Democracy and Its Crisis
A number of student tickets are available. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This event took place on Thursday, October 26, 2017
JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I am Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Carnegie Council, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, PEN America, and Becky, I want to thank you all for joining us this evening.
For those of you who are not familiar with our co-sponsor PEN America, let me briefly say that it is a membership organization that is composed of novelists, journalists, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other professionals who care about the freedom to write and the power of the word to transform the world. Founded in the years following World War I, PEN America is the largest of more than 100 centers of PEN International, and as part of this year's PEN literary festival we are delighted to be co-hosting one of Britain's best-known public intellectuals, the esteemed philosopher A. C. Grayling.
Professor Grayling, whose bio was handed out to you when you checked in, will be discussing his latest work, entitled Democracy and Its Crisis. His book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.
Is democracy in crisis? Ever since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, this question is one that is being raised more and more frequently. Yet, it is not only in Britain and the United States that democracy is being tested. With the advent of authoritarian leaders in Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East, the simultaneous rise of populism, and the erosion of liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, it is time to ask whether we have reached a crossroads, and, if so, why.
For a long time, representative democracy, a system of government in which all eligible citizens vote on representatives to pass laws for them, was morally preferable to other governing systems in its respect for people and their neighbors. It provided a feasible mechanism for pursuing social justice with the consent and will of the people. But as we move further into the 21st century, it has become evident that representative democracy is facing substantial challenges.
In Democracy and Its Crisis Professor Grayling posits that not only is democracy in crisis but that it has collapsed. As he surveys ancient ideas of democracy and their reformulation, our speaker examines the benefits and contradictions of popular sovereignty and tells us why the institutions of representative democracy seem unable to hold up against forces they were designed to manage, why it matters, and how it can be fixed.The question to consider is whether the negative forces now at work on our political culture will prevent or inspire. Will citizens become more active and be spurred into political action, or will our complacency lead to serious consequences?
For further discussion, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest this evening, Professor A.C. Grayling. Thank you.
A.C. GRAYLING: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.
You know what I mean when I mention Venn diagrams, don't you? This being New York, this being PEN, this being Carnegie Council, that overlap of Venn diagrams makes me quite confident that you were all reading Plato in bed last night, so I can remind you of what you encountered when you read Book VIII of The Republic, Plato's attack on democracy. He gave democracy such a bad name in that account that it took more than 2,000 years before anybody stood up and said that something of a democratic order was a necessity for people who live under the laws that a government passes, giving therefore a necessity that there should be a voice that people might have in choosing that government and in giving consent to the laws under which they live.
Let me just remind you: Plato said the problem with democracy is that it is just really ochlocracy in disguise. It is a wonderful word that, ochlocracy. It means mob rule. The reason why democracy collapses into mob rule is that "ordinary people"—and I put that phrase into quotation marks because of course there is no such thing as ordinary people, everybody is extraordinary, but just to use that phrase—are insufficiently well-informed, they are too short-termist, they are too self-interested, they very often are too prejudiced. And as a result, there will always be a great deal of conflict of opinions and different sets of desires, and if you put political authority into the hands of the people, what you will get is anarchy pretty soon. And when anarchy occurs, because it is exhausting and because you cannot get anything done, people will pretty soon welcome a tyrant, somebody who will come in, impose order, and get things back on track.
History, if you look across the great landscape of time, seems to bear this view out. Think about the French Revolution for example, ending as it did with Napoleonic rule. Plato, in fact, was himself adducing some historical examples of things that had happened in some of the polities of the ancient Greek city-states where just this sequence of events had happened. So he was extremely skeptical about the value of democracy and indeed thought it was only a step away from the very worst possible consequence, which was tyranny itself.
His reason for thinking that ordinary people—again using that phrase—were really incompetent to be the source of political authority in a state is a reason which has been shared by many people since. Everybody knows that Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the least bad of a lot of bad systems," but they forget that he also said that "the strongest argument against democracy is two minutes' conversation with any voter," and he meant exactly what Plato meant, that you would very quickly discover all that short-termism and self-interest and lack of information.
The point was put much more trenchantly in fact by H. L. Mencken, your wonderful satirist, who said, "To believe in democracy is to believe that collective wisdom will emerge from individual ignorance;" and again that is just a reformulation of a Platonic view.
But I like the anecdote that is told about Adlai Stevenson when he ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, a very intellectual, rather scholarly man, and somebody said to him, "Mr. Stevenson, every thinking person in America is going to vote for you." And he said, "I'm pleased to hear it, but I need a majority." This is exactly the difficulty that Plato had identified, and there are many people who still think that way.
But in the autumn—as we call it in England—of 1647 the New Model Army commanded by Fairfax and Cromwell and Ireton was in camp in a place called Putney, just outside London—it was then a little village outside London—in a moment of pause in the English Civil War. King Charles I had been defeated at the Battle of Naseby. He had been put into house arrest at Hampton Court. I have to say if you are going to be in house arrest, you couldn't do better than Hampton Court, I shouldn't wonder.
But there he was under house arrest, and the New Model Army was discussing with its commanders, who were called the grandees of the army, what the constitutional settlement would be when the war was finally over. And they wanted to have biennial parliaments; universal adult male suffrage; they wanted to have equal treatment in law; they wanted the House of Commons, the elected House of Parliament, to be the one where real political authority lay, not in the crown and not in the House of Lords. In fact, they were making a demand for a form of democracy—limited, of course, because it was men only who would have the vote—which had not really been heard for over 2,000 years, since Plato had given it that bad name.
Of course, the demand was refused by the grandees of the New Model Army, who thought that it was unthinkable that people should have the vote merely because they were adults or adult males. They thought that in order to be a participant in the government of the country you should have a stake in the country, you should own property, you should have a property qualification because only then were you really interested in good government, only then would you use your vote wisely.
If you gave the vote to somebody who did not have any property, what would he do with it? He would use it to dispossess the people who had property and redistribute the property to himself, so of course you are not going to give the vote to the poor or to the people who are not educated.
That marked a moment in the beginning—the middle of the 17th century—of people thinking that there is something not to the point about the kind of consideration that Plato adduced about the incapacity of so-called "ordinary people" to be the locus of political authority. That is not the point, not the point about whether you are educated or not or informed or not or own property or not, but that just in virtue of being a citizen, just in virtue of your status as a member of the society, since you are going to live in that society and be governed by its laws, you should have a voice.
This was the point that was made by one of the contributors to that debate in Putney, a man called Colonel Rainborough, who memorably said, "The poorest he in England has as much of a life to live as the richest he." And that completely shifts the weight of the debate away from questions about who is entitled to participate to the idea of your right as a citizen, your right to a voice.
Progressively, over the next couple of centuries, through the work of John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government; the thinking of Montesquieu; the very interesting work done by people like Madison and Jefferson here in the new United States at the end of the 18th century when, pretty well from scratch, a new set of institutions was being constructed in order to parlay the "consent of the people," as Jefferson put it, into a governmental structure which represented the interests of the people; through to de Tocqueville; Benjamin Constant; and John Stuart Mill, in a book called Considerations on Representative Government published in 1861 at a time when the franchise was being extended more and more in the United Kingdom, or Great Britain as it then was.
These ideas—the ideas about how you can really get the voice, the consent, the agreement of the people to government—were taking concrete form, and a development of structures was underway to make that possible because something had been recognized, something implicit in that remark that Thomas Rainborough made in 1647, and it is this: If there is a right that somebody has just in virtue of being a citizen to having a voice in government, then given all the problems that arise of the kind that Plato had identified or other difficulties that might arise or disparities that there might be in wealth and education and so on in society, what about a correlative right, another right, which is very important, namely, the right to good government?
We have a right to good government. Why? Because if we do not have good government—or let me rephrase that slightly, because after all, outside this room there is nothing perfect in our world, so we cannot expect to get good government, if we mean anything too utopian by it; but let me use the phrase "good enough government" in more modest ambition. We have a right to "good enough" government because unless we have good enough government, really good enough, then all our other rights are unclaimable. We do not have a right to assembly, to autonomy, to privacy, to freedom of expression, to all the civil liberties and the human rights that condition our experience as adult human beings in a grown-up world. You cannot lay claim to those things unless the order in which you live is sufficiently stable and mature. So you have a right to that.
So the right to a voice and the right to good government constitute two rights which have to be able to connect with one another. What people like John Locke and Montesquieu and Madison and others were thinking was, how do you translate the expression of that right, the right to a voice, into the good enough government that people have a right to?
And the answer is, through a set of institutions and practices which will ensure that the consent given, the agreement given by the people, is respected in what comes out of the governmental process underwritten by the politics which produces that governmental process through these institutions and these practices. One can go into detail about how, step by step, these ideas emerged, but the net effect of these ideas was what Joanne mentioned, the idea of representative democracy, where the adjective there is of the first importance, "representative" democracy.
What that means is this: We elect representatives. We elect people to go to the legislature, and we may elect our chief executive as well, and we send them off to wherever it might be—to Washington or to Whitehall—to do a job of work on our behalf. The job of work in question is to get the information, to do the due diligence, to listen to arguments, to discuss and to debate, to form a judgment, and to act on that judgment. And if we do not like what they do, we can kick them out next time, and we can put in their place somebody who will do a better job for us.
We send them there as our representatives to do that, not as our delegates or our messenger boys and girls. They are not going off to Washington or Whitehall just to report what the majority of people in their constituency or in their district happen to think. We send them there to go and get those facts and do that thinking and to listen to reason—we hope—and to act on it. That is the idea embodied in the notion of representation.
The control that we have is the control of recall. If we have a good, responsible fourth estate—and I have to say in the United States of America you are better served than we are in the United Kingdom in that respect, I am sorry to say, because of the very corrosive effect of the tabloid press, the so-called "red top" press in the United Kingdom—responsible reporting, investigative reporting, holding to account, asking pertinent and tough questions, that is a really important part of the process between elections. The interaction of citizens and their representatives is very important in a representative democracy, too.
But the thing which is of greatest importance, of course, is this possession of an extremely valuable thing, which it took centuries and a lot of blood to get, and that is a vote. That power of recall, that power of appointment, that power to confer a plenipotentiary responsibility on people to go and do their job of work on our behalf lies at the very heart of the idea of representative democracy.
In the ideal, and we are talking here about a slightly utopian situation where we have very good, honorable, intelligent representatives who understand perfectly well that what they are representing is the interests of their voters and of their country, and so they go off to wherever their legislature convenes to discuss with rationality in a well-informed way what will be the best thing to do in the general interest. That is the utopian vision.
Unfortunately, as franchises have extended—and we can think of the process in the United States as rather similar to the United Kingdom. By the First World War, there was pretty well universal adult male suffrage in the United Kingdom. The franchise had been extended little by little, just eked out by those in power to stop too much revolutionary sentiment. By the First World War it was universal among males.
Because of the great contribution that women made in the First World War in munitions factories and in the Land Army and in hospitals, women aged 30 and over were given the vote in 1918. I suppose this was on the assumption that by the age of 30 women might have grown a brain cell or two and could read a newspaper. The voting age was only equalized for men and women in 1928. The voting age was only made 18 in 1969. So you can see that the extension of the franchise has been very gradual and very grudging.
But it has happened, and we are more or less in the situation now where we can say that the argument is an argument about the margins. Should we lower the voting age to 16? That is being discussed in the United Kingdom. There are those among us here who have had teenage children who think, I would rather give them a Kalashnikov than the vote. That might be one view. But personally, I rather think that the voting age should be 16, but it should be accompanied, of course, by a very rich offer of civic education in politics and government. In high schools there should be a lot of commitment to mooting and voting and debating before the age of 16.
I think also with Belgium and Australia that voting ought to be compulsory. I notice that in the presidential election in this country last year, out of a voting population of about 250 million, something like 120 million people voted. That seems pretty extraordinary really, a great pity.
In Australia it is not compulsory to vote, it is compulsory to turn up at the voting booth. So you can destroy your ballot paper if you want to, if you really do not want to go to the prom with either of the two boys who have asked you, but you have to turn up because it is recognized as a civic duty, and I think that is very important.
This is pretty well where we are with the ideal of the structure. But, of course, as the franchise has been extended, politicians and political organizations, political machines, have recognized that in order to get their agendas through they have had to learn how to manipulate those structures, to pull the levers in the right kind of way, and to influence from within those institutions so that the party agendas can be got through.
I will make the following remark about the system in the United Kingdom, but you will see the parallels with the U.S. situation. In the United Kingdom there are two major political parties. There are a couple of others. There is a third, rather small party, but mainly it is two political parties.
These two political parties, in order to get their agendas through the parliamentary process, have to exert a very strict party discipline. They have what is called the whipping system. That sounds a bit problematic, but actually it comes from fox hunting, where they whip the dogs into pursuit of the luckless fox. The whipping system involves obliging members of your party to vote for your party line, no matter what they personally think about the policies in question. Whether it is against their conscience or against their better judgment, they are whipped into it. The whipping system is very strict. If you do not obey the party whip, you could lose the support of the party at the next election, so you do not get funding, you do not get support, and you do not get the party machine behind you.
But there is also—and it is rather a well-known fact—that in the UK Parliament, at any rate, the three B's are standardly employed to ensure the vote, and the three B's are blackmail, bullying, and bribery.
The bribery in question is, "We'll give you a ministerial position or more support at the next election" and so on.
The blackmail works like this: If you ever meet a British member of Parliament (MP), you should say to them, "Tell me the very first thing that happened to you when you reached Parliament?" And they will say, "Oh, the whips invited me to tea. And the whips said to me, 'You are now one of us, and we're going to look after you. In order to look after you, we need to be able to protect you from anything that anybody might be able to creep up on you and attack you about, so any secrets. Did you ever have your hand in the till, or what is going on with you and your secretary, anything like that. Just tell us your secrets so we can protect you in case anybody finds these secrets out.'"
Three weeks later, you want to vote against the party line, they come and say to you, "If you don't vote with us, it's going to be all over the newspapers what you did." They gather all the little secrets that they can. This is the blackmail thing.
The bullying thing? Well, there was a famous case just a couple of years ago of a member of Parliament being frog-marched into the lobby that his party wanted him in with his arm up behind his back, held there by two other MPs. You might ask yourself the following question, "How is this possible?" The answer is, because the common law of England does not apply in the Palace of Westminster. The Palace of Westminster has a "peculiar"—that is the literal term and also the correct term—status in the kingdom where the common law does not apply.
If I, as an employer, were to bully, blackmail, or bribe any of my employees, quite rightly I would be up in front of an employment tribunal pretty damn quick, PDQ, as they say, I would be there the next morning. But in Parliament, they do this all the time. What is the net result of this? The net result is that your representative in Parliament is not representing you any longer, but is representing the party line.
There are cases—and I am going to cite one—which should really stagger people, especially those Brits among you here. Back in March, the current government forced through a short bill on triggering Article 50 to cause Brexit. I am going to be completely neutral about Brexit and tell you I think it is a damn stupid idea.
To trigger this Article 50 bill, both major parties whipped their MPs into the lobbies to support it, and MP after MP after MP after MP did so obediently, saying it was the worst thing they had ever done. They disagreed with it, it was against their better judgment, and against their conscience, but they obeyed the party whip. If that is not a perversion of democracy, I do not know what is. It is a much bigger and more significant issue—the idea of party discipline, of the control of the party machine, of the process in our legislatures—than you might think. It is a serious matter. It is equivalent in seriousness really to the role of big money in politics.
It happens that I think this problem is a more serious one in the United States even than it is in the United Kingdom, but it is bad enough in the United Kingdom. Here, of course, as the result of a Supreme Court decision a few years ago which has allowed the formation of super political action committees (super PACs), you now have extremely large amounts of money applicable to the purchase of seats in the House of Representatives or the Senate, and if you had enough money, you could go so far as to buy yourself the White House. That is a very serious matter, too, when very large sums of money are applied to the distortion of the process of selection and representation in a country.
So those are functional aspects of how the institutions and practices which were designed to take the consent of the people into good enough government have been captured and have been distorted by the influences inside the practice of these institutions. And there are a number of other things that could be mentioned, too. They are in the book.
I do want to mention, however, a thing which I think is by far the most serious because it is the most recent, and that is that we have always been conscious of the fact that our politicians, because of the nature of the political game, have used rhetoric and propaganda and sometimes have not been completely truthful in what they have offered or promised or said or claimed. We have been aware of this. We have been aware of the fact that politics is a bit of a rough game and that you cannot completely trust politicians to do what they say they will do.
One reason why you cannot, of course, is that politics is a very difficult game, and government is a very difficult matter. It is like herding cats, as they say. It is a very apt description, that one. You may go into politics full of ideals and aspirations, and you want to do a great deal of good, and the minute that you arrive there you find you have to compromise, that you have to accept half-measures, that to get anywhere into influence in politics you have to be pretty firmly attached to the posterior of the person just above you on the greasy pole, so to get up there and to be able to do anything in politics is quite a hard job.
And you find that you will inevitably annoy this group of people and that group of people, and eventually you will annoy everybody. All political careers end in failure unless they end early, and you have to take the leaf out of the poet's book: If you want to be a great poet, die early. The same with great politicians: Get assassinated early, and you will be remembered as a great politician. But if you go on long enough, you will end up as a disaster. Why? Because you will eventually annoy everybody. Politics is a very difficult game, and government is equally difficult. So you could have one little grain of sympathy for people who go into politics, although it was their own stupid fault for doing it.
But the external problem is this: In order to get elected, in order to persuade people to give their consent to you as their representative, you have to sometimes make promises that you do not really think you can keep, you have to sometimes put spin on things or a bit of propaganda or an angle on things that is not exactly telling it like it is. We are all familiar with that, it is a very major reason why we are always more than half-skeptical about politics and politicians. So we know that.
If you met a politician standing on a soapbox in Central Park talking about his or her views about tax levels and the next budget and what is going to happen with refurbishing the armed forces and so on, you might be interested, but you might be a bit skeptical, and you will take it with a grain of salt. What, however, if the rhetoric, if the spin, if the propaganda, had been weaponized? What if it was being targeted at you in ways that you do not know about, which are concealed, which are not overt?
This, alas, has happened, and it has happened because of our enthusiastic embrace of social media. It is the use of social media and what happens on the Internet now which has made manipulation of groups of people so much more serious a matter and so much less obvious a matter.
Let me explain. You may remember that your president during the election campaign last year one evening at a rally said, "I am Mr. Brexit." Do you remember that occasion? "I am Mr. Brexit," he said. "You'll see." [Editor's note: It seems that actually, Trump tweeted this and said it in a Fox News interview] And he was quite right. Because his campaign team had employed the services of a company which had been very successful in securing the leave vote in the United Kingdom, a company called Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica is a big data analytics company. Big data is an extraordinarily powerful tool in the natural sciences, in medicine, epidemiology, in examining social trends. What big data analytics does is it trawls hundreds of millions of data points with great rapidity—tremendously powerful algorithms in computer terminology—and they are able dig into the patterns that are discerned to get the kind of granular causes of these patterns. So it is an extraordinarily powerful and very useful tool. But when this tool is applied to the manipulation of people's attitudes and beliefs in the political sphere, it is a somewhat different matter.
What happens is this: By using the huge amount of data available in the social media sphere, these companies are able to profile people. Now you know that if you use Google or any one of these major servers that Google will profile you. It will profile you in order to be able to target advertising at you. In fact, it tells you this. Every time you go on some website, it will say we are going to put cookies on your machine so that we can watch you and we can work out what to send you. So that is familiar. We all know about that. It has been going on for a long time.
What you may not know is that your profile, which—by the way, they know more about you than you do yourself. They have such a precise and accurate picture of you—your age, your gender, your sex, your education level, where you live, what you are interested in, what you do—because it so carefully and accurately monitors all of your activity in cyberspace, that when you go onto the Internet to ask a question, to look for some information—who was the fourth wife of Henry VIII? what year did the Norman Conquest take place? or any question like that—Google will give you the information that it thinks on the basis of your profile that you would like.
You dwell on that for a moment. You think you go on the Internet to get some information, and you are being given information that the service in question thinks that you would like to have. That is a different matter altogether.
A very good friend of mine here in New York, John Brockman—some of you may know him—was over in London a couple a weeks ago. He said to me, "I put on my Google calendar the fact that I had to go and have an out-patient appointment at one of the New York hospitals. For the next three days, I was bombarded with advertisements for my local crematorium." There is an example of how closely Google is monitoring him, and he was not very happy about what it was they were bombarding him with, but it is just a little indication of how it does it.
On the basis of this profiling, what a company like Cambridge Analytica does when it is employed to deal with an election campaign is the following: First, remember that there are two blocs—there is the yes and the no; the in, the out; the Clinton, the Trump; whatever it might be—of voters who are not pretty well going to change their minds very much. But in between there are the undecideds, the swing voters. They may be in the four big swing states, there may be special reasons why they are undecided or vulnerable or open to persuasion or manipulation. If you can target them, then you might be able to tip enough of them over to get the result that you want.
So what you do is, on the basis of your profiling you identify groups of people. This little group here, you test messaging on them. You see what it is that is bothering them, and you test messages to them. In the case of the Trump team, Cambridge Analytica tested some of their messaging up to 30,000 times to get the message absolutely right so that that message really resonated with that group.
You can see how that works. You know when you hear some politician say something that you agree with, you think to yourself, Oh, he's smart, because he has agreed with you. So this message is gotten out there to that group, and that group says, "Yes! That's dead right!" They have been captured. It really works to them. So you have hooked that group in to your man, Trump.
That group there, it might be something different that is bothering them, so you tailor a message to them, and you get the same effect, and so for lots and lots of little groups. These little groups may have nothing in common with one another other than the fact that they have been captured. They may loathe one another, they may not even know about one another. But they have been aggregated. They have been brought together into a single voting bloc, enough to tip the balance. The clever thing about this is that you do not have to get a majority. You just have to get enough.
As you know, Hillary Clinton got somewhere in the region of 3 million more votes than Donald Trump did in the popular vote, but he got the right votes in the right place, and he got the White House as a result. And those right votes were got by careful targeting regionally and with messaging to groups that were very carefully specified.
In a way, this would be okay. It would not matter that you were part of a group that was being targeted by very careful messaging, very carefully designed messaging that the people sending you the message know will really work with you. It would not matter if you knew that was happening, if you knew who it was who was sending you the message and why they were sending the message and who was paying for it and what they wanted you to do about it, if it was transparent.
But the real problem is that this is not transparent. This is covert, this is hidden persuasion, this is the weaponizing of the propaganda and the spin to manipulate and to direct the vote in very crucial sensitive areas of the undecided voting population in order to get a result. It takes money, and if money is going into a process that people are not aware of and they are being—indeed, "nudged" is the term, after all, the Nobel Prize for Economics was just given to the man who introduced that concept, of nudging, of influencing.
I was in Australia about a month ago, and I was talking to a member of the security services there, one of whose responsibilities is cybersecurity. We were talking about the Russian hacking, because by the way it is not only the messaging to selective target groups. It is also the hacking of Facebook and of Twitter and of emails. It is also the use, not just of pro-Trump messages but of anti-Clinton messages.
In the case of the EU referendum, it was a lot of pro-leave and anti-remain, but also, "Oh, remain is sure to win. It's going to win easily, so if it rains, you don't have to go out and vote." That kind of messaging, too. There was quite a repertoire, quite a palette of different ways in which different people were influenced by the kind of messaging that was coming out.
There were claims, for example, that the bookmakers had said it would be more than an 80 percent probability of a considerable remain vote. It is predictable within a very tiny margin of error what the drop in the turnout in an election will be if it rains on the day of the poll. In London on the 23rd of June last year, which was the day of the referendum, it rained, and the predictable drop occurred, and that drop in the turnout was enough to lose the vote to leave. A lot of people in London had been told that remain was going to win easily, so of course it did not matter if they did not go and vote. So this messaging and the targeting of the messages are very skillful.
If they were overt, as I say, absolutely no problem. If we knew who was paying for them and why, absolutely no problem. These techniques are almost certainly going to be used more and more, which is why the demand for transparency is going to be key in our democratic process.
I am going to very quickly leap across a whole lot of other considerations and say that I think our system of representative democracy in the United Kingdom and the United States have a lot of similarities to one another—they after all come from a common root—and can be saved relatively easily. A very modest and moderate and small-c conservative set of things can be done which would make our representative democracies work as they are meant to work. It is a pretty good system in a way. It is a pretty good system because although it would be very desirable for more people to be more actively engaged in politics and for local politics to be a more significant feature in people's lives in a way that would feed up into national politics, still it is the case that we all have our jobs to do, our families to look after, our interests in life, and we do not want to be looking over the shoulders of politicians every minute of every day.
We would like to be able to trust the system. We would like to be able to send good, responsible people to do this job of work for us, and we would like to be sure that the institutions would work properly so that we would get good enough government. That, I think, is one of the big arguments in favor of trying to make the system that was carefully and painfully devised over the last couple of centuries, to make that system work.
But in order to do so, it has to be transparent. It has to be transparent. We have to break the grip of party machines on the way the institutions are run. We have to make sure that big money does not distort the process in ways that are very partisan, that only serve the interests of a particular section of society. We have to make sure, in other words, that the system works as it was designed to work.
A lot of people come up with a lot of very exotic other ideas. What about sortition? Sortition is where we just by lottery choose people to go to the House of Representatives for a year and make the decisions, and then we cast the lots again and another group of people go. So that is one suggestion.
A suggestion that I do not mind is epistocracy. Epistocracy was Plato's idea, that everything should be run by philosophers. Well, that is okay by me, I would not mind, but I think it is a bit implausible. And then very occasionally I think of some of my fellow philosophers and I think, Oh, hang on a second. I think perhaps we'll stick with representative democracy.
But we could make representative democracy work, and we should demand that it does, transparency being absolutely key, breaking of the grip of the party machine, and control of the amount of money that is spent on elections. Those three things just by themselves would reclaim for us something that is designed to work in our interest.
I will stop there.
QUESTION: I am Don Simmons. I enjoyed your talk very much.
The United States has had a series of crises of democracy over our history, even since the Civil War; Reconstruction, the Red Scare period, the McCarthy period, the Watergate break-in, and so on. Each time, democracy and liberalism have been restored in the wake of these challenges. Is there anything about the current challenges, our current administration and the rise of fake news and the Tea Party and so on, that causes you to doubt that there will also be a return of the pendulum in due course?
A.C. GRAYLING: I think there are two very positive signs actually, which the Trump phenomenon—I have great diffidence here, I sympathize with your pain about this. I do not like to prod into it too much—you have a president who is probably the least qualified individual in the history of the world, or at least since Caligula, anyway, to hold high office, and it must be tremendously worrying and embarrassing as it for us Brits at the moment. We are embarrassed by the stupidity of Brexit.
But here in the United States, two things that strike me as being very positive: One is that the whole false news/fake news agenda has been instantly spotted, and people are alert to it. It is not as though we are still in the dark about it. It is not as though we are still being over-manipulated by it. Of course too many are, but there is quite a lot of pushback against it.
Second, your institutions in the United States are looking very robust. Look at your courts. Look how they have knocked down some of the dictates that have come out of the White House on immigration and people traveling here to the United States, for example. Look at the way some of the states like California, for example, have just refused to accept the Washington line, or the White House line anyway, on climate change. This to me is evidence of the robustness of some of the structures that you have in your country, and that is a great optimistic sign, I think. Probably in the end the pushback will win.
QUESTION: I'm Seth Siegel.
You talked about some of the negatives of the rise of technology, but I wonder if you could talk about your prognostication about the benefits of it. Particularly, do we need representative democracy, at least in the form that we have had it? We do not need perhaps to have a centralized government in Washington, DC when you could have something akin to the Athenian idea of democracy where every citizen could vote on key issues and in a prompt way. You could use technology to have people engaged to learn key issues and moreover to vote their opinions, even if it is a shifting opinion. Could you talk a little bit about where you think technology is going? It is changing every other part of society, every industry, and why wouldn't it also soon be changing governance or politics?
A.C. GRAYLING: I agree with that. Of course, a key issue there is the security issue because at the moment, at any rate, cyberspace is so porous, so hackable, so manipulatable that you would have to find ways of making it completely secure so that the government could be enacted through those media, and we could vote online and we could perhaps introduce—although I do not think that referendums are naturally at home in representative democracies, but there might be ways in which the voting system could be further democratized, that more people could be brought into the system and encouraged to vote, especially if it were made compulsory through these means. So I agree with you that it could be a very useful tool if it could be made secure.
My guess, however, is that the effect of technology on democracy is going to be indirect in other and less predictable ways. One thing we know, for example, is that the advent of super-intelligent artificial intelligence (AI) is going to make a huge difference to the way people work and even indeed whether they have jobs or not.
A concept which has been around for a long time now is the concept of universal basic incomes (UBI), which may become necessary if very, very large numbers of people are displaced by automation in our economy. One of the things which has been noted about the use of basic incomes in places where pilot schemes run—and there are a number of them in South Asia and in Africa—is that people become more participative, they become more responsible, they take more interest in local and national politics, they step up more. If getting a basic income were annexed to a responsibility to vote or to take part in local political affairs, it could actually draw more people into the process and give them a sense of belonging to the process, which does not for many people who now feel marginalized, especially by what has happened in our major economies.
So in those indirect ways, technological advances could have surprising sort of byproducts, but in order to make the technological aspect of things directly applicable to the way we run our politics and our government, we would have to make sure that it is genuinely secure, because what you do not want is your elections being run from Moscow.
QUESTION: Hi. Ed Albrecht from Mercy College.
I hear of developments from the United Kingdom where the home secretary, Amber Rudd, is enacting legislation which would make reading certain websites—extremist websites—punishable by 15 years of jail. This is for reading, not for downloading material or uploading or writing it, just for visiting the website. So I wonder in your opinion is that something that we should welcome in terms of the effect on democracy, or is it a worrisome development?
A.C. GRAYLING: No, I do not welcome it one little bit. And, of course, this is one little corner in a way, although maybe because it is the Internet it will be a big corner of the whole freedom-of-expression problem. It is a kind of no-platforming version, isn't it, electronic version, of denying people access to certain kinds of views and arguments and the rest.
I am the master of a college in London, and I say of my college that it is a safe space for free speech, and I will not have anybody no-platforming anybody. I say freedom of expression should be regarded in the following way: Bad free expression should be defeated by better free expression. You do not drive it underground it or refuse it or stop people from seeing it or punishing them if they do see it.
So that kind of initiative that you have described there seems to me incredibly retrogressive because all that you do in refusing access to any points of view, no matter how vile those points of view might be, is to drive them into a situation where they fester, they become more problematic in the long run than if they are out there in the open and you can deal with them, you can challenge them.
QUESTION: My name is Linda Stewart.
About Brexit, obviously I have no dog in that hunt, but I am very curious as to why it is so often considered to be the kind of populism that is antithetical to democracy. I have a lot of friends in England who voted for Brexit who are neither ill-educated, ill-informed, or even poor, and their reason for it was that it was democracy—aside from the 53 percent and who stayed home because it was raining—because it was making government more accountable locally. It was getting rid of the yoke—this was their take on it—of an unaccountable, unelected, micromanaging group in Brussels, and bringing it back to a more authentic democracy. So I am interested in your take on that.
A.C. GRAYLING: It is very interesting when that line is argued. It happens, by the way, that the electorate enfranchised for the referendum was a general election electorate rather than the referendum one, which means that it was restricted. So there were three groups of people who had a very material interest in the outcome of the referendum who were excluded deliberately—there was debate about it in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords—from the franchise. Of that restricted franchise, 37 percent of the electorate voted to leave. It happened that it was 51.9 percent of the votes cast on the day.
Had the electorate been said to be mandating, then there was already information given to members of Parliament before the debates on the referendum bill that there should be a threshold requirement or a supermajority requirement, but when requests were made for that in the House of Commons, the minister who was introducing the bill said it is not necessary because this is consultative only, it is not binding on Parliament or the government. But the government, driven by a group of people who were very keen to see Brexit happen, decided to treat it as mandating and have gone ahead with the process against actually quite a considerable anti-Brexit democratic upsurge in the country.
Some of the arguments about sovereignty, taking back control and escaping the rule of Brussels and so on, are sheer distortions, mainly the result of the tabloid press, mainly in particular the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and newspapers like that. Because it has never been the case that any of the sovereign Member States of the European Union have been under the inescapable control of Brussels.
The Secretariat in Brussels which carries out the requirements of the Council of Ministers, which are all the Member State governments who jointly put forward European Union legislation and has it ratified by the European Parliament, whose members are voted by citizens of all the Member States. So it is actually a more democratic system than the UK system is because we have, unfortunately like you here, the first-past-the-post voting system, which means that successive governments are always voted in a minority.
First-past-the-post, by the way, is a very undemocratic system. You can easily see why. Think of a constituency or a district with a hundred electors. Ten people stand, eight of them get ten votes, one gets nine votes, one gets eleven votes. That is the person who goes to the legislature. The other 89 people are not represented at all. That is what happens in the United Kingdom.
It is not what happens in Europe. Europe is proportionally represented. The Council of Ministers, the heads of state of the European governments, are the ones who formulate policy. Brussels, this metaphor that people use, merely carries out—it is a civil service—the instructions of the Council of Ministers.
So this whole business about sovereignty—I can tell you that you can go online, and there is a white paper that was published by the government. Usually white papers are published before discussions in Parliament, but this one happened to be rushed after discussion in Parliament. The white paper is on the Article 50 bill. Section 2, paragraph 1 says, "The United Kingdom has never been without sovereignty." It has never been the case that it has been under the kosh from any outside body. "The United Kingdom has never been without sovereignty, but it has sometimes felt like it." If that is a reason to leave the EU, then we are in serious trouble.
So you should get back to your chums and tell them to read that paper.
Your description of the crisis had a lot to do with technology, and your sense of the cure had a lot to do with the technology, with social media. I wonder, though, if the problem has as much to do with people's susceptibility to that technology and if that in turn comes from something that is not caused by the technology, for example, loss of social trust.
I think many of the philosophers you cited—Jefferson, Mill, de Tocqueville—assumed a level of social trust in a democracy which we do not seem to have now, and perhaps neither in Brexit as well. Is that part of the problem, and if it is, is that susceptible to the kinds of solutions that you were talking about?
A.C. GRAYLING: I think you are dead right about it. It is a very good point that you make. The trust has long since been compromised, I think, and may now have been lost completely, and it may take the form of the sense that a lot of people have of being marginalized or left behind or disregarded by the people who do have their hands on the levers of government. This has been cited in terms of a populist upswell of resentment against elites and the current order.
Personally I do not believe in populism in the form of a grassroots upswelling of sentiment. I certainly believe that there are always people in economies who in periods of transition or downturn or sectors of the economy which are suffering who do feel very marginalized and left out; and good, sensible politics, and good, sensible government should address those problems and help those people, and if they do not, then a problem arises.
The thing that is most toxic in a democratic order is inequality, and when inequality grows and it becomes palpable, very serious resentments arise and anxieties which can be exploited by demagogues. There will be people who will claim that they understand the problems of these people and they know who to blame, and they are going to fix the problem.
You have here in the United States of America an extremely improbable, implausible spectacle of a man who lives in a penthouse on top of a high-rise building at Fifth Avenue telling the blue collar workers that he is going to save their bacon for them. In the United Kingdom, for example, you have people who again feel left out, marginalized, left behind, and who have been told that the problem is the European Union, when actually the European Union was trying to invest money in their areas to regenerate and so. So you get that difficulty.
There is a serious problem here because people of lower and middle incomes in the advanced economies of the world over the last 25 years or more, but certainly since 2008, have seen their living standards stagnate. The top 1 percent, their wealth has grown fourfold in the same period. With that kind of inequality in society, you are guaranteed to have certain sorts of difficulties which can be exploited, and so they have been.
You look at Europe at the moment, you see the rise of the right in Austria, you see Marine Le Pen doing better than she has ever done in a presidential election, this is because of those kinds of frustrations. Personally I do not think that the right will stay that high in the polls for very long once those difficulties have been addressed, but they certainly exist.
That is where the lack of trust comes from. If you do not believe that people are interested in what you are doing, that the political process is going to be part of the solution to your problem, then your disaffection, your sense of impotence and futility, grows as a result. It is terribly important that people should feel that they genuinely are part of the story, but it also takes genuine leadership. To go and explain what the problem is and why there is a problem and what can be done about it and how to engage people and being part of the solution to the problem is where you get people of genuine statesmen and stateswomen stature. We are lacking those.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for being here. I'm Ariana
You mentioned institutions working the way that they were designed to, speaking about politicians trying to tip those scales in one direction or another, but it seems to me that that is kind of something that politicians have always done and it is now more malicious and effective, but to me it seems like that is something they have always done.
I guess my question is, does the social contract, the "Leviathan" that you are describing, still work if people believe that their representatives are representing their interests?
A.C. GRAYLING: I acknowledge—actually it was an important feature of what I was saying—that those tricks of rhetoric and manipulation and propaganda and so on, have indeed always been part of the process and have been a growing part of the process as franchises have extended.
Go back to England of the 18th century. In the 18th century, in the time of Walpole, MPs were very independent. They did not need to be party-disciplined. They did not talk to their electors—if they had any, most of them had rotten boroughs anyway—so there was no need for spin and propaganda. This became a feature of the political process the more you had to persuade voters to back your agenda. We have always been conscious of that, we have always been skeptical, and we have always discounted for it.
But now, I put it by saying it has been weaponized. It has been weaponized because the tremendous power of access to people's thinking and ways of nudging and influencing people through the medium of social media and through cyberspace has turned this into something familiar and something we are a bit uncomfortable about but we can discount for into something which is genuinely toxic and has made a big difference.
I think 2016, the Brexit phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon have shown that we have reached the tipping point on this, because in both those cases the swing voters were targeted in ways that were covert, which involved a great deal of money, and which involved the kinds of messaging to them that were specifically designed to manipulate without them knowing that they were being manipulated.
Fortunately, as I say, we have spotted it. We are aware of the problem, and now we are trying to push back on it, but that is a big part of the story of what happened last year.
JOANNE MYERS: I think I would agree with almost everything you have said, but I take issue with one thing: I think certain philosophers would make good politicians. So, thank you very much for joining us this evening.