As a small island nation, hugely dependent on open trade and the flow of people and ideas, Ireland is following with intense interest the unfolding dramas of Trump and Brexit. The general response here to the chaos swirling on each side of us was neatly captured recently by Irish journalist Chris Johns. “Ireland”, he wrote, “is caught between a kleptocracy and an idiocracy.”
Ireland, of course, has experienced idiocracy too. We escaped from the madness of thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland only with the help of America, and one American in particular, former Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell chaired the all-party peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That agreement ended the violence that claimed more than 3,500 lives and created divisions within society in Northern Ireland so deep that is still not able to function democratically.
The daily cacophony of Trump’s hatemongering and Brexit intransigence that floods in from east and west reminds us of Mitchell’s admonishment to the warring parties during the negotiations in Belfast. “In terms of finding things to disagree about, you are geniuses, great innovators,” he said. “In finding ways to resolve your differences you are like blocks of granite.”
One clear lesson did emerge, however, from Northern Ireland’s troubled history that politicians in Washington and Westminster should heed if they wish to halt their mutual descents into division. It is this: democracy is not about one side hammering the other into submission; democracy is not majority rule.
The increasingly widespread misconception that democracy is majority rule is based on the obvious fact that in elections, the one with the highest share of the vote wins. But democracy is not simply elections. Alongside elections, democracy also requires the application of the rule of law to all, regardless of wealth or status. It requires the enforcement of laws to protect the human rights of all members of society, particularly minorities. It requires the inclusion of all ethnic and religious groups in the democratic process on an equal basis.
It requires a free press representing a diversity of voices, and a commons open to the public where this diversity can be openly debated. It requires a fair system of taxation and some measure of redistribution of wealth to ensure social cohesion. And it requires leaders, institutions and citizens capable of supporting and enforcing all of these essential democratic functions.
This system of democratic checks and balances has evolved over centuries to guard not only against the tyranny of despotic rulers but also, crucially, against the tyranny of the majority. But the tyranny of the majority is precisely what happens when a democratic system is downgraded to majority rule. Under majority rule, the winning majority is allowed to enforce its will on the losing minority, regardless of the consequences for that minority. Democracy is a system designed for the peaceful accommodation of differences. Majority rule excels at generating conflict and the exacerbation of differences, as can be clearly seen in the cases of both Trump and Brexit.
The 2016 Brexit referendum was hailed by the winners as a victory for democracy. It was, in fact, a victory for the narrow and dangerous interpretation of democracy as brute majoritarianism. The victory by the 52 percent who voted in favour resulted in the prospect of the remaining 48 percent being stripped of their European identity against their will.
Crude majoritarianism has taken hold, too, in Trump’s America, albeit thanks to the Electoral College system on the basis of a minority vote. Trump signalled from the start that he had no interest in acting as President for all Americans. Instead, he won the presidency by pandering to the interests of his base and vilifying those with whom he disagreed. He has continued to govern in this manner. Trump’s presidency did not create partisanship and division in the US, of course, but it has widened divisions to an unprecedented degree. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only two issues on which Americans could agree. First, that the country's political divisiveness has become a deep and dangerous problem. Second, that the problem is mostly the other side's fault.
So, why has the conception of democracy as majority rule risen to prominence today so markedly in the US and in the UK? One reason is that both countries are two party systems with ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral systems which elect representatives on the basis of majority voting. This contrasts with the multi-party systems that are the norm in most of Europe, in which representatives are elected by proportional representation to serve in power-sharing coalition governments. This difference leaves the US and UK systems more vulnerable to majority rule.
But there is also a deeper reason. The majority rule misconception of democracy fits well with the neoliberal economic model that has been enthusiastically embraced by the US and UK for decades now. Neoliberalism’s narrative is one of winner takes all competition, of belief in society as a meritocracy whereby the best qualified and hardest working succeed and where poverty is the fault of the poor, and in which inequality is valorised as just rewards for the winners and just desserts for the losers. Such a concept of society has little room for the ideas of social justice, equality, or the common good, concepts which have greater traction across much of Europe but which have long been marginalised in political discourse in the lands of Trump and Brexit.
The consequences of this impoverished concept of society are now on full display in both countries. Concentration of corporate power has undermined democracy, social mobility has fallen to generational lows and trickle-down economics has dried up as the new rentier system of capitalism amasses ever greater wealth for the wealthy.
Anger at neoliberalism’s broken promises has morphed on both sides of the Atlantic into vilification of immigrants and, in the hands of Donald Trump, into an almost daily display of hatred towards the poor. In both the US and UK, political leaders have emerged to scapegoat minorities as the cause of society’s ills and legitimise their truncated vision of democracy as majority rule as the solution.
In Ireland, we have recent experience of where such idiocracy can lead. Here we share a collective recognition that hate speech really does have deadly consequences. We have seen how loud-mouthed ideologues can incite the petty tyrants of everyday life to engage in violence. And we worry that when, as Oscar Wilde warned, democracy comes to mean the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people, the worst is yet to come.
Ian Hughes is an Irish scientist and senior research fellow at MaREI, University College Cork. He is also author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy and a contributing author to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.
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