Dude! Where’s My Democracy?

By Kevin Albertson, Professor of Economics at Manchester Metropolitan University with a background in statistics and political economics. He is co-author of five books, including the Haynes Guide ‘How to Run the Country’. Originally published at openDemocracy

Democracy is unwell, so it is said. In America and other leading democracies citizens are apparently increasingly critical of the concept of liberal democracy. We argue this is a misdiagnosis; citizens are not critical of liberal democracy – it is the lack of democracy which is the problem.

Citizens are attracted to strong leaders (so-called “populists”) which are prepared to challenge the prevailing system, not because they distrust democracy, but because they perceive the prevailing system is fundamentally undemocratic.

The solution is not further to limit democracy for fear of popular leaders, but rather to increase democratic accountability, and therefore legitimacy.

Legitimate Government

Recently, Foa & Mounk argued that many citizens in supposed advanced democracies have become rather disillusioned with the workings of the political system in their nation. There is good reason to suppose the current political economic paradigm is skewed against the people. So-called democratic deficits exist in the USA and elsewhere. In the UK, for example, the electorate disapprove and have disapproved of four decades of tax and welfare and privatisation policies – yet are apparently powerless to influence these policies.

As politicians and the donors who support them become less responsive to voters’ wishes it is hardly surprising many, perhaps the majority, of the populace will view government as illegitimate. In consequence, voters seem increasingly inclined to elect (so-called) populist leaders, political outsiders who may change the rules in favour of the people.

The Left and the Right

Legitimate government, so Abraham Lincoln observes, is that which does for a community that which the community cannot do (or cannot do so well) for themselves. With this it is difficult to disagree. However, political theory differs on who might make up that community.

Broadly speaking, those on the (so-called) economic “right” argue government should enact policy for the benefit of those who own the nation, while those (so-called) economic “left” consider policy should prioritise the interests of citizens. By definition, therefore, capitalist governments will take up positions on the right – particularly in nations, such as the UK, which are increasingly owned by foreign interests. Conversely democratically accountable governments must take positions economically to the left, prioritising the preferences of citizens.

Universal Adult Suffrage

At the dawn of democracy, only the wealthy could vote. Thus, there was less conflict between the aspirations of the powerful and of voters. Following the extension to the adult population of the right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th century, politicians became answerable to a wider range of stakeholders.

In particular, from the middle of the 20th century until the late 1970s, legitimate democratic governments held markets to account in the interests of the demos. An increasingly affluent society facilitated profit making opportunities and thus economies grew; the interests of capital and citizens coincided.

However, since the late 1970s, global economic growth has broadly slowed. It is likely that economic stabilisation has occurred as a result of the slowing pace of innovation and the world reaching (or indeed overshooting) its carrying capacity. However, many were persuaded that the slowdown in growth occurred because governments interfered too much in markets.

In response, to preserve or increase their own income growth, elites are motivated to argue for the “freeing” of markets. Rather than markets being held accountable to citizens through democratic governance, it was suggested that holding governments (and through them the citizenry) to account through reliance on market forces would facilitate a return to economic growth.

The Washington Consensus

The economic paradigm which promotes the small state and reliance on market forces is generally known as neo-liberalism, or the Washington Consensus. Under neo-liberalism, the state does little more than maintain the rights of ownership and internal and external security through criminal justice and armed services – notwithstanding, the state may bail out financial services if they require public aid. In the UK and the USA politicians from both main parties adopted this point of view, often in sincere, if misguided, belief in its validity. Thus, neo-liberalism maintains the appearance of democracy, in that citizens may vote for political leaders, but limits the range of policies on offer to those which are acceptable to markets – or rather, those who command market forces.

It should be emphasised that the promotion of the neo-liberal political economic paradigm need not result from a conspiracy. History indicates that, in any prolonged period of peace, power and wealth tend to accumulate to fewer and fewer individuals. If markets were sufficient to facilitate improvement in the prospects of citizens in general, there would have been few calls for universal suffrage in the first place.

Neoliberalism: Government of the People, by the Market, for the Profit

Since the introduction of neo-liberal socio-economic policies, inequality has increased amongst the citizens of the world’s advanced democratic nations. As it has not addressed the root cause of economic stabilisation, the adoption of the neo-liberal political paradigm has not improved the prospects of growth, or stabilised global ecosystems. The growth in incomes of the elites – those who wield market power – has come at the expense of the electorate in general.

Because liberal social attitudes are undermined in increasingly unequal societies, neo-liberal policies have destabilised the social equilibrium of those nations which have adopted them. Reliance on market forces has, paradoxically, even undermined the market; for example, through the Global Financial Crisis and the Eurozone crisis. Curiously, despite these failings, yet more reliance on markets is suggested as the cure.

Democracy: Government of the People, by the People, for the People

Those citizens whose prospects are undermined by the neo-liberal paradigm see it in their interests to support a “strong man” who may change the rules back in their favour. This is a risky strategy; such strong men may rather change the rules in their own favour, or in favour of their supporters. In consequence some have suggested we might consider further tempering democracy. However, we suggest it is the reduction in democratic accountability which has led to this so-called “populist” state of affairs. The solution is rather to increase democratic accountability, not just in central government, but in local government and in our places of employment.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    It wasn’t so long ago; the UK could choose the colour of neoliberalism it wanted with democracy.

    Red – Neoliberalism with a Labour flavour
    Yellow – Neoliberalism with a Liberal flavour
    Blue – Neoliberalism with a Conservative flavour

    It didn’t seem that bad until the ideology stopped working in 2008, and we were still left with the same choices.

    1. Tyronius

      And the color is rendered meaningless. What’s needed is accountability; if the politician promises something on the stump, they must be held accountable for doing it once elected. Mature democracies feature politicians promising everything under the sun- and conveniently delivering none of it once in office. That must change. The other pillar is getting money out of politics. Only then can the votes of democracy actually be expected to count.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    “Democracy in Chains” by Nancy Maclean charts the work of James Buchanan who wanted to hamstring democracy and one of his ideas was called “Public Choice Theory”.

    He explains it in a BBC Documentary called “The Trap”.

    At 49.00 min.

    When you know the theory, you can see the problem.

    The politicians would look after their own self interest by doing what lobbyists wanted.

    The video shows Maggie signing up to put our (UK) democracy in chains like other Western leaders.

    They use names that are designed to confuse, so “Public Choice Theory” is the opposite of what it might first appear to be.

    “Citizens United” – they are still playing the same old games.

    1. Carla

      I’ve been recommending Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains” for several years. Glad to see someone else highlighting it! It really explains so much, and it RESONATES.

  3. Sound of the Suburbs

    The centrists dream is a strong, middle class where a large majority are doing well and hardly anyone wants to change anything that much.

    The recipe for a stable democracy.

    With today’s inequality, the last place you want to be is in centre, there aren’t any voters there.

    Neoliberal centrists implemented policies that caused inequality and eroded their electoral base.

    It was a suicide mission.

  4. laodan

    Democracy is a loaded word. Reasoning about it in a public discussion is thus fraught with lots of difficulties. This comment is to highlight some crucial factors that are rarely mentioned.

    1. democracy is the particular political outcome of centuries of struggles within the context of Early-Modernity in Western European societies (14th to 18th centuries). Three forces were in competition for the control of power: the clergy, the nobility, and the new rich merchants (those who in France were living in the “bourgs” and were thus called the bourgeoisie. They were also the one’s who were owning the capital). The gradual expansion of the right to vote, to all adult citizens along the 19th and 20th centuries, was calibrated by big capital holders to act as a system serving their interests through the manipulation of the public’s opinions. And man how successful the West is at this game…

    2. the history of the other people, outside of western territories, is rich with their own experiences. Even if they are largely unknown to Westerners these histories offer viable alternatives to the Western model of democracy. But Westerners are not interested to learn about these other models. They firmly believe that their own system is the best and they are always ready to impose it by force …

    3. Western political science is relatively young (1 or 2 centuries at best). This compares with Chinese political science that spans over 3 millennia as a written matter that finds its origin through oral transmission from earlier times.

    The words “Government of the People, by the People, for the People” is an ideological logo that never materialized on any large scale nor over any long time-span anywhere on earth.

    The shift of the center of gravity of the economy-world’ to East Asia and more particularly to China is a ‘fait accompli’ that still has to register in the West. The longer it takes the West to come to its senses the more painful the downfall will be and the more totalitarian the governance system will become…

  5. David

    The issue isn’t really democracy, and in any event not liberal democracy, which is close to an oxymoron, given that liberalism creates imbalances of power and wealth inimical to democracy. And the argument is a bit incoherent : voting rights in most countries were based on property ownership, not wealth as such, and much of the political conflict of the 19th century was between traditional landowners and the emerging middle classes, who had the wealth and wanted the power. Likewise, the move to neoliberalism had begun before the end of the 1970s’ and slower economic growth was a consequence of it, not a cause.
    The real issue is that people expect political leaders, whom they elect and pay, to do things. But modern political leaders have for the last generation or so developed the art of saying that nothing can be done, or at least nothing that will make life better. So a political figure who proposes to actually do something that people want is a dangerous and disruptive force. Irrespective of their precise views and policies, they are a danger to the current political class, which resolutely refuses to do anything useful.

    1. Redlife2017

      The allergy to actually enacting policies that have been proven in the past to be beneficial to the citizenry of a country is impressive in its almost pathological implementation. No matter how bad the outcomes of neoliberal economics is, we can’t possibly change those policies. This goes beyond TINA. I look at people like Joe Biden and Jo Swinson and marvel at their innate ability to defend the worst excesses of policies like bailing out the banks and austerity and yet still cry crocodile tears for the people.

    2. Ignacio

      But if you cannot expect to elect a leader that migth do something this is another way of saying democracy is in trouble. The result is that democracy is constrained by a dominant ideology and this undermines democracy. Everything becomes technocratical and obscure, particularly –but not only– monetary policy. I wonder by how much this already short room of maneuver has to be reduced to allow claiming democracy is already dead. There are many candidates that go with the discourse that “I will do the only thing that can be done” so you know from the very beginning that business will go as usual an nothing will be done. For instance, Joe Incremental Biden. A very good example in US is Health Care. A good majority wants H.C. for all, but we migth find again that candidates that promise it are effectively blocked because “it cannot be done (too expensive etc.)”. I really think democracy is in trouble if this occurs again.

    1. rob

      Why should “science” have anything to do with democracy?

      As someone from the united states, I live in a republic.
      Our founding fathers rejected democracy as a form of government.Some of them, like alexander hamilton loathed democracy… Which is one reason I think he was an ass… but that is besides the point..

      Democracy, as an ideal… to be promoted in this republic with democratic assumptions…. is just something that stands on its own in the sphere of “civics”…
      democracy is just a practice of engaging with others. it is a discipline.

      science may exemplify practical thinking and action as expressed in the scientific method….. but democracy isn’t just about what is the “most likely to be true”…. it is just what “most people choose”… Now education is what lies between what those people know, how they know it and then their choices as to what they really want…. but science is a discipline that is really to be exalted in a free society…. but has no real place in the democratic institution. IMO
      People make democracy not science…. and “people” is a tough nut to crack

      Hitler was keen on science, to explain his motives… his perversions of truth became state mandated axioms of truth…. despite being pure BS..

      1. Bobby Gladd

        “I live in a republic.”


        Is the US a republic or a democracy?

        Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law notes that the United States exemplifies the varied nature of a constitutional republic—a country where some decisions (often local) are made by direct democratic processes, while others (often federal) are made by democratically elected representatives.

  6. notabanktoadie

    Under neo-liberalism, the state does little more than maintain the rights of ownership and internal and external security through criminal justice and armed services – notwithstanding, the state may bail out financial services if they require public aid. Kevin Albertson [bold added]

    It does more than just bail out financial services, the state PRIVILEGES them beforehand by failing to provide something so simple, so obvious as, for example, inherently risk-free debit/checking accounts for all citizens at the Central Bank (or National Treasury) itself.

    The result is nations have a SINGLE* payment system that MUST work through the banks or not at all – making their economies hostage to what are, in essence, government-privileged usury cartels.

    We can have nations that are for their citizens or ones which privilege banks and other depository institutions but not both.

    *apart from mere physical fiat, paper bills and coins.

  7. The Rev Kev

    The problem may not be so much with democracy as with “representative” democracy. I believe that it was Harvard that did a study that found that the wishes of the bulk of the electorate were habitually ignored unless it aligned with the wishes of the wealthier portion of society. In other words, after the elections were over, voter’s wishes were not a factor. Perhaps more imaginative ideas need to be adopted. We have secret balloting right now so how about secret ballots in the Senate and the House of reps – on pieces of paper counted in public under the watch of several parties. No digital crap allowed. No donor would be able to tell what his purchased politician actually voted in any session. Every vote would then become a conscience vote. When you think about it, there is nothing to say that how things are now should also be the way that things always are.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Thanks for that. That is the one. It was called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

    1. Carla

      “The problem may not be so much with democracy as with “representative” democracy.” Agreed!

      I’m going to learn more about sortition.

    2. Oregoncharles

      The voters wouldn’t be able to tell, either. In a way, democracy happens when pols run for RE-election; that’s when they have a record to judge.

    3. deplorado

      I think we should vote on policies and social goals, not politicians and parties. Like vote for M4A or no, not Biden or Bernie.

      We should have political infrastructure that is focused on defining the guiding policies at various levels from national to local – and then we should have an executive and other governance structures where all capable citizens will participate to enact those policies, to which enacting they are legally bound – by codified fiduciary or other legally enforceable obligation.

      In my daydreaming, sometimes I see this as the right way to have a democracy. Is this naive? Is it possible to imagine the mechanics of how it would work? I see it as, “we agree to do this, we commit to do it, and here is who is committed to implementing it and legally responsible. tomorrow someone else may get to implement. but we all decide what we focus on for the good of everybody” — something along those lines.

      Why should we have to vote for personalities and parties that we have no effective ways to control and delegate to them so much large scale decision-making power? That is crazy.

  8. shinola

    “… the promotion of the neo-liberal political economic paradigm need not result from a conspiracy.”

    Just because it “need not” doesn’t mean it does not. There is a playbook for privatization:

    1) Identify a government function that could provide a profit opportunity.
    2) Deprive the dept. that provides that function of the funds needed to adequately do a proper job of it.*
    3) Point out, loudly & publicly, what a crappy job the gov’t is doing.
    4) Announce that “We have a solution for that” – which, of course, involves privatization.*

    *Note: steps 2 & 4 require co-operation of gov’t representatives which is obtained through lobbying & briber.. er, campaign contributions.

    1. kiwi

      Well, now governments just ‘restructure’ and pass out contracts to justify laying off employees. There is no need to starve a department of funds first.

      My experience is that the contracted ‘service’ is oversold and mostly goes to pot, and the gov will still renew the contracts for the crappy service providers over and over.

    2. Off The Street

      In simpler times, democracy was viewed at risk if citizens could vote themselves money. Now citizens are at risk when pirates can dispense with the voting to get money.
      A cruel twist is where those pirates and their paid pols stick the citizens with the downside.

  9. JCC

    It seems to me, including all the above comments, underlying all of this is the pursuit of “economic growth”, which ultimately means the pursuit of economic wealth by the most powerful of the ownership class at the expense of everyone else. And they are the group that buy and install the politicians to ensure that pursuit remains as unimpeded as possible.

    Examples of this off-the-rails philosophical and social justification of “modern” capitalism are apparent to everyone (I hope); Shareholder Primacy, Intellectual “Property” Laws, Health Care as a Profit Center replacing health care of citizenry, abstract legal entities, Corporations, given the same rights (and few responsibilities) as individual people, the taking over of education systems by this same ownership class, again primarily for profit and propaganda, increasing for-profit, and control, surveillance, and more rule the day.

    Historically, and unfortunately, the prime reset has often been violent revolution. Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast teaches us many examples throughout history and should be required listening for today’s ownership class and politicians everywhere… and High School history classes.

  10. Rod

    THE MORAL CONSEQUENCES OF ECONOMIC GROWTH by Benjamin Friedman in the HarvardScholar link was a thought provoking read about the linkages between affective economic growth and morality– and visa versa.
    I believe he was arguing that a cultures adopted values directs the benefits of that cultures economic growth and applications(without direct outside meddling). And that can become a reinforcing feedback loop–for both the held values and values had about economic growth.
    Economic Growth is often compiled in numbers in Lamberts Water Cooler at least weekly–however, like Inflation Stats, often a lot of critical things are not considered in the compilation(gas price in inflation and happiness in economic growth–as two simple i.e.)
    imo, We need more progress in expanding the term Economic Growth beyond consumption and production to be pertinent in 2019.

  11. Susan the other`

    I think this is a really good analysis in that it comes to the conclusion that we need more democracy; we are not democratically “liberal” at all. We were just hoodwinked for about the last 50 years. We need to be socially democratic. It will bring an end to the obscene inequalities we see and stabilize civilization. So the apotheosis of unregulated growth and the free-range consumer is over. Tsk tsk. That was imposed on society by the mandate for profits (which they never wanted to admit, but it depended entirely on demand). I guess the consumer is headed for the bone yard of Idols. We will, by necessity, have something entirely different. A form of social demand; a cooperative of some sort. Hanging on to old worn out ideas is all that is left – kind of like nostalgia. Like the Donald pandering to “business” by gutting the EPA now when manufacturing has been decimated and methods of mitigating pollution are a market in themselves. Trump is just campaigning like an old fool; but it’s probably working.

  12. Tomonthebeach

    Finally, an article on Neolib Capitalism that a 5th-grader can grasp – maybe granny too. I already shared it with a dozen friends (ironically – most with doctorates as the choir can never be too big).

    Now let’s all rise and sing a rousing chorus of Dude Where’s My Democracy.

  13. Cal2

    After reading about the failure of the F.D.A. to regulate pharma and protect us, after witnessing our military going into losing war after losing stalemate, after seeing homelessness explode, drug use, the failure of schools supposedly controlled by the Department of Education, an eroding environment, etc.

    At what point do citizens stop voluntarily paying taxes and complying with federal laws?

    1. stan6565

      After the collapse of NHS care, after the oversubsciption of our local schools by a factor of n, after there being no police in the streets to curb the harassment rowdiness and burglary, after a complete collapse of democracy following people’s vote for liberty from shackles of giant EU squid, after the horrific waste of local councils monies on sucking up to the terror of minorities (racial, ethnic, sexual), after our own councils ramming the extreme numbers of noninvited imported alien population down the throats of hitherto taxpaying funders of the target occupation environment, and so on, can I have a separate TV station to tell you, the only thing left for the sitting target taxpayers paying for all this largesse, abuse, and outright extortion is indeed to abandon any of the previously normal concepts of tax, duty and bills payments, and let the local and state governments get into the costly business of corralling each and every hitherto low lying fruit taxpayer, and forcing monies out of them at a great expense to the target and the enforcer.

      What a way to go forward in life.

  14. RBHoughton

    Read all the way through and never encountered the names Reagan or Thatcher. As the principal enablers of the financial / economic disaster called the Washington Consensus, their names should be right up there. We need an annual festival with bonfires and fireworks when we can burn the rogues in effigy.

    The author is right that prolonged peace allows power to concentrate. He does not indicate the end result that Rome and Constantinople experienced when deprived citizens declined to fight for the empire and the Goths / Crusaders were able to take over. We study Greek and Roman history in school but somehow its relevance to our declining state means nothing to us.

    1. Hoppy

      He does not indicate the end result that Rome and Constantinople experienced when deprived citizens declined to fight for the empire and the Goths / Crusaders were able to take over.

      It appears we have met the same fate in the fight against climate change. Unless Bernie can convince them to fight we are kind of screwed.

  15. David in Santa Cruz

    I’ve always been a huge fan of the Haynes Guides. A finer series of “how-to” books has never been published.

    Gratified to read the phrase “carrying capacity” in a political discussion. One of the central drivers of elite power and asset hoarding is the perception of scarcity and the compulsion to ration (i.e. cut-off supplies of “nice things” to the proles and dusky-hued people).

    Looking forward to the Haynes Guide to Eating the Rich.

  16. skippy

    I thought we had a fine example of democracy of lobbyists, Hudson Think Tank Memories comes to mind, with a side of non distributional economic metrics like GDP to flog the unwashed with.

    Its all very Assyrian too me, for that matter, near post bronze age collapse.

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