Democracy is a process, not an event

I know I’m not alone in wondering just how we got here, where the ever-growing mass of Brexit has now come to a point where it threatens to overwhelm everything in British politics and society. While we find ourselves continually distracted by having to firefight whatever the political, constitutional, or economic crisis of the day is, it’s important that we also try to take a step back and seek those bigger answers about how we got here. Maybe by finding those and knowing how we got here, we might at least be able to work out just where we are, even if we can’t retrace our steps to get out.

For me, Brexit is a symptom and a result of a much wider malaise in British politics, the roots of which go back decades. I’ve written before about why “Take Back Control” was such a powerful slogan precisely because people felt that they had no control over their lives:

Thinking more about, this problem stems from the fact we’re not very good at understanding democracy in this country. We’re very good at talking about, invoking it, demanding it, and proclaiming our support for it, but we’re never that clear about what we mean when we do all that. The problem is that our systems and our culture have brought us to a point where we see democracy as a discrete event or a series of one-off occurrences rather than as an ongoing process.

Consider, for example, how much of our political discourse presents the processes of democracy as a zero-sum game. Elections are about which side wins and which side loses, getting policies through is about being victorious or defeated in crucial votes, changing your mind is always a u-turn and so on and so forth. Politics is presented as a series of binary decisions and democracy is solely about deciding which side of the binary wins or loses on an individual issue. Lost a vote? Tough, democracy has happened and now it’s time to get on with it.

At a simple level, yes, that is democracy — the people have voted and spoken, so time to move on — but even when you go back to some of the earliest forms of democracy there is an idea that it is more than that. The citizens of Athens changed their mind after the Mytilenean Debate almost 2500 years ago, for instance.

Even more than that, democracy is not just a tool for making decisions and picking between options, it’s an ongoing process of representation and dialogue that’s seeking to establish a way in which we can all comfortably co-exist. Voting is not the be-all and end-all of the process but rather just one stage within it. Voting should be the method we use to try and determine the range of views on issues and to feed them into the ongoing process. The problem for Britain is that we generally ignore this idea of democracy in favour of using elections as a way to conduct a partisan head count and declare which side is the biggest, and thus the winner. If you want an example of this, look at how confused the British media get reporting elections in multi-party democracies when they try and report that there’s a single winner and the process is over, rather than sticking around for the government-formation process that follows.

This links to an ongoing problem we have — especially since the Brexit vote — with the idea that democracy is about delivering the will of the people. In the event-based view of democracy, the “will of the people” is not only something that exists, it is something that can be discerned through the ballot box. Whatever is chosen — despite the fact that not everyone voted for it — is the will of the people, and democracy has been done in the discovery of it. The problem with this, as we can see with all sorts of issues and not just Brexit, is that there is no singular “will of the people” and indeed there are probably very few issues of any sort of contention where there’s even a majority view behind any single option unless you create a majority by imposing an arbitrary binary. If there is no singular and easily-discoverable “will of the people” then the idea of democracy as an event becomes troublesome, as it’s no longer revealing that there’s a definite winner and a definite loser, it’s actually concealing a much more complicated mixed-sum game.

If there is no singular “will of the people” then what is democracy for? To my mind, it’s a process by which we attempt to determine what all the different individual wills and desires are, and find a way to represent them as best we can so that we can all continue to co-exist. So in that sense, voting isn’t about solving a problem, it’s about revealing what the problem is. It’s not about determining who are the winners and who are the losers, but more about establishing what support and enthusiasm there is for various perspectives. The problem we have in Britain is that our electoral and political systems are very bad at carrying out that role because rather than asking people what it is they want to see, we’re instead usually asking them who it is they want to win.

This is why we’re in such a mess right now, because these two differing concepts of democracy have been in conflict in our system for a long time, finally coming to a head now, and Brexit is a symptom of the long-running problems that has now catalysed them into a full-blown crisis. Over time, we’ve been taking some steps towards having the process-based structures of what Keane calls a “monitory democracy” but we’ve retained the culture of democracy as an event. The ongoing clash is now between those who think that democracy has happened and needs to be implemented, and those who think that the processes of democracy never stop and any event is only one part of that ongoing cycle of decision.

And I never said I had a solution for the problems we face now, only a possible diagnosis of what they are and where they come from. What could have been a gradual evolution of British democracy from event to process has now been caught between the two, with no clear resolution in sight and the way in which Brexit is resolved will likely determine which path we take in the future.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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