One of the oldest debates in political science has gained new relevance due to Brexit: if the people and their elected representatives fight for different goals, has democracy ceased to function?
Does democracy work? Churchill’s famous dictum that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others has always nourished the hope that the interests of a demos are represented most effectively in a democratic system. Even if not every citizen gets everything he wants all the time, the rules of democracy – free and fair elections, one vote per citizen, party competition – ensure some degree of fairness and equality.
Lately however, Brexit has shaken the confidence in that system. Extension after extension, deadlock after deadlock, meaningful vote after meaningful vote have given rise to a legitimate concern: If democratically elected representatives are unable or unwilling to execute “the will of the people” and implement Brexit, then what is the point of having a democracy at all?
Input, output, dispute
Some have argued that it is not democracy per se that is flawed but that this system is simply not the right vehicle to solve a question like Brexit. If the input is as politically contentious and legally complex as EU membership, no wonder the output democratic institutions have produced so far is chaotic and difficult to grasp.
And to complicate matters even further, Brexit has highlighted that the actors within a democracy are not stable or predictable. The internal fights and competitions in both Conservative and Labour parties contribute a fair share to the stalemate in British democracy. At the same time, the public is losing patience with its representatives, calling ever louder for either “simply” delivering Brexit or revoking it.
In a perfectly liberal world, calls for stopping Brexit or holding a second referendum would already have been heard and heeded. Austrian liberal philosopher Karl Popper once argued in favour of piecemeal engineering rather than “social planning”. In his opinion, a political system ought to offer the possibility for a change of mind to avoid violence and suppression of dissenting world views.
Naturally, the beauty of political philosophy lies with its clarity and structure. Yet in practice democracy – just as truth – is rarely pure and never simple. After all, it is not always reason that guides politics but emotions and voting behaviour. And most importantly, Popper’s argument may also favour ardent Brexit supporters: “EU membership is a political objective to which we no longer want to subscribe” one can hear them say. Popper could not have held their demand against them.
Make democracy work (again)
There is however one line of Popper to which both sides of the Brexit debate could and should agree: “[the rationalist] is a man who would rather be unsuccessful in convincing another man by argument than successful in crushing him by force.”
It is Popper’s plea for the respectful exchange of opinion and the importance of finding a compromise. Thus, even if philosophy or history cannot lead the way out of the stalemate in British democracy, they offer values which ought to guide us towards a democratically produced output, no matter how complex the input has been. To put it highly metaphorically, such values are the oil in the engine of a democratic system.
Because if basic democratic rules and the fundamental role of compromise are not respected by the demos and its elected decision-makers, how can we expect democracy to function?