The three nations that gave birth to modern democracy are exhibiting its weaknesses. Democracy is showing its limitations in dealing with contemporary challenges in UK, the US and France. Saving democracy from authoritarianism and populism is a popular subject. Yet first the viability of existing democratic institutions has to be questioned.
The current political crises differ significantly: the intractable contradictions in the UK’s departure from the European Union; the stand-off over border security in the US; and the insouciance and tin ear French political elites to popular discontent. They are symptomatic of an even graver general problem.
The 1688 Glorious Revolution gave the UK parliament a permanent role in government. Following the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, and the Representation of the People Act of 1884, parliament began to resemble a modern representative democracy through extension of the franchise. The incremental constitutional development continued, beginning with the Parliament Act of 1911, eventually securing primacy for the House of Commons.
Yet the nature of the relationship between UK voters and their representatives remains unresolved. Do voters transfer sovereign power to their representatives at elections? The clash between parliamentary sovereignty and popular sovereignty comes to the fore again in Brexit. Did the Brexit referendum bind members to leave Europe irrespective of the national interest?
Teresa May asserts it is her ‘duty’ to voters ‘to deliver on their instruction’ about Brexit, regardless. Edmund Burke argued to the contrary saying, “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole’. Constituents’ belief that they issue ‘authoritative instructions’ that bind members of parliament to positions ‘contrary to the clearest conviction of [his] judgment and conscience’ are not only ‘utterly unknown to the laws of this land’ but ‘arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution’.
The framers of the US Constitution sought a middle ground between democracy and monarchy; this was the core of the Federalist versus anti-Federalist debates in the early republic. The Constitution enshrined a checks-and-balances system of separate but overlapping and shared powers. Liberty not democracy was the first objective. Moreover, the design of the political institutions—a bicameral Congress and an executive—was strongly influenced by balancing large and small states’ rights.
The framers were very concerned about faction, or political parties. In the Federalist Paper no.10 James Madison evinces a degree of naivety about the capacity of the Republican model to limit the worst aspects of parties or factions. A conviction belied by current Congressional debacles and the history of inimical relations and irreconcilable differences between Democrats and Republicans.
The French political institutions are more recent. The 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic makes the French President a most powerful chief executive. Article 16 provides the President with an unconstrained power to act in times of national emergency and to issue decrees which have the force of law. In the last resort, the President is the sole judge of the circumstances that justify recourse to emergency powers and of the measures to be taken.
The constitutional amendment of 1962, which introduced the direct election of the President by universal suffrage, appeared to advance democracy. However, the simultaneous ascension Emmanuel Macron to the Presidency and the En Marche insurgency in the Assemblée Nationale has demonstrated the ease with which the emergency provisions in the constitution of the Fifth Republic can be used to bypass normal expectations of representative parliamentary lawmaking.
Three very different democratic systems and three highly distinctive substantive political issues. But in each case the constitutional institutions have proved inadequate to the political challenge. They share some characteristics in common. In each case the democratically elected leader exhibits a degree of intransigence on issues that do not have popular support; May’s refusal to budge on her Brexit deal, Trump’s forging ahead on a border wall, and Macron’s Jupiter-like dismissal of the key demands of the gilets jaunes.
However, these are just specific instances of a general modern phenomena. On climate change, austerity economics, outsourcing government services, privatising state assets, and free trade deals, and on social issues like religious freedom, abortion, gay rights, and privacy, elected representatives are frequently seen to be acting for ideological reasons or on behalf of special interests. Often acting in the face of scientific evidence or environmental and economic data pointing to the harm being caused to the wellbeing, welfare, security and rights of the electors. Macro-economic aggregates and fiscal balances are lauded while the disadvantaged are harassed.
It is via democratic processes that more illiberal, intolerant, and authoritarian regimes have emerged in Europe, Central and South America, and Africa. So-called populism is quintessentially democratic. Whatever institutional form democracy takes from place to place, it has not only been unable to prevent citizens from reacting to seeing their cultural, religious, and social norms and values degraded or sidelined Democratic governments have overseen and aided the inexorable growth in wealth disparity, the impoverishment and marginalisation of sectors of the community, and ensured lower living standards for the next generations.
John Menadue has advocated ‘a national political summit to spark democratic renewal’ and Michael Keating a ‘return to a more open system of government’. The devil, as always, is in the detail. Many approaches have been taken to devising democratic institutions and processes expected to produce good, prudent and efficient government while still protecting the liberty, rights, welfare, wellbeing and security of the citizens. Most are failing at present.
Even if the UK, US and France solve their current political crises more will undoubtedly follow further undermining the legitimacy of democracy. Unless far more radical and enduring institutional innovations can be found for sustaining democracy voters will increasingly tend to turn to authoritarian, or even dictatorial, models.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.