Leadership vs. Public Opinion: A democratic dilemma
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” – Winston Churchill
Given the choice we will always choose democracy.
No matter its faults, democracy gives us a voice in how our society is governed, whether that be as a nation, a province, a city, or even a summer village. It is synonymous with freedom. It is also a great equalizer. At the risk of stating the obvious, democracy is democratic. No matter your wealth or status, you have the same amount of power at the polling station as everyone else: one vote.
Besides, who would want to trade “rule by the people” for rule by dictatorship? Of course, democracy can trip itself up now and again, particularly when we give too much power to the people. I admit that sounds hypocritical on my part but allow me to explain. We create problems by relying too often on direct democracy rather than trusting in representative democracy.
In “representative democracy,” we hand power to politicians to make decisions on our behalf, about small town economic development, taxes and a host of other issues.
In “direct democracy,” we give people the power to vote on specific issues directly.
Direct democracy looks good on paper but can have unintended consequences in practice. In 2016, an online vote to name a new $400-million British research vessel was commandeered by mischievous forces that promoted people to vote for the eventual winner: Boaty McBoatface. Officials laughed off the results and gave the ship a less humorous but more appropriate name, David Attenborough, after the famous naturalist. The vote had been hijacked by mischievous forces that gave Britons a chuckle.
On the other hand, when malicious forces hijacked a much more serious vote in 2016, Britons got Brexit and its never ending chaos. A majority of MPs at the time knew that withdrawing from the European Union would be a monumentally difficult task and damaging to the British economy. They therefore opposed it. However, voters were manipulated by pro-Brexit forces into thinking it would be easy and profitable. The pro-Brexit side won by a vote of 52 percent to 48. Then reality set in and Britain is still dealing with disputes over trade and borders.
The lesson here is that using direct democracy to name a ship is harmless and can even be a humorous way to promote scientific research; but allowing a popular vote on complex international trade deals is to invite disaster. Complicated problems like small town economic development are best left to representative democracy where politicians take the time to understand issues and make informed decisions. If we, as voters, disagree with those decisions we can make our dissatisfaction known in the next election.
But, even then we must admit, democracy is open to abuse.
The rise of Adolph Hitler is a terrifying example. Starting in 1928 and running through elections in 1930 and 1932, the Nazis won an increasingly larger share of the vote. They never won enough to win a majority government outright but they used the elections as stepping stones to eventually seize power in 1933 and then begin to dismantle the very democratic system they had abused.
Democracy can be humorous, democracy can be infuriating, and democracy can sometimes be downright dangerous. This is why democracy must exist alongside the rule of law, whether that be local, national or international.
Even though there are nasty forms of authoritarianism in the world, they don’t reach the terrifying zenith of a Hitler thanks in part to international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Closer to home, we incorporate the rule of law into our Constitution that guarantees individual rights, freedoms and protections.
Democracy is not always right, but, ironically, to protect trust in the institution we must act as if it is never wrong. If you ask people their opinion and they cast a vote, they will expect you to follow through on the will of the majority, even if it is embarrassing, even if it goes against common sense and expert opinion. I often ask elected leaders in the classes I teach or while consulting if they know the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. Technically speaking, a referendum is binding while a plebiscite is not. But for all intent and purpose there is no real difference. If you ask people their opinion and they give it to you, they will expect you to do what they say. That is the case even if the results are wrong. In retail, the customer is always right; so, too, a voter in a democracy.
Clearly, democracy has its weaknesses.
Compounding the problem in the Internet age is the disturbing growth of social media warriors who believe their ill-informed opinion is equal to carefully researched facts offered by experts. Consequently, too often politicians pander to the pressure exerted from special interest groups that are well-organized, determined and loud. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, more than a few jurisdictions delayed or watered-down restrictions for fear of irritating a minority of angry citizens who thought the danger was overblown or even a hoax.
Bending to the will of a loud and/or angry mob is not being democratic. It is being cowardly. Or cynical. Or perhaps just plain lazy.
I have seen many political leaders at all levels of government default to asking people what they want to do. They asked them for direction even in situations where the issues are incredibly complex, like creating small town economic development, and the public doesn’t have the time or the energy to understand the depth and complexity of the issues that need decision-making. Complex times call for complex solutions but asking for a referendum or plebiscite on such issues is not necessarily going to produce good or valuable results.
Yet, we have come to idolize the direct democracy process so much that we presume it can never falter or lead us astray. That creates a dangerous situation not just because of problematic results, but because it is also an abdication of leadership at critical times. Fighting Nazi Germany in the Second World War was not done by direct democracy but by representative democracy.
In his 2019 book, Politics in the Times of Indignation: The Crisis of Representative Democracy, author Daniel Innerarity argues in favour of representative democracy. “We need, therefore, a political system whose agents truly listen to everyone: to the loudest voices and the lowest whispers, who pay attention to current emergencies but do not forget to anticipate the future, who balance the short and long terms properly. There are serious political problems that cannot be resolved in the tumult of immediate pressures.”
We face similar challenges at a municipal level. If you ask people what needs to be done to make the community successful, how do we create small town economic development, you will often get back the same answers: lower my taxes; stop charging me to use the recreation centre; fix the potholes on my street. Yet, municipal success often requires moderate taxes so that strategic investments can be made to improve the overall quality of life and market the community to attract new businesses and new people. Ask residents how to make their community better and you will often receive a list of the issues they want addressed personally, not the issues that need to be addressed for the greater good of the community.
I’m not saying democracy isn’t valuable. Come to think of it, neither was Winston Churchill in that oft-repeated quote. His statement, that sounds so cynical, was in fact trimmed, edited and taken out of context. Here is a more expansive excerpt of what he said during debate in the British House of Commons on the afternoon of November 11, 1947: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”
Churchill understood that unfettered democracy could be dangerous. In this particular debate, Churchill was arguing in favour of the House of Commons being the engine of democracy with the House of Lords (analogous to Canada’s Senate) acting as a brake to “prevent an accident” by going too fast.
Unchecked democracy is not a tool that can be used in every situation for every decision. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to social media and the vagaries of human emotion, hapless politicians have begun to embrace direct democracy as the solution to all problems.
That will not help through tough times. Lack of leadership can adversely impact small town economic development, and the spirit of the people. Now, more than ever, municipal leaders need to demonstrate leadership.