On Sunday 14th October 2018, the Academy of Ideas held a debate on the state of democracy, taking the dual developments of technocracy and populism to task.
Over the past year, debates about democracy and its woes have been ubiquitous. Liberal democracy seems under strain from a wide variety of foes. There are worries that tech giants and algorithms are undermining elections and corrupting democratic discourse. Liberalism itself seems embroiled in a civil war over democratic principles, such as free speech and universalism. Populism is variously claimed to be a threat to democracy or its very embodiment. The Economist’s recent manifesto for liberalism concedes that “Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving… political philosophies cannot live by their past glories; they must also promise a better future. And, here, liberal democracy faces a looming challenge.”.
Few are willing to come out in public and argue against democracy explicitly. We’re all democrats, it would seem, but there are very different ideas of how much involvement the general population should have in running the affairs of state. In the UK, both sides of the Brexit divide claim to be the true democrats. Those arguing for a People’s Vote claim that those who instructed the government to negotiate Brexit must have the final say and suggest this is “a demand for continued democracy”. Or, to borrow a phrase, for voters to “take control”. Yet, Leavers see such campaigns as yet more evidence of an attempt to undermine the result of a democratic vote.
Ironically, while many voted to leave the EU because they see it as an undemocratic barrier to popular sovereignty, the EU sees itself as policing the democratic values of its member states. In September, the European Parliament voted by 448 to 197 to initiate Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. The same procedure had already been adopted against Poland in January, with the European Commission has accusing the governments of both countries of being in breach of the EU’s core values. Meanwhile, Barack Obama recently mounted an uncompromising attack on Donald Trump, saying his administration has violated a host of basic democratic principles of American democracy, including the rule of law and freedom of the press. Trump’s supporters in turn seem to view him as renewing democracy by “draining the swamp” of undemocratic technocrats such as Hillary Clinton.
Arguably, the present populist surge is a rejection of a managerial style of rule, at odds with popular sovereignty. Removing government action from democratic influence has become a trend in liberal democracies, with more and more policy being outsourced to unelected quangos at arm’s length from our elected representatives. For example, very few countries allow politicians to set interest rates, a decision that is left to central bankers. Given the complexity of political issues today, it is argued, perhaps there is a case for leaving more and more decisions to the experts. Surely, we can’t trust the electorate to be informed enough to know what’s best for society in a globalised world?
Such is the suspicion of the populace, it has even become fashionable to admire the ability of autocratic and one-party regimes to “get things done” and to prefer manipulating big data sets to convincing people. Indeed, part of the outrage against both the Brexit and Trump votes seems to be a response to the rejection of “right-thinking” experts. For many critics, the views of better-educated people should carry more clout than the rest of the electorate. The idea of an educational test for voters has been floated, too. The economist Dambisa Moyo has asked if “migrants are required to pass government-sanctioned civic tests in order to gain citizenship… why not give all voters a test of their knowledge?”.
All this begs the question, what is democracy and what threatens it today? Is it time to give more power to the people? Or, is this just a populist dog-whistle? Can liberalism renew itself sufficiently to save democracy and do we need a new philosophy to win the hearts and minds of younger generations for the virtues of democracy?
Click on the following links to:
– watch the video from the live stream
– go to the page for our other live event at the BoI
– or to find out more about the Battle of Ideas festival, which this debate forms part of.
Zanny Minton Beddoes – Editor-in-Chief, The Economist
Daniel Moylan – Former Deputy Chairman of Transport for London & Co-Chairman of Urban Design London
Steve Richards – Broadcaster, Political Commentator, Presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and author of The Rise of the Outsiders
Bruno Waterfield – Brussels Correspondent, The Times and Co-Author of No Means No
Claire Fox – Director of the Academy of Ideas and Author of I STILL Find that Offensive!
This debate was live streamed and a recording of the live stream can be found at the top of this page.
We also live streamed National identity and belonging: what does it mean to be a citizen? from the Battle of Ideas and you can watch this debate on its event page and find out about all other TTT debates by following us on our social media and/or media platforms, where we post information on forthcoming events and publish all new recordings
Furthermore, you can stay informed about new recordings The Academy of Ideas by subscribing to their Soundcloud channel, which you can reach by clicking here.
This debate forms part of the Battle of Ideas. The Battle of Ideas is a huge annual festival of debate at London’s Barbican Centre. This festival prides itself on challenging accepted points of view and putting forward provocative arguments and promises to provide new perspectives.
This debate has been organised by:
in partnership with