The Long Read: A.C. Grayling on how to fix democracy

British philosopher A.C. Grayling spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival last year. He spoke to Thomas Coughlan about what is wrong with democracy and how to save it.

On the 23rd of June, 2016, the day of the Brexit referendum, A C Grayling woke up to a fairly typical English summer day. The low-hung clouds that loured over the city opened and a strong, persistent rain fell throughout the day, flooding parts of the city.

It rained across Peckham, on a street where Grayling used to live, and which featured prominently in some of his writing. Opposite his former home, there is a small park, placed somewhat incongruously amidst a row of terrace houses. These kinds of parks are not unique in Grayling's neighbourhood.

Seen from the air, the park makes more sense. It is one of a string of green craters scouring the cityscape, the remains of a Nazi bombing raid. In 2007, he wrote Among the Dead Cities, a philosophical treatment on the morality of targeting civilians in war, which he began with a meditation on the park outside his window.

Now 10 years later, Grayling has moved, but the war is back. The German ambassador to the UK this year chided the country for its bombastic, jingoistic memorialising of the war, saying it fed Euroscepticism. The discussion has moved far beyond Grayling's granular philosophising on the morality of aerial bombing.

Grayling has had to shift his thinking too. The granular details of the morality of war were swept aside in the political culture that vanished on the 23rd of June - the day of the Brexit referendum. Now his political thinking tackles something bigger and broader: Brexit, Trump and Democracy.

So did he see it coming?

"I think I was concerned about it under a slightly different description," Grayling told me, speaking on the phone from London.

"What has in effect happened is that social media has valorised anybody's opinion to such an extent that having an opinion, and being able to publish that opinion so easily on Facebook or Twitter, makes it unimportant whether or not it is verifiably true," he said.

Grayling was born Luanshya, in what is now Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). He studied in the UK, at Sussex and Magdalen College, Oxford and went on to found the New College of the Humanities, a controversial independent university in London. The college's foundation and its fees (twice as much as state universities) led to Grayling bearing the moniker "the most hated man in academia" for much of the last decade.

All of this could overshadow his philosophy, but if Grayling is the most hated man in academia, he's probably one of the best-known outside of it. Alongside Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, he was a member of the New Atheists (or anti-theists, as Hitchens memorably put it) who took on religion in the difficult context of post-9/11 Britain and America.

Is democracy broken when the answer is Trump? Or is there something wrong with the question?

His formidable output is dedicated to using philosophy and history to help us think about the past. The God Argument considers whether proofs for god stack up, for example. He runs against the conventional academic wisdom; the books don't take the reader back to the past, they bring the past to the reader.

Which brings us to Brexit, Trump, and the rain.

Grayling's latest book Democracy and its Crisis is an excoriating account of the state of democracy and how things got quite so bad. So bad, in fact, that the present seems to vindicate Plato's millennia-old critique of democracy: the fear that it would collapse into ochlocracy, or mob rule.

Democracy has a long genealogy that runs from early proto-democracy of Athens, where wealthy men had a say in the government of their city, to the present. Now, most people who live under a real democracy have an expectation their aggregate ideas, feelings, and opinions will be carried out by a government they elected.

But what happens when the bad governments are elected? The current government in the US is a good example. Is democracy broken when the answer is Trump? Or is there something wrong with the question?

A lack of choice 

Grayling thinks the problem is as much with the question as it is the apparatus we use to answer it.

"Representative democracy is meant to provide institutions and practices that transfer one kind of right people have into another kind of right," said Grayling.

"The first right is a right to a voice and a right to a say, and the right to make a choice about what kind of government you are going to live under," he said.

"But the other right is very important and that is the right to sufficiently good government, delivered by institutions, the rule of law and an independent judiciary."

The problem with our current democracies is that the vote has meant those institutions have been hijacked. The evidence for this, said Grayling, is that people seem to be voting against their interests.

"Trump is the most improbable spokesperson of the white working class," he said.

The real problem with American democracy then, is not necessarily the question being asked, but the deteriorating material conditions of the people of whom it is asked, and the lack of choice they are presented with.

They are people, Grayling thinks, who have been promised one thing and, over the course of their lives, seen the dream of that thing recede further and further into the distance of improbability.

"The American story is that you're in the queue," he said. "But it's been stuck for a long time now and what makes it worse is that people have been queue-jumping: Mexicans, black people, women gays - they've all been getting ahead but you. You're stuck and you're going nowhere, so you get angry," he said.

"People come along, they say, 'We see your problem, we feel your pain and we know what the answer is. It's Trump or getting out of Europe'."

"All economies are developing. There are always people being left out. A good government, a government which is sensitive to that problem, will work hard to try and cushion the blow and retrain workers or do whatever it takes to help those bits of the economy that are in trouble."

Grayling's solution is to reform established political institutions and address the inequality that breeds resentment among voters, making them more likely to vote for demagogic candidates.

He's a strong proponent of representative democracy - a system in which skilled, intelligent politicians take the public view and adapt it to their own skills and views. This is done to achieve a hybrid government drawing on experience and intelligence to meld the public will into something useful.

There would be no room for shocks like Brexit or Trump, because the social conditions that gave rise to them would not exist in this system and, if they did, the representatives elected in the democracy would not allow the extremist agenda to succeed.

A central plank of Grayling's reformed democracy is the weakening of the party system through the abolition of whipping. This is particularly interesting to New Zealanders as Parliament debates the waka-jumping bill, which is meant to enforce rigid party discipline. But Grayling thinks the whipping system stifles one of the key strengths of representative democracy: the diversity of viewpoints emanating from a wide pool of MPs elected from an even wider electorate.

He thinks the whips should enforce election promises, but otherwise MPs should be given the freedom to represent their constituents even against the line of their party. It might be possible to hijack one or two parties, representing a majority of seats in Parliament, but controlling 120 quasi-independent MPs would be a tall order.

MPs who were less beholden to the party machine and who listened instead to their electorates would be less likely to prop up an exploitative economic system that breeds discontent with politics.

"Every single economy at any point in its history is in transition," he said.

"All economies are developing. There are always people being left out. A good government, a government which is sensitive to that problem, will work hard to try and cushion the blow and retrain workers or do whatever it takes to help those bits of the economy that are in trouble."

An inequality problem

The problem, according to Grayling, is not so much the poverty caused by the economic system, but inequality. Inequality breeds resentment and resentment eventually manifests itself in populist politics that seek to "drain the swamp" and overthrow the established political order.

The issue with placing more weight on the representative part of representative democracies (as opposed to referenda and direct democracy) is that it potentially stifles the ability for voters to register a strong discontent with the established political order. What if the swamp does need a good draining?

In the case of Trump, Brexit, and arguably the New Zealand MMP referendum of 1993 following the Rogernomics and Ruthanasia years, voters grew tired with the consensus that appeared to develop between establishment parties and registered their discontent in an electoral shock that undermined their power. Voters seemed willing to risk ochlocracy, for fear that a hidden political aristocracy had developed between established parties.

Our situation moves on to thornier, closer-to-home topics. Grayling's book is, for the most part, a Whiggish history, which is to say it takes an idea: democracy, and shows how through successive challenges and changes it improved itself until it became what it is today, a system where everyone, at least at the ballot box, has an equal voice.

In the British context, that's probably fair enough. The story of democracy and the theory behind it is a story where power gets shared between nobles, then nobles and merchants and men of property, then all men and some women, before being shared between more or less all adults.

But in New Zealand the history of democracy is different. Though touted at the time by the likes of Attorney General William Swainson as "the most liberal that has ever been granted to a British colony", New Zealand's early experiments with democracy disenfranchised some as it enfranchised others.

In our first parliamentary election in 1853, Māori - many of whom would have signed the Treaty of Waitangi just thirteen years previous - would have found themselves unable to vote in a country they thought their own. Voting was tied to individual property rights until 1867, which meant Māori with communal land ownership couldn’t vote. Māori men and women would wait 14 and 40 years respectively for that right.

And all of that raises an even more difficult question for democracies that exist in colonial countries: the problem of balancing the rights of indigenous populations with the central tenet of modern democracy, that is the equality between one vote and another. It's an intractable question, because boosting the weighting of one would inherently diminish the importance of the other.

I put to Grayling postcolonial systems like Lebanon's where each religious confession (Maronite, Orthodox, Sunni and Shia Muslims) have a proportion of seats allocated to them as well as a position in the executive, but this system, securing the voice of all Lebanese faiths, failed to safeguard peace and led to decades of slow political atrophy and sectarian conflict. Democracies, after all, have to represent a lot more than just one's faith.

"I don't agree with the pessimistic sense in which Isiah Berlin thought no liberal order can ever satisfy all the things that it wants to satisfy because you can't have equality and liberty at the same time, they are inconsistent with one another."

The same could be said of the weighting given to smaller states in the US Senate, or the Fijian system, which allocates seats in parliament according to race. None of these options seems particularly appetising, but nor is the status quo.

It gestures towards an intractable tension for democracies in colonial societies, how to you recognise an indigenous right alongside, within, or above the central tenet of modern democracy: that each vote and voice be equal to another?

"We would like something very clear and very definite and we would like to be able to approximate to an ideal the ideal being every vote is equal to one," Grayling said.

"The kind of approach that one has to have is to look at the parallel about how a society deals with its moral dilemmas other than its political ones. And that is by a continual conversation that it has with itself, a continual negotiation about trying to find a balance, trying to find something that will work," he said.

A system of constant negotiation sounds ideal for a philosopher.

"In the case of how you organise representation and how people's voice are heard and heard in real proportion to their presence, but also taking into account the fact that a minority in a society might have needs and interests that require extra weighting. You've got to be a bit affirmative about those things," he said.

"I don't agree with the pessimistic sense in which Isiah Berlin thought no liberal order can ever satisfy all the things that it wants to satisfy because you can't have equality and liberty at the same time, they are inconsistent with one another," he said. And his book does make the optimistic point that a democracy can and must balance the interests of minority voices against the tyranny of the majority.

"Propaganda and lies and deception has always existed, but now it's on the back of a jet fighter."

We finish talking not about the institutions that keep democracy alive, but the systems that bring them to their knees. The philosophical sword of Damocles that hangs over democracy is whether technology, in particular social media, which knows its users better than their closest family, will make democracy redundant. What's the point of electing government if a computer could choose one better than you can?

Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr reported the extent to which the Leave campaign made use of hyper-targeted social media ads. The difficulty with these ads is their ability to fly below the radar, unseen by all except their intended target - and their targets are often unlikely, which brings us back to the rain.

"They targeted Remainers and said Leave will win easily. It's going to win by quite a large margin so stay home if it rains - and you know what, it bucketed with rain on the 23rd of June in London," said Grayling.

"And the drop in turnout in London was exactly predictable and it was bigger than the margin by which Leave won the vote."

A micro-targeted ad placed on the author's Facebook wall when the he was living in London during the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. Photo: Thomas Coughlan

I myself, living in the UK at the time of the referendum found myself the target of unnervingly personal election advertisements. Advertisers learned from Facebook that I was a New Zealander living in the UK (and entitled to vote) I received sponsored memes featuring New Zealand pop-culture figures like Flight of the Conchords and Suzy Cato imploring me to vote Remain.

Grayling is worried about democracy being replaced by technocracy, but, as is his style he won't say that it's entirely without philosophical or historical precedent.

"The post-truth world is really a social media world, but it has always existed," he says.

"Propaganda and lies and deception has always existed, but now it's on the back of a jet fighter."

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