We need more democracy, not less

Well. That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it.

Like just about every other pundit I was wrong about the result, but I think I was right about the drivers of it. For all the talk of Donald Trump “upending the electoral map”, the swing was reasonably uniform. It looks like a Republican victory rather than specifically a Trump victory: he won because the Republican Party stood behind him and its voters stood behind it.

More detail on that in coming days. Whatever the cause, we have entered a dangerous and disturbing period. Do I think that Trump as president is likely to try to end American democracy and make himself a dictator? No I don’t, but I think the risk of that or something like it happening is unacceptably high.

I was haunted last night by a line I wrote several months ago: “if we’ve reached the stage where we’re seriously debating how close we are to the 1930s, then it’s clear that we’re already much too close for comfort.”

But there’s one particular point that’s worth tackling now. That’s the idea, popular last night on the internet, that results like this prove that democracy is a bad idea: that because the majority of people are foolish and ignorant, leaving decisions in their hands is going to lead to bad outcomes.

I think the reverse is the truth. Time and again, suboptimal results arise not from the application of democracy, but from bad electoral systems preventing a more democratic outcome.

Yesterday is a classic of that. Trump’s victory is a gift of the crazy anachronism of the electoral college; Hillary Clinton currently has 50.1% of the two-party vote, a lead of about 214,000 votes, and that number will increase slightly as late votes come in. If America was really a democracy, she would now be president-elect.

And this is not an isolated instance. A democratic election would have given Al Gore a clear mandate in 2000, not the narrow victory that the Supreme Court was able to stymie. So no Bush Jr presidency, no Iraq war, probably no Da’esh/IS and subsequent calamities.

No other presidential system in a democracy works this way – even the countries that otherwise most slavishly copied their constitutions from the United States refrained from adopting anything like the electoral college. It serves no intelligible purpose other than to introduce random errors into election results.

Parliamentary systems have the same sort of problems when they rely on single-member districts. South Africa might have been spared much of the trauma of the twentieth century if it had had a fair electoral system rather than the malapportionment that in 1948 elected the National Party, with its program of apartheid – despite trailing its opponents by more than 10%.

Australia, too, would have been spared the nightmare of Tampa and our subsequent descent into barbarism over refugee policy if the 1998 election had given Kim Beazley’s Labor Party a parliamentary majority to go with its 51.1% of the two-party-preferred vote.

And it seems likely that the National Front would be less of a danger in France today if a succession of elections had given it a substantial parliamentary contingent to match its share of the vote (and to give its members the opportunity to make fools of themselves in the way One Nation’s MPs do), rather than locking it out via single-member districts.

I don’t suggest that the application of democracy will solve every problem, or that voters never make mistakes. Manifestly they do: no-one is infallible, and so no collection of people is infallible either.

But to blame the masses for leading us astray is unfounded. Before we criticise democracy, let’s at least give it a fair try.

One thought on “We need more democracy, not less

  1. Apologists for the electoral college love to say it protects the smaller states from being dictated to by the larger states. But say what you will about the tyranny of the majority, but it is not acceptably countered by the tyranny of the minority.

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