Hollowing out Democracy's Core

One of the interesting features of post war literature on Nazism and totalitarianism is the broadness of its understanding of democracy and what makes it work. Many of the leading political theorists and philosophers of this period understood democracy not just in terms of formal processes (majority votes, checks and balances of power) but in terms of the wider political and cultural practices of open and free societies. J├╝rgen Habermas's idea of communicative rationality stressed the importance of discussion and reflection for coming to ethical decisions which consider the value of others. In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt located the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s and the radicalisation of policy once in power in a fragmentation of public discussion of politics. Hans Mommsen's idea of cumulative radicalisation can also be thought of in discursive terms, as can Karl Popper's idea of the open society.

Without wanting to get bogged down in the specifics of their arguments, what these all have in common is the idea that things go very wrong indeed when meaningful public discussion breaks down. People are no longer forced to confront the ethical implications of their desires or their impacts on others. There is no longer a mechanism for gathering and processing new information about decisions, attempting to come to some kind of consensus, or falsifying bad propositions about how the world works.

This, it should be noted, is not primarily a question of the formal rules or constitution of a country. A democratic majority can be more or less considerate of the view points of those in a minority, and more or less open to information coming from outside sources. We might consider the following analogy, in want of a better one. Imagine a pub quiz team. They decide that when they disagree on an answer, they take a majority vote. Imagine, now, that a question comes along where there team is split, but one person in the group is quite certain of a particular answer and wants to explain why they know it to be correct. There is nothing about the formal rules of the team which means that person has to be listened to. It is not clear how you could possibly build a mechanism for doing so into the rules. But there is nothing stopping the other members from listening to that single person and changing their viewpoint. To insist that they do not have to and would rather stick with what they know to be a gut reaction would be mad, albeit technically allowed.

Granted, this is a silly analogy. And it's true that the value or reality of considerate public discussion can be overrated. But I think there is a specific danger in the direction of political argument in the UK at the moment. It is increasingly towards the idea of an opinion being widespread as a justification in and of itself, be it because it is held by a majority or because those that hold it are seen as somehow more authentic representatives of the population as a whole. This is not just about Brexit. Discussion of immigration and criminal justice which focussed on 'reasonable concerns' of 'decent, hardworking people' go back at least as far as the Blair years. The media response in 2010 to Gordon Brown's remarks caught on a microphone after speaking to Gillian Duffy are another illustration of this.

The point here is that this is not primarily about majoritarianism or what the rules of a democracy are. Yes, there is a good case for limits on state power and constitutional checks and balances, but beyond this there is a serious question of how discussions about those decisions are held. This is not just about protecting minorities (important though that may be): the majority loses out too when a mere statement of current opinion becomes a justification. This is as this kind of justification does not allow for new information to be considered that that majority itself might want to consider. And contrary to the authoritarian populist line that this kind of argument is patronising or elitist, the opposite is in fact the case. It assumes people are rational, interested in new information and want to participate in the democratic process. It makes no claim on what eventual decision people will come to to. And the opposite view, that people's opinions are fixed, unreflective, and uninterested in information or ethnical considerations of their judgements, is to paint the electorate as monsters. Those keen to defend this idea of open, ongoing discussions, which do not see opinion as fixed or disinterested in others need to win this argument. To do so, they need to turn the authoritarian populist argument on its head: it is they who are being patronising and elitist by presuming that ordinary people are too stupid and dogmatic to want real discussions of the issues.

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