2016: The year when the mere act of voting might have lost its democratic legitimacy

Author: Suzana Carp, Change UK, South East


© r.j.wagner@flickr
© r.j.wagner@flickr

On both sides of the Atlantic, the year 2016 brought dramatic turns in modern understandings of democracy. With both the Brexit vote and the Trump potential presidency have showed us one very important thing: democracy goes beyond the mere exercise of a vote.

If democracy equaled a mere majority, there wouldn’t be such a questioning of the legitimacy of Brexit and if the mere majority condition applied to the US, the vote would have gone to Hillary Clinton. Obviously there is more at stake here than the sheer numbering of votes.

Political scientists and students studying this topic are familiar will be familiar with the notion that democracy, a goal and principle we strive towards rather than a concrete thing, is based on values that underpin it and requires institutions that keep it in place. As such, actions that take place outside of those values and an associated institutional architecture (out of the many possibilities compatible with democratic values), are not necessarily democratic, despite being endorsed by the masses. But this stuff really isn’t common knowledge.

Many of the voters feel discontent with the current state of affairs and sometimes, even lack the frameworks to express what bothers them (which institution has been acting out of bound, what democratic values have been weakened, what are the legal solutions prescribed by in the international legal framework underpinning refugee resettlement, etc.). The 2016 two massive voting catastrophe [1] were blamed on populations rejecting the current status quo and therefore, the current ruling elites. But let’s be realistic: can anyone make the claim that Trump the billionaire or Boris Johnston were anything more than the very elite in their own countries? I very much doubt it.

However, the conversations about the votes do indeed bring the elitist dimension to the forefront: a part of the commentators considers these votes to have been terribly wrong, and it is usually those who have had education for democracy or for politics, while others find it outrageous that a popular vote is even questioned.

Well, good call – why are these votes even being questioned? Why are there protests against the election of Trump when it is not the first time that the electrical college system gives a president different from the one of the popular vote? Why were there 5 million citizens in the UK signing a petition asking for a second referendum?

This is actually a tricky question but if we are to move beyond the crisis in democratic theory that today’s tensions have highlighted, we must nonetheless and foremost answer this question. What is so wrong about these popular choices? Why can’t citizens simply come to terms with them?

Here is the thing. The referendum in the UK took place in a context in which the freedom of expression, a core democratic, lead to the expansion of a media which took this freedom to mean the freedom to sell information which was factually inaccurate but framed as truth, under the umbrella of the freedom of the press. Selling untruthful information, repeatedly, to achieve a goal, is known in political science as propaganda. This was a case in which an undemocratic practice, infiltrated a democratic space where values such as the freedom of expression exist, to actually use it to promote undemocratic values.  There is something to be reckoned with here.

The US vote was equally in breach with the democratic value of freedom of expression and that is because democracy as a concept presupposes respect for and inclusion of minorities and respect for human rights. In this particular instance, we had a candidate who has directly offended and threatened all sorts of minorities, as well as has made dehumanizing comments about his fellow citizens and promised to overtake the judiciary system to jail his political opponents (a statement which in itself is incompatible with democracy). It should be of no surprise in that case that it is so difficult for this election result to go unchallenged, because to a great extent it contradicts the very system that allowed it to exist.

In short, it looks as though the values of democracy and the systems that a democratic system proposes have been overtaken by non-democratic values and practices. In other words democracy has been hijacked by non-democracy through the voting system itself. The tensions in the streets and in the public sphere are very likely to continue until this core contradiction is solved.  Let’s have a quick look back in history and see how this was resolved before.

In the 1930s, in Germany, Hitler came to power to some extent democratically. However, nothing about his regime or his leadership style had anything to do with democracy and neither does history remember it as such. We have a clear indication there that a leader that comes to power following intense propaganda and targeting minorities is, by global consensus, not a democratic leader. His regime was not a democratic regime, regardless of whether a parliamentary vote brought him to power or not.

During the times of the Cold War, the countries in the Eastern block had periodic voting days. The result always came in 99% support of the regime. Were those regimes democratic in that case? Certainly not, because the core values of democracy were absent from the greater public sphere, such as electoral competition, public debates on different points of view, party pluralism, etc.

Going a bit further in time, the great war historian Thucydides, in his fantastic account of the Peloponnesian war well captures the point where democracy subsides to autocracy.  The transformation can be traced and observed as the situation evolves between the Mytilinian debate and the Melian Dialogue. Whereas in the first reason and democracy grounded in democratic values prevail and the votes shift against the death penalty as a result of hearing a speech based on values, by the Melian dialogue, words no longer operate as triggers and democracy therefore fails, resulting in the massacre of all opponents and the enslavement of women and children.

While the first debate and vote reflected a democratic decision, the second did not, because for democracy to take place, there needs to be a space for meaningful and reasonable debate. There has to be space for words to exist outside of the spectrum of violence, and for values that prioritize human life (including that of the ‘others’) to be upheld. Last but not least, the audience should have the space to respond reasonably to arguments, not just through calls to violence (here I include cultural violence and intolerance to other views of the world).

Fast-forwarding to 2016, it appears as though the debate on the meaning of democracy in the 21st century is kicking off.  The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, can not, if we follow democratic theory, be seen as an episode of democracy: the reason goes beyond the electoral system into the very fact that the values he stands for, such as discrimination, lack of rule of law (as reflected by the notion to jail opponents), ethnic targeting, harassment and religious illiberality are incompatible with democracy.
As a result, the true democratic outcome of these elections is the broader debate around democracy that has been long over due. The people in the streets asking for the prohibition of Trump from public office are democratically, perfectly entitled to do so, irrespective of voting mechanisms, if one is to take into account strictly the value set underpinning democracy.

As for the other democratic incident of the year, the June 2016 referendum for the UK to leave in the EU, the true democratic outcome of it is the fact that the rule of law, the wider democratic institutional context in which the vote took place rejected the vote by passing it into the debate room of the Houses of Parliament, as a reassurance of a second democratic scrutiny. On one hand, this respects the principle of legal symmetry – if an institution voted the UK in, the same institution can vote it out and when it comes to sovereignty, the Houses of Parliament are sovereign.

 So, despite the lack of a democratic underpinning around the public information or misinformation that populated the public space ahead of the vote, the wider democratic structure rejected the undemocratic vote outcome, by forcing a meaningful and fact based debate to take place within the institutional architecture of the state.

Interestingly enough, the Government, which should be a neutral government of all citizens (according to democratic principles a government, although brought to power through the views of some, upon taking office, is ultimately the servant of all – as such, Brexit can not just mean Brexit for a democratic government looking after all its ‘subjects’. Therefore, it is up to the Houses of Parliament to carry out the necessary debate before the Brexit decision can be called to be democratically justified.

Today’s social tensions and public rejection of voting systems can only be properly understood if connected to a wider understanding of democracy that looks at the core values of democracy. More specifically, this may not be about the votes, it may just be about the values that the vote choices reflect, and if these values are incompatible with democracy and threatening to the safety of specific groups within society, then the outcome itself is simply not a reflection of a democratic process.

In short, voting is not synonymous with democracy, unless it complies with the broader set of values that underpin democracy, such as respect for diversity and the equal rights of all. While 2016 has brought to the light tensions, which had been accumulating for a long time, it has also brought the time for debate forward. So let’s bring our arguments to the light and hope for democratic solutions to both the aforementioned votes, which took place in a public space characterized by weak democratic values.

[1] This adjective does not reflect a verdict on the outcome of the voting episodes discussed, but rather of their problematic procedural underpinning and as a result of the fragmentations they exacerbates in both societies.

 

 


Suzana Carp, Change UK, South East

About the Author

Suzana Carp, Change UK, South East

Suzana lives in Brussels where she leads on the EU engagement work of a London based climate policy think tank.

She holds an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, awarded with Distinctions, a second Masters degree in European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. She completed her University degree in the United States, where she specialised in political science and international affairs.

She worked on a number of migration related projects, including working on a project investigating migration in the media across different countries, completing a comprehensive study of refugee support across the EU, etc. Her interests cover also democratic theory, having founded the project Act 4 Democracy, which strives to offer education for democracy through theatre to youth from underprivileged backgrounds and remote areas.

 

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Suzana Carp, Change UK, South East

About the Author

Suzana Carp, Change UK, South East

Suzana lives in Brussels where she leads on the EU engagement work of a London based climate policy think tank.

She holds an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, awarded with Distinctions, a second Masters degree in European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. She completed her University degree in the United States, where she specialised in political science and international affairs.

She worked on a number of migration related projects, including working on a project investigating migration in the media across different countries, completing a comprehensive study of refugee support across the EU, etc. Her interests cover also democratic theory, having founded the project Act 4 Democracy, which strives to offer education for democracy through theatre to youth from underprivileged backgrounds and remote areas.

 

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