It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.
In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)
One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.
Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms.
All gravy, no gristle.
Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.
As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.
There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.
In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.
In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:
“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”
Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred.
Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.
I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America.
I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….