Flat White

Why the majority is ruining democracy

29 March 2019

8:57 AM

29 March 2019

8:57 AM

The majority are not always right. It’s obvious, really. The tautology that 50 per cent of people have below-average intelligence alone should prove it. The majority of people are some combination of ill informed, inexperienced, selfish, gullible, or bored of politics. What would they know?

At the Australian 2016 federal election, the senate party candidates for VoteFlux.org (21,459 votes nationwide) promised that, if elected, they would vote on every matter as they were directed by subscribers to their ‘app’. Using the opportunities afforded by modern technology, they would move our flawed democracy toward the ultimate, ideal realisation of democracy: issue-based direct democracy, or IBDD. A genuine majority vote of all citizens on every issue.

Anyone who has had any political conversation with random friends after dinner on a Friday night knows why this is a dreadful idea. Initially you’re excited to discover that around 40 per cent of people agree with you on a topic. And then you find out why they agree. Two of them agree because they always disagree with whatever the current leader says, one agrees because the media told him so, several have none of their facts correct—or are relying on the facts that matter least, one feels an emotional connection to the idea, and the rest thought you were talking about a different issue.

Perhaps your friends are all very astute and discerning, I don’t know. For my part, I’ve concluded that there is nothing magical about the number 50 per cent that would enable my general acquaintances to determine the best course of action for Australia. On any issue. And I think it’s fair to extrapolate this to the entire population.

The concept of ‘representation’, then, isn’t an unfortunate necessity in democracy; it is one of the strengths of democracy. Majority vote would ruin the country under the weight of an incoherent package of policies with no clear vision. When we vote, we don’t select someone exactly like us; we’re meant to select someone better than us. Someone smart, cool-headed, well-informed, who has demonstrated to us that he or she is principled, earnest, and compassionate, and has the right gifts and experience for leadership. Someone who doesn’t take it as given that they are right about everything, but who continually battles their own inadequacies in order to be the best leader they can be. Someone with merit.

A couple-hundred such people meeting together are meant to grapple with the issues we don’t have the time or skill to grapple with. They’re meant to seek out the information we can’t get hold of. They’re meant to push through the media noise and the rhetoric and the emotive lobbyists and hear past the noisy minority. The key for me then, as a voter, is to select someone I trust, not someone who will imitate me.

This does not mean that politicians are permitted to ignore the will of the people. The political class has a responsibility to get the people on board. If they find that 60 per cent of people disagree with what they’re doing, that doesn’t necessarily mean stop doing it… but it probably should mean that start explaining it. Politicians have to communicate. Politicians can’t ignore the people, but their highest calling is to do what they believe is right.

Unfortunately, a narrow view of democracy—the idea that the government should parrot majority opinion—is becoming commonly accepted wisdom. This is one reason why polls are ruining politics.

It is commonplace for media reports to quote support statistics on issues. Some politicians who stood against same-sex marriage, for instance, were tarred by the percentage of their own electorate who they were voting against. How dare they vote against 60 per cent of their own electorate! But whatever the context, making a wrong decision because the majority of people agree with it is just that: making the wrong decision. See also Pontius Pilate. And Hitler.


Instead of merely needing majority support on election day, political parties now think they need majority support every week of their term in office. While that would be great, it is impractical for getting on with business; they make the totally false assumption that “the people” know what’s going on and what’s good for them. A political party should be governing for three years, and campaigning for six weeks. Today they are constantly in campaign mode.

Polls are ruining governance more than politics. Politicking thrives. Polls are easily wielded by Machiavellian politicians in the halls of power as a sword to stab with. (Though, as Turnbull found out, those who live by them die by them.) But the poll-tracking approach is logically backward. Put it this way: Having good arguments should generate support for a policy; having good support should never replace arguments for a policy.

Considering that this had been on my mind, I fully understood what Matthew Parris meant in his Spectator article last year Why I don’t, never have and never will trust the people, where he described the will of the people as a rock to be navigated. He expressed that “democracy is something to be lived with, not lived by”.

Our government is a system of checks and balances that is intended to prevent autocracy, but also to prevent tyranny of the majority (a near-certain outcome if VoteFlux.org got their way). Newt Gingrich described the USA government as a machine that was designed to be so inefficient that it’s amazing that anything can get done. Between congress, the senate, the judiciary, the presidency, the states, the constitution, the parties and the people… everyone has levers to pull to make their voice heard and to prevent any one element from tearing the system down. It galls me, as an engineer, to say this—but its inefficiency is its strength.

However, “the people” are obviously an immensely significant part of the machine, and comprise its fundamental building block. Democratic government is still of the people, by the people, for the people. If government fails to serve the people’s interests, they have a right to do something.

In the lead-up to his election, Donald Trump expressed the feelings of many disillusioned Americans. These voters felt that the various machinery of government had slipped into alignment. All the checks and balances weren’t working because on some axis—not the Republican/Democrat axis, but some other one—everyone was basically on the same side. This side were called ‘elites’, and trump’s promise was to ‘drain the swamp’ of them.

His argument was interestingly similar to Bernie Sanders’ repeated warnings about a developing Oligarchy. The difference is that Sanders’ Oligarchy is big business, and hence Trump, as a billionaire, must be part of it. Trump’s Swamp, on the other hand, is big government and the tyranny of experts. A subtle difference in the diagnosis, a huge difference in the proposed cure. Personally, I think history supports that big government is the greater threat. With big business, we consumers perpetually vote with our wallets to provide or deny them influence. Trying to vote against big government that way is called tax evasion.

We can only vote against problematic government—elitist, authoritarian or other—if we have a candidate who isn’t part of the problem. In 2016 the biggest check-and-balance of all—general election—allowed many of “the people” in the USA to pull their lever and do just that.

Returning to Matthew Parris’ article, he questioned whether the popular vote is a sufficient argument for Brexit. He makes a good point; majority opinion is not equal to divine imperative and the parliament didn’t have to hold a referendum. Having done so, however, they outsourced their decision-making to the electorate. They must abide by the people’s decision, otherwise they are neutering the most important check in the system and delivering the autocracy that democracy was designed to avoid.

Acting against a referendum is indefensible. Consequently, I also understood Amy Brooke’s position in her counter-article, Brexit Notes, where she lambasted Parris for his position.

Is populism the answer for democracy? The meaning of the word “populist” is a bit nebulous. But if it means a political movement based on following the people, rather than leading them, I cannot actually support it as the way forward. We don’t need more leaders who tell everyone what they want to hear. That’s how we got where we are; insipid career-politicians that promise everything and deliver nothing.

If leaders truly follow the people, then a diverse populace can tear them apart. If they say they will but lie, they tear themselves away from the people. On the other hand, a single-minded leader can pull the people together.

We need principled leadership; leaders that speak honestly. Leaders who have an informed vision, sell it effectively, abide by it rigorously. Leaders that can get on with the job in the face of bad polling. It’s the truly democratic way.

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative who grew up and lives in Adelaide where he works for an engineering consultancy.

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