the strongly motivated is democratic.
- That such decision is majoritarian.
This is complicated by the existence of constituencies, and the question of how constituency boundaries are drawn. If there is only one constituency, say, that of a small city state, the problem does not arise. If there are more, and they are not all of equal numbers, then the problem arises how to count the majority: across the whole electorate, the so-called ‘popular vote’ or constituency by constituency, then counting the number of constituencies for or against a given question or election, and letting this number decide the outcome. This can lead to a decision being taken, or a government elected, which reflects the majority of constituencies, but a minority of the population. This has sometimes been the case in America, as in the recent election of Donald Trump. So this involves the debate over ‘first past the post’ or ‘proportional’ representation.
- That the purpose of a democracy is to serve the best interest of the demos.
This begs several questions:
(a) Does democracy (or any form of government) necessarily have a purpose? Has it (as a system of government, rather than as any given government) consciously been chosen by the demos for that purpose? If not by whom and for which? Or is it merely inherited or imposed? If inherited, is it still fit for purpose (if indeed it has one)? If imposed, whose interests does it really serve?
(b) How does one define the demos’ interests? Do they necessarily coincide with the voters’ will? Or can a people – like an individual- will something that is against its own interests? Ask any physician or lawyer about his or her patients or clients for an answer to this.
The last cited question deriving from an obvious assumption leads directly to the fifth assumption. This is the first that is less obvious. Therefore it will take longer than any previous assumption to consider:
- That the demos knows what is in its own best interest.
Probably only historians, long after the event, the longer the better, can know whether a given decision was indeed in the best interests of its takers, when taken. And their judgement of this particular question will depend on their general judgements regarding values, and the relative value of different outcomes, which may depend on a decision previously taken, which they are now judging. This applies equally to autocracies, kleptocracies, aristocracies, and plutocracies, as well as to democracies. This judgement therefore depends on how one defines a people’s (or an individual’s or a group’s) best interests. It is important to keep in mind that in any choice of ‘good’, there are limiting factors, the chief of which is limited resources. One cannot have it all. Choices must be made. That being so, is the demos’ own best interest:
(a) ‘The greatest good of the greatest number’ as Utilitarians hold? If so, how is the greatest good of the greatest number to be defined?
(b) Aspiration to the highest level of achievement possible as Elitists might propose? How is such achievement to be measured?
(c) Some specific ideal, such as justice (Plato), racial purity (Hitler),or equality (Pol Pot)?
Differences and similarities among (1) the greatest good of the greatest number (2) the highest level of achievement possible and (3) the pursuit of a specific ideal.
The first difference between ‘the highest level of achievement possible’ and ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ is that in ‘the highest level of achievement possible’ the ‘greatest good’ is replaced by the ‘highest level of achievement’. This is the difference between something, the greatest good, which is intrinsically difficult, both in theory and in practice, as we shall see, to define, and something, the highest level of achievement, which, although not easy to define, once one has chosen a context of definition (wherein difficulty lies), is at least possible in theory to define. The second difference is that ‘of the greatest number’ is replaced by ‘[that is] possible’. This is the difference between a relatively easy number to count objectively, once one has set parameters, and one which depends on judgement of levels of achievement, which may be more subjective.
The similarity between the greatest good of the greatest number and the highest level of achievement possible is that both aspire to optimal results, but differently defined. The same may also be said of political theories based on the pursuit of a specific ideal, such as Justice, Racial Purity or Equality. These pursue an optimal result laid down by ideology, usually based on authority, human or divine.
All these optimalist political theories taken together can be opposed to the absence of political theory, as in the hippy nostrum: ‘don’t worry, be happy’, or to Anarchism, which is a negative political theory seeking to abandon the attempt to put any positive political theory, including democracy, into practice.
Since here we are discussing democracy, I leave discussion of Anarchism and of flower power for another occasion.
Let us take these three options open to democracy one by one:
A: The greatest good of the greatest number.
Because modern representative democracy is, historically speaking, closely related to Utilitarianism, this should be the first alternative to be examined. There are two main ways to define the greatest good of the greatest number: singular and plural. Only the singular is strictly true to the superlative nature of the phrase. There cannot be more than one greatest good, at least not in the same context. Nonetheless, democracies tend to pursue a variety of competing greatest goods at once. The singular definition of the greatest good is not necessarily democratic. The plural can be so, but only one form of it is necessarily democratic.
- Singular definition of the greatest good:
Singular definition of the greatest good alone, without the greatest number, is theoretically difficult because there are so many choices. One needs a guideline, in the form of an authority, human or divine, or one reached by reason, such as a theory of culture defined in terms of a descending hierarchy of survival, growth and pleasure. Democracies try to allow the people to become that authority, usually with the result that they cannot settle on a single greatest good. Once one has identified a single greatest good, or a hierarchy deriving therefrom, one can seek to extend it to the greatest number. Thus if the greatest good of the greatest number is defined, say, according to one dictum of popular wisdom, as physical health, a number of measures logically follow in its extension to the greatest number:
i: free universal health care, paid for if necessary at the cost of other goods (security, education, economic freedom)
ii: compulsory life style (diet and exercise, prohibition of certain forms of work such as mining, and of dangerous sports )
iii: eugenics (weeding out the unhealthy, and promoting health through selective breeding)
- Plural definitions of the greatest good:
Given the likelihood of resistance by individuals and collectivities to some of the foregoing measures, such a programme is not likely to be democratically chosen. If such a programme conflicts with other preferences held by the demos (desire for security and education, resistance to compulsory diet and exercise, need to work at what is available, or desire to do what is profitable, desire to take risks, reluctance to submit to euthanasia or sterilisation) then compromises among a plurality of so-called greatest goods must be reached. Again, there are two main ways in which this can happen: either ideally and theoretically, in view of the goods themselves, or practically, in view of the degree of attachment to a given good by diverse constituencies within the demos.
i: Compromises can be reached ideally or theoretically, among the goods themselves, either taken as having equal value, thus balancing health equally with security and education, given the resources available, or arranging them in a rational theoretical hierarchy, whereby, say, security trumps health and education, because neither of the latter is useful if one is dead, or education is a precondition for security, and health a precondition for education, etc. (This is how a mandarinate or established bureaucracy, such as that of Brussels or Whitehall, makes its choices.)
ii: The balance can be unequal and theoretically irrational, reflecting the nature of the population and its wishes. This is what actually happens in democracies that strive for the greatest good of the greatest number. Assuming rejection of compulsory life style and eugenics, an elderly, ailing population will prefer health and security over education; a young striving population, education and economic freedom over health and security. The aforementioned motivation factor, determining which constituency is most active in promoting its agenda, and comes out in greatest numbers to vote, may, in non-compulsory voting systems, determine the outcome. The consequences of such an outcome, deriving from such a difference of interests, will be discussed below, in connection with Brexit.
Identification of a society’s own best interest with the greatest good of the greatest number is therefore seen to be predicated on a number of assumptions which do not necessarily turn out to hold in reality. It is not necessarily or even usually the case that an electorate knows its own best interest; nor that the same interest applies to the whole of an electorate, depending on the good in question.
B. The highest level of achievement possible
Just as difficulties arise over how to define the greatest good of the greatest number, so do they regarding the highest level of achievement possible. Here the first and greatest difficulty is the choice of context within which to measure the highest level of achievement possible. Should the highest level of achievement possible be defined in economic, political, artistic, actuarial or sanitary terms? (There are many other possibilities, but these are some among the most obvious.) Let us, for the sake of argument, oppose artistic to sanitary excellence.
Is it, say, preferable that Mozart should have composed what he did, albeit subject to a system of aristocratic patronage, by definition undemocratic, where most people, including aristocrats, and possibly Mozart himself, did not wash, and the parterres in palace gardens were used for urination and defecation? Or that the majority of Viennese should now have access to flush toilets and baths or showers, as well as to representative democracy?
Which of these two situations redounds to the greater good of Austria, or of humanity, seen as a whole, over time: a sanitary, democratic Austria, or one which produces or houses Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, in the pre-sanitary, pre-democratic period, Brahms, Strauss and Mahler in a more sanitary but still pre-democratic period, and Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in a relatively sanitary and sometimes democratic period? This is not to oppose music to sanitation and democracy: as is clear from the example: music persists throughout. Rather, it is to ask whether music matters more than democracy and sanitation, or vice-versa, and to whom.
In other words, is it more important, to whom, that a society should be democratic, clean and tidy, and thus, presumably, pleasant to live in for its people, or that it should produce great music? The judgement of the ear may, in this case, differ from that of the nose, as may that of a resident from that of one who can enjoy the music without going to where it is produced.
Another, more confrontational way of putting this is that of Orson Welles, in Carol Reed’s film of Graham Green’s novel, The Third Man: “…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Is there in fact any necessary or contingent opposition between these two goods? That could be argued at length, in another forum with more time and space than this. It would raise the larger question of whether liberal modernity, taking the political form of democracy, and the economic form of capitalism, is more conducive to the production of excellence, or to that of the lowest common denominator.
C. Pursuit of a specific ideal
Pursuit of a specific ideal is an option theoretically open to democracies. But its adoption often leads in practice to their transformation into autocracies, oligarchies, or other undemocratic forms of governance.
Much depends on the ideal in question. If it is religious, as many such ideals are, it is unlikely to favour democracy, because most religion tends to prefer obedience to authority over the exercise of free choice. Even if it is secular, as in the case of the pursuit of justice, racial purity, or equality, as defined respectively by Plato, Hitler and Pol Pot, both theory and practice suggest that pursuit of any such specific ideal leads away from democracy, even if that pursuit is democratically chosen.
The only specific ideal whose pursuit can be assumed, at least in theory, to be viable in a democracy is the ideal of democracy itself. This, of course, begs a definition of democracy. For we have recently seen, in the wave of populism sweeping Europe and America, that pursuit of the ideal of democracy in practice may not necessarily produce results satisfactory to any given definition of democracy. The majoritarian assumption underlying populism may tend to subvert democracy, if democracy is understood either as pursuit of the greatest good of the greatest number, or as pursuit of the highest level of achievement possible, or even as pursuit of the specific ideal of democracy itself. This is because populism calls into question the fifth cited assumption, under which we have been labouring during this consideration of those three options open to democracy: that the people know what is in their own best interest.
The political theory underlying democracy holds that the people know what is in their own best interest. But there are many instances where this is arguably not the case, however one defines that interest. Clearly, the results of the democratic election of 1932 in Germany, resulting, albeit indirectly, in Hitler’s rise to power, did not, over the next 12 years, redound to the best interests of the German people.
Unless, as an historian, one takes the longer view: that current German domination of the European political economy is due to their learning the hard lessons that the unforeseen consequences of that democratic election dealt them. Though whether they have really done so is now anew in doubt, with the rise of Neo-Nazi parties.
What, in a comparable case, will result from the British people’s majority decision to leave the EU remains to be seen. Not only are its internal economic consequences uncertain, but so are its external geopolitical repercussions.
Having given ample consideration to the fifth cited assumption, let us now proceed to the sixth.
- That all votes are of equal value.
This relates to questions arising from the previous assumption: that the people know their own best interest. In the case of the decision, say, to build a bridge, the choice of place, size, materials, and builders involves a compromise between political and economic interests, and engineering factors. In any given case, the result will usually be better (the bridge will serve its purpose better) if engineering, rather than politico economic considerations prevail. Thus, in such a case, the vote, as it were, of engineers should, ideally, outweigh that of politicians and businesspeople, at least in bridge building. But since it is politicians and businesspeople who pay for the bridge, it is likely that their opinions will in fact prevail.
In the recent (2015) Greek or (2015-2016) Spanish general elections, or in the (2016) Brexit referendum, it could be argued that the issues at stake were so complex, requiring such expert knowledge, that a significant part of the electorate did not really understand them. The same can be said of the (2016) American presidential election. Should a certain level of education be required for eligibility to vote? Should some votes count for more than others?
This, of course, is anathema to received opinion in currently democratic countries, but a qualified electorate preceded universal suffrage in most. Also, in the case of different sized constituencies in a non-proportional electoral system, some votes, those of less populated constituencies, do, in practice, count for more than others. Wyoming and Rhode Island have two senators, just as do New York and California.
Indeed it could be argued that the institution of representative, as opposed to direct democracy, results not only from the practical difficulties of convening the whole populace to vote on every single issue, but also from the recognition that certain activities, like taking and implementing geo-politico-economic-strategic decisions, are best left to people specialised in those activities, with expert knowledge of them Whether politicians are such people is quite another question.
Many voters use the vote as a way of registering emotion, often anger, against politicians. Elections, especially referenda, are taken as an opportunity for sounding off. But decisions taken in anger are rarely wise, or in the best interests of those who take them, as any lawyer will advise a client.
Moreover, the current disenchantment with politicians involves a concomitant assumption that the electorate, if left to its own devices, could do very well without them, and conduct its affairs on its own. This is one assumption underlying anarchism. Its adoption would result in direct democracy, and would involve referenda – perhaps electronic – on every single issue, from defence to infrastructure to public finance, health, and education, not to mention supermarket labelling, prison management, and waste disposal. The current media and communications culture, social networks, and the like, feeds the assumption, which may be an illusion, that the electorate is omnicompetent, as well as omnipotent.
It remains to be seen whether a country that conducted its affairs on such a basis would be able to compete with another – say China – where policy and its implementation is decided and directed by unelected politicians. As much would depend on the competence of the politicians, as on that of the demos. Which brings us back to the original proposition: a democracy is only as good as its demos.
- That it is possible to put the decision of the voters into practice, with the consequences that they intend, and without unintended consequences.
Just as the Greek populace recently learned that it is one thing to vote against austerity, quite another to escape it, the British populace may soon learn that it is one thing to vote for a return to an ethnically monochrome, more or less fully employed, industrial manufacturing economy, based not on free trade, but on colonialist mercantilism, one whose people all share the same religion or irreligion, and the same tastes in sport, food and drink, and that it is quite another to achieve in practice this return to an idealised past. The man, shown on television (Amanpour, Monday, 27 June, 2016) , who voted for Brexit to keep Muslims out of Britain is likely to be sorely disappointed.
- That the interest of the demos can be defined inclusively, despite explicit differences in self perception among different parts of it.
A question always raised by separatist nationalism, such as that of Kosovo, Catalonia or Scotland, is how to define the constituency whose interests are at stake. In all such cases, some argue that ethnicity – whether genetic, cultural, religious or linguistic – defines citizenship; others, that residence in a given place makes one a citizen or stakeholder.
We have seen, in the Balkans, what such notions lead to in practice: civil war and ethnic cleansing. Yet the counterargument, put forward by encompassing national governments in Spain or the Not Necessarily Much Longer United Kingdom (there is no such government left in the Former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), that the ‘whole country’ should decide the fate of all its parts, now begins to look inviable, at least in the Scottish case. Here, where a significant majority, greater, proportionally, than the English vote to leave, of Scots voted to stay in the EU, Scotland is in danger of being dragged out of it, kicking and screaming, by the votes of older, less educated Sassenachs, as those south of the border are sometimes referred to.
Again, sticking with the same example, the vote to leave Europe may or may not turn out to serve the interests of nostalgic elderly people in post-industrially depressed parts of England, but the young and better educated digital natives hoping for a future voted decisively to stay. Whether they were right to do so or not, in view of their own best interests, we shall now most likely never know. (Whereas we shall, presumably, in time, come to know if the vote to leave achieves the goals of those who voted for it.)
The question remains: are the interests, whether real or merely perceived, of the elderly declining more or less important than those of the rising young? Which are likelier, over time, to constitute the majority? How, when they do, are they likely to feel about the hand their elders dealt them? What will they do about it? Will it by then be too late? Will the EU, a work-in–progress which they could have contributed to building, have succumbed to populist separatism, sparked by Brexit? Will a new round of unforeseen consequences have brought some authoritarian leader to power in Mitteleuropa, eager to slug it out with a counterpart in France, or with Putin or his successor, or even with Britain?
Recent comments by various senior members of the British Houses of Commons and of Lords, to the effect that Britain would and should go to war with Spain over Gibraltar, when no military move by Spain against that colony’s integrity has recently, however remotely, been suggested by Spain, show that there are people who are eager to return to the habit of war, rather than diplomacy, as the default setting in geopolitics. Such an obvious desire for an objectively unnecessary military confrontation, (to dignify ‘spoiling for a fight’ with some kind of definition) in which its most ardent promoters and their children are unlikely to participate in action, is typical of the emotions underlying much of the present trend towards populism in Europe and America.
It is not necessary, here, for me to document with examples the way in which the recent presidential election in the United States of America has brought to the fore the threat posed by populism to democracy. Trump’s lies and boasts have been our daily fodder for months of campaigning, continuing unabated even after his election and inauguration. There is, however, perhaps some hope to be gleaned from the reaction of parts of the press and electronic media, as well as from that of some members of the judiciary, to some of his more egregious assaults on veracity and on the principles underlying the American constitution. It remains to be seen to what extent they can rein in his authoritarian instincts.
The threat of populism to democracy can perhaps best be understood in terms of Aristotle’s distinction among logos, ethos and pathos: persuasion by reason, by example, or by appealing to feeling. It is clear that populism, as practiced by Trump, is pathos, often falling into bathos. This, in turn, can be seen in terms of the set of criteria, cited elsewhere in these essays, defining modernity: preference for reason over emotion, knowledge over belief, and success over tradition.
Populism is, by that series of criteria, anti-modern. It is based on emotion, rather than reason, prefers belief (‘alternative facts’) to knowledge (facts), and wishes to return to traditional economic and industrial solutions with little or no present chance of success, rather than forge forward towards the conquest of new technologies and systems. Indeed, as we have seen, nostalgia for an unreal idealised past often plays a large role in populism.
In view of these reflections, one may well ask whether Churchill’s celebrated dictum that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, continues to hold true. I wonder what E.M.Forster, author of Two Cheers for Democracy, would have said now. I fear that we are down to one.
 Rhetoric, Bekker page 1356a, 2,3. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0060%3Abekker+page%3D1356a
 House of Commons, 11 November 1947.