Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens. But this is just the latest in a series of worrying blows to the health of democracy. On the surface, everything still seems fine. A few years ago, the World Values Survey, a large-scale international research project, asked more than 73,000 people in 57 countries if they believed democracy was a good way to govern a country – and nearly 92% said yes. But that same survey found that in the past 10 years, around the world, there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” – and that trust in governments and political parties has reached a historical low. It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but loathe the reality. Trust in the institutions of democracy is also visibly declining. In the past five years, the European Union’s official research bureau found that less than 30% of Europeans had faith in their national parliaments and governments – some of the lowest figures in years, and an indication that almost three-quarters of people distrust their countries’ most important political institutions. Everywhere in the west, political parties – the key players in our democracies – are among the least trusted institutions in society. Although a certain scepticism is an essential component of citizenship in a free society, we are justified in asking how widespread this distrust might be and at what point healthy scepticism tips over into outright aversion.
There is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online?
Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust. These are turbulent times, as the events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly. And yet, for all this turbulence, there has been little reflection on the tools that our democracies use. It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.
We discuss and debate the outcome of a referendum without discussing its principles. This should be surprising. In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today. Even in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”