The Perils of Democracy

A double book review


Originally published in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2019, pp. 29-32.


At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits on Political Power, Ian Brodie. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.

Too Dumb for Democracy: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. David Moscrop. Goose Lane, 2019.


“THE DECLINE of Democracy.” “Democracy in Peril.” Such themes have been common in the higher journalism in recent years. Diverse phenomena are evoked to support diverse arguments about what may be going wrong and what might be done.

China, a dictatorship, is on its way to replacing the United States as Top Nation. Russia, though a declining power, is a dictatorship with democratic pretences. The world in which democracies deservedly so-called dominated seems set to pass. It was at its apogee in the nineties after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite Soviet power and the Cold War, with its tolerance of anti-Communist dictatorships, it flourished after the fall of fascism in 1945. It can be traced back to the 19th century when Britain and France, soon to be overtaken by America, were the great powers.

There is evidently little that can be done about these developments. The liberal consensus is that projects for regime change to be followed by democracy are at best grossly stupid and likely corrupt. It’s best to leave Saddam Husseins, Gaddafis, Assads and the rest in peace. Though fingers should be wagged at Sisi in Egypt and Bashir should be tried, though the prospects for democracy in Sudan seem little better than they are in Egypt.

The focus of most of the democracy angst is on countries where vigorously contested elections still take place but the winners alarm.

Trump in America. Erdoğan in Turkey. Orbán in Hungary. Law and Justice in Poland. Brexit. The progress of Alternative for Germany and the latest Le Pen formation in France. The curious 5 Star/League coalition in Italy. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even the election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto. Each and many more are occasions for frets about the health of democracy.

The high priests of democracy are alarmed that the demos has been making bad choices. Why? What is to be done?


THE ARGUMENT for democracy was never that the people know best. It is that the people have to obey the laws, pay the taxes, need the services that governments provide, however wide or narrow, and may be called on to defend the state, and that government is their business and they should have their say in it. They have an interest in its being done well, but they are divided by interests and understandings and are only human and may get it wrong. What most people want may not be best for all people, or even for most.

The first experience of universal adult suffrage, women excluded, is only about two hundred years old, and it only became general about a hundred years ago, about the time women got the vote. It has been a pretty happy experience for most countries, though it might be argued that it was happy countries that were fortunate to undertake the experiment before it became a universal model.

Between the wars, first Italy and then Germany and other countries showed that democracy was not a secure achievement. Latin America had shown the way. In Germany and elsewhere voters had helped dictators to rise to power. It happened again in post-war Europe where voters put Communists in position to destroy democracy

For many who worry about the health of democracy we are back in Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” the thirties. “It’s happening again.”

Alternatively, the higher journalists, the academy, established public intellectuals, are unhappy with what the people decide and think democracy is in peril when the people don’t vote as they think they should.

There are multiple explanations, each with their indicated remedies, for the perceived mistakes of the voters.

One, regularly in the news, is the entry into public discourse of malign forces, foreign, principally Russian, and domestic manufacturers of fake news and spreaders of hate exploiting the licence of unregulated social media to mislead voters into making the wrong choices. Abetting them are reportedly miners of big data targeting the most vulnerable voters.

Most people get their fake news and hate from media with the highest pretensions of rectitude, like The New York Times, which regularly reports it. I never did see the Facebook post claiming that the Pope had endorsed Trump. I read about it in The Globe and Mail. I’m not a great user of social media, but the only stuff I see that qualifies as what I understand is meant by “hate speech” is stuff reported in respectable media to raise the alarm.

There has always been a lot of noise in public discourse and there are always a few nasty people about, but there are no grounds for thinking there is more now than there has been in the past.

The argument that there is proceeds backwards. From the premise that no sane, reasonably informed person could have voted for Donald Trump or for Britain to leave the European Union, one proceeds to the conclusion that fake news and social media poisons must have led voters astray.

The remedy is obvious. Rigorous censorship of social media, and the press, which is now principally a branch of social media, must be applied to assure that voters are not led astray. In a time when in what were once seen as havens of free speech, the universities, dissent from a nebulous orthodoxy is often found to be an offence, the prospect of those who have undertaken the long march through the institutions regulating what people may see and hear should appall.

The reception of Brexit — which, though the referendum preceded the nomination and election of Trump, proceeded in their wake — is educative. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum it was argued that referendums were bad. I myself incline to that view, but it was not advanced until the voters had made an alleged mistake. Many of those who argued it now want a second referendum.

But with Trump’s election the argument shifted to allegations the result was corrupt because of Russian interference and Cambridge Analytica and social media and money and other factors that the government that called the referendum was perfectly positioned to address had it not assumed the intended Remain result.


WHEN FOREIGN observers are deployed to assure that elections by lesser breeds without the law are in order, they generally confine themselves to seeing that people can get to the polls and cast their ballots in secret and that the ballots are accurately and completely counted. Those who worry about democracy now set a higher standard. They want to assure every input to the voter’s brain has been carefully vetted to assure that the output in the ballot box is correct.

Election finance regulation, which has now churned through two generations with perverse effects, was a forerunner of the idea that more than universal suffrage and the secret ballot are necessary for democracy.

It was long ago observed that democracy and nationalism are coeval. Though the values proclaimed in the French Revolution were universal it was a French revolution. Its anthem, the Marseillaise, is the most bloodthirsty and chauvinist of all national anthems and has not been subject to editing. The people who were to take power from kings and other often transnational dynasts were always conceived as nations. Movements in the 20th century that claimed to seek power for the people were usually called national liberation movements.

In the 21st century what had been an accepted marriage between democracy and nationalism has become a problem. As nationalism has come to be seen as a big problem, if not simply a bad thing, on a par with Nazism, voters have shown themselves to be stubbornly nationalist. Whether it is Brexit, or a backlash against refugees and immigration, or opposition to globalization and international organizations, voters regularly vote in what they see as their nation’s interest. For this problem those who worry about democracy have weak remedies. They can hope that international organizations, of which the European Union is the strongest, will contain the nationalist impulses of voters. But this means relying on organizations beyond the control of voters, undemocratic institutions, to save the demos from its folly, and implicitly giving up on democracy.

The only other hope is that supranational media and migration will dilute national feeling. But they have a long time to wait before that may happen. And they are keen that national feeling, as identity, should be encouraged and respected as people move from country to country. By all means be Polish. Just don’t think it has anything to do with Poland.

Democracy until quite recent times was still led by elites. Most politicians were in some rough sense upper class, the media, the press and for a while broadcasting, were controlled by elites, whether they sought a mass audience or not. There was still some deference, which, after its noted decline, has now disappeared.

Deference has been replaced by the adulation and pursuit of celebrity. Celebrities become politicians. And people pursue politics not because they are interested in politics but because it is a sure route to celebrity, if you can’t sing, can’t dance or can’t act.


TWO RECENT Canadian books explore the state of democracy at respectively the micro and the macro levels. Both are beneath notice, except that they have been noticed.

Ian Brodie was Stephen Harper’s chief of staff for his first two and a half years as Prime Minister. An academic and product of the noted Calgary School of political science, Brodie attempts to push back at the popular “Canada is an elective dictatorship” theory of Donald Savoie and the late Peter Aucoin, both distinguished political science professors. Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail took up the argument in The Friendly Dictatorship. Brodie says that he was persuaded by it before he went to work for Harper.

Brodie has little difficulty in showing that Harper was greatly constrained in what he could do in power, even in the years after Brodie was gone and the Conservatives had a majority in Parliament. Of course a great many were not happy with what he did do and there is a long history of people upset with government actions denouncing them as dictatorial or undemocratic simply as terms of abuse.

Brodie only obliquely and in passing addresses the respect in which Harper was seen as most dictatorial: the strict control of what ministers and MPs said and did to assure they were “on message.” This seems to be a specially Canadian phenomenon, which Harper pushed to the limit. It has long been observed that MPs in Britain or Australia speak more freely outside the party line. In Canada the media take any off-script remarks by an MP as either evidence that the party has a hidden agenda or that the party is splitting and the leader has lost control. They then protest when a leader tries to cope with the problem they have created.

Brodie interestingly detects a public administration bias in the elective dictatorship argument. Both Savoie and Aucoin were public administration scholars. Their concern could seem to be more that bureaucracy is in peril than democracy.

He makes too much of Private Members Bills, which flourished under Harper. They always have been and should remain a sideline in legislation, but some understand parliamentary government as government by Parliament rather than government responsible to Parliament. There have even been some to celebrate the shambles to which Westminster has been reduced as Parliamentary Government and a Good Thing.

David Moscrop got his PhD in political science from UBC in 2017 and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University. He has carved out a career in the higher journalism writing for Maclean’sThe Washington Post and the like.

In Too Dumb for Democracy he purports to explain why we make bad political decisions and direct us how to make good ones. His argument rests on academic psychology, which is barely distinguishable from pop psychology. He invokes scores of academic psychologists whose studies claim to show how we make bad decisions. Psychology of the kind that Moscrop invokes is shaky science. The results of famous studies have notoriously proved not reproducible. He also invokes evolutionary psychology, another notoriously shaky science, to argue that our brains were just right for the stone age, but need correction for the modern democratic world.


THE UPSHOT of all this is that if someone takes a position you disagree with, like being keen on Brexit, they must be victims of a psychological weakness and need help. You needn’t consider whether they might be on to something you haven’t thought through. Rather than sharpening and tightening your arguments and getting all your facts straight when faced with someone you disagree with, you should offer some psychotherapy. You couldn’t yourself be suffering from any of the putative failures of reasoning the psychologists claim to have identified.

Moscrop’s remedies, given hurriedly at the end of his book, are both feeble and alarming. He thinks we should all give more time, a minimum of thirty minutes a day, to studying the political decisions that have to be made. Be more engaged. And something should be done to get us engaged.


"Moscrop has evidently taken so much time to read second-rate academic psychology, with breaks to play video games when upset by voters’ stupidity, as at Trump’s election, he may not have had time to consider whether he has been making good political decisions."


This is a favoured line of many who write about politics. And shows a pretty obvious bias it needs no social psychologist to discover. Moscrop and I think about politics all the time. That’s no reason why we all should, even though we all have the vote. Politics is a small, if necessary, part of life and for most the rest is and should be more important. Democracy has thriven when most gave only a passing interest to politics, at elections.


Moscrop wants more meetings and consultations. He ineptly cites the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as models. He suggests we should be conscripted to citizens assemblies as we are to juries. He inclines to forcing us to vote, but would reward us with a two day holiday for elections so we could think long and hard about our vote. How the thinking would be enforced he doesn’t suggest.

Such silliness from so much reading.

Moscrop doesn’t address many specific issues but from his examples of how things may go wrong it is evident that he is an impeccably conventional progressive. He has evidently taken so much time to read second-rate academic psychology, with breaks to play video games when upset by voters’ stupidity, as at Trump’s election, he may not have had time to consider whether he has been making good political decisions.

We should not confuse the failure of what we believe in to triumph at the polls with the failure of democracy. Had I done that I should have given up on democracy when I was a teenager, some fifty years ago. We shall do best, each according to our interest, in both senses of the word, to argue for what we believe in and try to understand those who believe otherwise. Not dismissing them as deplorables, or suitable cases for treatment.

If you don’t like what the people want, perhaps you don’t want democracy. And should admit it. 

Originally published in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2019, pp. 29-32.

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