In 2007, at the start of my first class on political communication, the professor began her lecture with the statement that “As political scientists, you fill find that the majority is most often wrong”.
Beyond the wow factor, there is considerable truth in the statement, and this became more and more obvious with Brexit and the spectacular assent of populists like Donald Trump in the US. What is most surprising are not the events in themselves, but the utterly deficient understanding of democracy that became blatant as a reaction to them. While some doubtlessly rejoiced at the decision of the predominantly English working class to remove the United Kingdom from the united Europe, reactions from those opposed to the decision of the overall majority could be summarized by the phrases „We need a better majority (that we need to create)” and „we need better education (to create that majority)”. However, better education does not create a better overall majority. Well educated people are those capable of thinking for themselves and articulating their own opinions. These opinions are, however, as diverse as each individual, so there are rarely educated people that can agree to the fullest extent on anything but the most basic of things, and this is assuming that they are all pursuing the same overall goal. At best, what education does is create better individuals (which is by all means welcome and necessary) but not better majorities. In fact, the more educated a population is, the more diverse it’s opinions are, and the smaller the groups that can agree on anything become. This holds especially true the more you increase specialization, simply on the virtue that nobody can be an expert in everything and that there are always many more things that a person does not know than things that they do. As such, in any decision on policy that is to be taken democratically, there are always the opinions of a small but highly specialized minority that have greater grounding in reality than the opinions of any other group. In other words, on just about every conceivable issue, the opinion of the majority is much more likely to be wrong than the opinion of a specialized minority. So what does this say about our democracy today?
In broad terms, the way we practice democracy today is deeply flawed. Majority-based mechanisms such as some elections and referenda reduce complex issues to binary choices (yes/no, leave/remain, party A/party B, etc.) and allow the opinions of a majority – however slim – to completely override the opinions of any minority group. „That’s how democracy works” some would say. But democracy is not about the majority. It never was. „Democracy” means „power to the people”. In ancient times „the people” was only a small landed minority of men who could claim to be citizens (the demos). Today, “the people” is everyone: the majority AND the minority. So power should be exercised by everyone and in the interest of everyone. As such, the guiding principle of a democracy is not the majority, nor even the vote, but reaching a compromise. In fact, the best way to understand liberal democracy is as the political system in which decisions are taken after considering every point of view expressed. This is why proportional representation exists, this is why freedom of expression is so highly regarded in liberal democracy, and this is why anti-democratic forces appeal to a majority and often demonize minority groups, be they political, ethno-religious, social, professional or of any other kind. The very insistence of liberalism as a whole on individual over collective rights can itself be explained through the desire to protect a minority (the individual) from the majority, whatever that may be given the context.
Any country where any given minority is not allowed power proportional to its number of supporters cannot be considered a genuine liberal democracy. Any country where the opinions of a minority are disregarded entirely in favour of a majority cannot be considered a genuine liberal democracy. This does not mean, however, that a democracy caters only to the few. Quite on the contrary, a democracy will seek to cater to the needs and interests (not always the will) of a majority on any given issue, but it will do so in a way that tries to give some consideration to other opinions as well. The key here is, once again, compromise. This is, in fact, how parliaments are supposed to work: majorities needed to pass certain bills are meant to be formed on a case-by-case basis between various interest groups following negotiations and amendments that grant something to everyone. To paraphrase author Cristopher Paolini, a good compromise leaves all parties equally dissatisfied.
Referenda and binary types of elections take away nuances and simplify complex issues until a compromise in no longer possible (after all, one cannot both leave the EU and remain at the same time). Far from being a democratic tool of „empowering the people” these mechanisms only create artificial divides within society and are more akin to populist tools for legitimizing refusal to consider the opinions of perhaps more knowledgeable minority groups.
What, then, can we do about improving our democratic systems? First of all, we can seek to improve the political and decision-making system to better represent the will of constituents. It is not democratic if some opinions are dismissed outright or even banned because they upset or unsettle certain groups. This is also true of extremist opinions, which should be heard and dealt with institutionally (even if the groups themselves are barred from public offices) given that support for such ideas is bound to originate in some other underlying social issue. Ignoring the opinions of extremist groups and the underlying issues around which they frame their identity (via stances such as “no negotiations with terrorists”) has allowed the extremists to champion the framing of issues that society feels strongly about, which has thus far encouraged support for them, and opened the gates of abuse by allowing non-extremist groups to be labelled as terrorist and excluded from formal political channels. In turn, this has historically led to escalating tensions, growing discontent and, eventually, armed uprisings. To be clear, extremist groups (especially those that are openly anti-democratic) should be barred from public office, to prevent them hijacking the system, yet their opinions and demands must not be ignored. The battle with extremism can only be won ideologically, through good policy. Bismark’s Germany, which was a democracy (although not a republic), managed to avoid a socialist revolution precisely because it listened to the worker’s grievances and demands, and enacted social reforms that reduced discontent, thus removing some of the issues that socialist movements used for rallying support. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, which was not a democracy, did not do the same and saw his country turning against him. Decades later, the main political parties of the Weimar Republic considered it wise to accept a Chancellor from NSDAP and saw how a system can be professionally hijacked from within by a small extremist party, because Germany at the time lacked the institutional strength to stop it from happening. In a democracy, majorities do not override the other voices. This is why the events in Turkey since the attempted coup have not been democratic. The will of the majority has been imposed, and a process of silencing all other voices has started. Erdogan claims to represent the will of the people, but he is in fact representing his own will, which is shared by some of the people, since the people are seldom of one mind. Had he been of any another opinion, he certainly would have found another group of supporters to endorse him. It is, however, equally true that extremist groups can and do try to hijack democratic institutions even from within, as cases such as the Nazi party show, and some great care must be taken to avoid slipping into either one of these traps. Democracy is therefore a balancing act of various and often contrasting opinions, flanked on the one side by the risk of uprising from factions given too little consideration, and on the other by the risk of being hijacked by factions given too much. The wisdom of those offered as leaders by political parties during elections, and the institutional design of the state should reflect this, and be focused on steering clear of such risks.
In a similar fashion to the so-called “tyranny of the majority”, rule by a given minority, no matter how knowledgeable, is far from democratic or desirable. In Romania, for example, the ruling communists (who were a minority at the time of taking power) considered that socialism would bring everyone prosperity, and made policy accordingly, even though the majority of people opposed, say, collectivization. This ignored opposition to forced collectivization even lead to armed resistance in the mountains. Several decades later, the failure of imposed socialism became evident, and was in large part caused by people not behaving as the socialist paradigm expected. Socialism in the radical sense perceived by communists might indeed have brought about prosperity for the whole of society, but only if the members of said society had worked as hard for the common good as they would for their own gain. Such a behavior does not come naturally to most people. Understanding a democracy as a system in which decisions are taken based on compromise means that the groups in charge of making such decisions are themselves willing to compromise and pursue stability over maximization, and the common good over the greater gain. However, this is a decision that must come at the groups’ own volition, not imposed from outside. As such, “improving the majority” might require improving the way we think about human nature itself, and nurturing an environment where personal fulfillment is linked not to maximization of gains but to development of communities.
In this sense, voting becomes the least important attribute of the citizen. After all, voting is done one day every four years, but the citizen remains a citizen every single day. As such, more important than voting is to be well informed, to get involved in civic and community actions (from protesting to clearing snow), to question the authorities about plans to develop your community and to be active as a citizen. If all you do is vote and be passive the rest of the time and detached from political reality, the benefits to your community (and for yourself) will be much smaller than if you never vote but instead take an active part in debates, civic initiatives or collective actions. Ideally, a citizen would be involved in both, within the available time and resource constraints. The way to a better majority starts with an individual pledge to be involved in (or to form) the network of people that can be partners of the authorities (or adversaries if need be) for better governance.
Societies change over time, and what emerges is determined by popular beliefs, factual truths, and policy. To make policy based solely on popular belief is, needless to say, foolish. To make policy based solely on factual truth is impractical, given how hard the truth is to determine oftentimes, or dangerous if it goes too much against popular beliefs. In other words, people will fight for ideas they believe in, even if those ideas have no basis in reality, so it would be foolish to elaborate policy that does not take such ideas into account. For example, Japan’s attempts at rapid modernization lead to an armed uprising of samurai wanting to preserve their old privileges. To encourage peace and minimize destruction, the government eventually reached a compromise by incorporating former samurai into high offices, and integrating some aspects of the former society (such as Bushido) into the new one. The same pattern can be seen in France during the Revolution, in post-revolutionary Russia, and in many other cases where compromise between progressives and conservatives was needed to avoid or to end conflict. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the majority is most often wrong, yet this does not mean that their voice should be overlooked and replaced solely with expert opinion. If that were the case, then experts would be the only ones able to vote. Indeed, the majority might support hateful, discriminatory or even murderous policies, but a truly democratic framework is one where such ideas can be mitigated institutionally, and their causes addressed rather than ignored, suppressed or even persecuted. This requires not only a genuine commitment to democracy, but also a culture and an institutional framework focused on compromise rather than majorities, addressing causes rather than mitigating effects and, perhaps most of all, the courage to accept small steps rather than large strides in a direction that is most often uncertain.