Long Read: What’s gone wrong with our democracy – and how do we fix it?

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 14th August 2018

This is a time of high political anxiety. No one seems to be very sure of much anymore. Not that long ago it all seemed so different. The twentieth century was a time of tremendous shocks and risks; Stalinism, Fascism, the Cold War and nuclear stand-offs. Yet, as that century ended democracy seemed to have weathered it all and become an inevitable, unstoppable order. Now that system that was so linked to stability, peace and prosperity across the western world seems shaky and uncertain.

Democracy is a simple idea – that people can govern themselves. How that is achieved is unfortunately not so simple. Because democracy and elections are so closely linked they have at times become interchangeable words and interchangeable ideas. There is reason to caution against that, we have more elections and referendums than ever but on very many indicators of democracy, things are going backwards. To such an extent that the US is now reclassified from a full democracy to a flawed democracy by organisations that measure such things.

While a majority of people voted for Brexit across the UK (we all know that Scotland voted to remain yet seems we are still leaving) there is a big Union Jack-coloured question mark over whether it was a legitimate majority at a UK level. The leave campaign broke the laws on referendums by spending around £600k more on the campaign than they were allowed to.

Most of that money was spent on highly targeted Facebook ads some considered to be extremely misleading. These ads were what is called “micro-targeted”. If Facebook algorithms knew you cared strongly about polar bears (which they do because their whole business model is about getting to know you, probably better than you know yourself) then ads telling you about how the EU stops us from protecting polar bears would be shown on your timeline. Some of these messages were so finely tailored to particular interests, personality types or psychological traits that they were shown to only a few hundred people.

Vote Leave Polar Bears
One of Vote Leave’s Polar Bear based adverts

Who pays for such ads and in whose interest they shape our view of the world is murky and confusing. Was it just very rich, interested businessmen? Was it the Russians? Was it the CIA? No one really knows.

In the US, Donald Trump seems to be trying to turn the clock back on hard-won rights of minorities and woman and upending ideas of fairness and justice. Any criticism of him is “fake news” while he seems to be able to claim that the US air force now flies invisible planes. In a subversion of the Emperor’s new clothes apparently only smart people cannot see them.

This should draw our attention to the problem of only thinking of democracy as elections. To do so does not say enough about the role of information and how humans choose one thing over another. This interplay between people, data and technology is a key question of our time and holds big threats to our democracy. Or enough about the shape and values of the institutions of the state and government. Is power awarded every few years at elections then handed down on high from an exalted centre, be it Holyrood or Westminster?

It is now reasonable to worry that human beings via their connection into worldwide networks such as Facebook can themselves be ‘hacked’. Maybe we are making decisions against our own interests but in the benefit of those rich or powerful enough to buy or collect enough data to know us better than we know ourselves. It could be an easy move to get away with, no one likes to think they are being tricked into making bad decisions for themselves. This could mean that informed choice in elections or referendums becomes a questionable idea.

All of this might suggest something good going bad but it is much more than that. It is more like an awakening to a fuller reality of our politics, which has been better but was never that good. This awakening could be seen to happen in several stages, although in reality, it is much messier than that.

The underlying issues with our democracy are about institutions and process that were built in a different age being far too slow to change to keep up with a time that is so remarkably different from what has gone before. When we designed parliaments and council and civil services in the last century or often long before, they were inevitably designed from the top down. That might have worked when it fitted the shape of our society. But, in a horizontal, peer-to-peer, networked world is it any wonder our governments and councils find it increasingly difficult to govern?

[bctt tweet=”In a horizontal, peer-to-peer, networked world is it any wonder our governments and councils find it increasingly difficult to govern?” username=”electoralreform”]

Scotland’s own political institutions are youthful when compared with those at Westminster but they were largely inspired by them. That fact that a majority of Scots in a recent BBC survey thought their best days were ahead as a nation while in England most people feel they are in the past, is a good outcome of that partial modernisation that came from devolution.

Westminster political culture and its institutions are stuck in a time of black bakelite phones when the world is driven by smartphones. This means large parts of England are held behind by a centralised state and economy, by an electoral system that gives them little representation and by a culture that is best symbolised by a second chamber made up of Lords, Barons and Baronesses, most appointed by the Prime minister and some inheriting the role from their ancestors. Blocked from moving forward, stuck in nowhere land, is it any wonder that some hark back to that mythical time of Churchill and empire?

For many Scots the solution is independence and you can understand why. Yet, we are always going to be part of the same island and closely connected as people as well as adversely affected by Westminster, that crazy uncle in an old building slowly sinking into decrepitude. While we are represented there by Scottish parties they have a duty to try to make things better.

It is not only our institutions of government that are outdated. A centralised media, reporting things from only a narrow range of perspectives and seeing balance as putting a case for and against even within a once accepted status quo, is being left behind. As other sources of news and information grew online and became shareable peer to peer, traditional narrow versions of the truth became challengeable. This seemed to make obvious to many more people that certain versions of events served one set of interests over another. A good example of this was that the BBC was ousted from its position as an overwhelmingly trusted source of information in Scotland, when it was felt it viewed the world through the establishment eyes of the United Kingdom and at times against the interests of those who wanted an independent Scotland. The same happened in England and Wales with those who supported Brexit.

More recent events are adding to lots of personal internal acknowledgements that, because voters can be targeted and manipulated with such scientific accuracy and high impact via Facebook, this was what was going on all along in a more clumsy and scattergun approach through more traditional media.

The upshot of this is that people are unsure what to believe anymore. To have to admit that you can no longer be certain about both the content and the motives of those once trusted sources is deeply unsettling to the point of frightening. You might wish to double down on the certainty of the past and hark back to that time when things seemed more stable. You might look to new sources of authority with simple straightforward answers, certain of their views and aligned with base human instincts of protecting the insiders and blaming the outsiders. We see these effects here in Scotland as well as elsewhere.

Fake news is not new. Powerful people have always sought to control the shared stories of a society. That is the very source of power. Shape and control information and more importantly what the information means and you can affect a population’s values, what is important to them and so ultimately who they follow as leaders. The great religions knew this, as did the great politicians and the not-so-great media moguls. To try to understand what is different now requires a full admission that the effect of digital technologies on ourselves and our society are very deep and very powerful. Despite things being radically different now we tend to hang on to the things that are similar, it is how we stay comfortable. It means that when we check in with our memory of the past we are unable to acknowledge the full scale of the change. If we continue to try to treat the present like the past then the upheavals and ruptures that come with these changes will be amplified and magnified to be more dangerous and frightening than they need to be.

Democracy and good governance should be the way to dampen and manage the future shocks of the technological revolution, the upheaval of climate change and the dangers of growing geopolitical tensions. One of the many things that took root during fertile period in the lead up to independence referendum was the Electoral Reform Society’s Democracy Max project, an investigation into what would make a good Scottish democracy.

It was an 18-month process of a representative ‘peoples’ gatherings’ in deliberative forums, public meetings and expert round-tables, all arriving at a detailed report recommending everything from media regulation to a citizens’ second chamber.

Six years on, we are still pushing forward on the main insight from that process and the subsequent campaigns and actions. That idea that structures of democracy will always be limited if they are built from the top down. The actual method by which the institutions are designed and made will always result in forms of elite rule if they are elite-driven.

[bctt tweet=”New institutions will always result in forms of elite rule if the method by which they are designed are elite-driven.” username=”electoralreform”]

Political intention, ideology, the personality and party of our representatives all matter, but there is something inbuilt now in the way that our democracy has evolved that has made it operate much more in the interests of some than of others. The reactions to this have been a mix of positive in a rise in political activism and worrying in that populists have sought to exploit those who feel left behind.

It is vital that some of these symptoms are addressed by better regulation, policing and enforcement of the mechanics of elections, parties and campaigns, and by radical reform of our institution so they can catch up with our society. A large conclusion of all of our work in Scotland is that making politics local and deliberative – i.e. allowing space and time to think and talk with other members of your community about problems and solutions – is an important way to inoculate our society against anti-democratic forces that are on manoeuvres as existing institutions flounder.

A more deliberative politics is a way to grow and develop more of us into informed, critical and active citizens. Some powerful people might not like this and might say people just want us to make decisions on their behalf – this is infantilising and insulting to people because there are many examples of Scots across the country collectively doing things for themselves too often hindered by the authorities and institutions when they need to be helped to flourish.

These activities have been the inspiration for the most recent phase of a campaign for democracy to be built from the ground up, ‘Act as if you own the place’. The Our Democracy coalition has been experimenting with and learning from deliberative forums in small communities across Scotland asking them to plan their futures then vote on budgets for community projects to help make the plans happen.

This has shown that these sorts of new institutions and processes can be created within the shell of the old. People are already trying to do it. It’s not a case of the state getting out the way but of reshaping to support the growth of this work.

This is why we are cautiously optimistic that parts of the Scottish Government and Scottish councils are responding to these pressures for change with the Democracy Matters consultation which will feed into a bill on Scottish local governance – a bill we hope will help our local institutions of governance transform themselves into “the new within the shell of the old”.

The consultation itself is being done in a new way, they are trying hard to really involve people. That means if you want to say something the door is more open than it has ever been in the past. As always there will be resistance to any calls for those with power to give up any of it, that is why it is vital that pressure is felt from the communities to be allowed to exercise their own power.

The Our Democracy coalition has created a Declaration on Local Democracy. We wanted to summarise the principles for transformation that we think have become obvious after six years of countless discussions and deliberations with communities across Scotland. Please take time to read that declaration and make a response to the Democracy Matters consultation. The history of state and institution building makes one thing very clear – if it’s not built by us then it won’t be for us.

This long read was originally published in the Sunday Herald.

The Declaration on Local Democracy

“Democracy is the right for people to decide how the place where they live is run. For a hundred years this right has built our communities, our society and our sense of justice. But too few people now believe that this right is being honoured, too few believe that they decide and too many believe they are powerless and voiceless. So we call for a new democracy which is ready to help us build for a hundred years to come.

“First, decisions must be made for each place, in that place by the people who live there. Our towns and villages must decide for themselves just as our nation must decide for itself. Power must exist at the scale of the community which is affected. We need our democracy much closer.

“Second, the right to decide should not disappear each time the brief flicker of an election is over. Delegating our right to decide is not, in itself, enough. We must create a democracy that involves us all the time, where citizens do not just choose rulers but shape the rules.

“Third, democracy must be powerful. The right to choose must be matched by the power to do – and the power to do must be matched with the resource to do it. Democracy is not gifted from above but from below, so power and resource must rest in the places where people live.

“This is our simple vision for our future; a truly local democracy, a truly participatory democracy and a truly powerful democracy.

“We have learned the lesson of our last hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built, it must be built for us. We must now learn a lesson for our next hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built for us, it must be built by us.”

Enjoy this blog? Sign up for more from the Electoral Reform Society

  • If you already receive emails from us, you don't need to complete this form
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Read more posts...