Three Books on Democracy

A review of:

A. C. Grayling, Democracy and Its Crisis (Oneworld Books)

Richard Walsh, Reboot: A Democracy Makeover to Empower Australia’s Voters (MUP)

Steve Richards, The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way (Atlantic Books)


In his 1984 book The Fall of Rome German historian Alexander Demandt lists all the reasons ever proffered for the decline of the Roman Empire. Set out alphabetically, and drawing on two hundred years of historiography, the list includes the abolition of rights, the aristocracy, celibacy, culinary excess, deforestation, earthquakes, hubris, imperialism, lead poisoning, prostitution, soil erosion and terrorism. In all Demandt cites 210 explanations, and that some are incompatible with others – both pacifism and militarism are included in the list, as are polytheism and Christianity – only adds to the sense of chaos. Others – female emancipation, homosexuality, Jewish influence – probably tell us less about the Romans themselves than they do about some of the historians who study them.

The twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump, and the political energies from which they emerged, have not yet resulted in quite this level of confusion. But the commentators are off to a flying start. The rise of rightwing populism in Europe and the United States has inspired a plethora of analyses, some stressing neoliberal globalisation, others immigration and xenophobia, still others the effect of a decentred media on the character and calibre of public debate. Where one sees the failure of identity politics, another sees its rebirth on the right; a column blaming a timid media for the rise of Trump and his analogues is answered by one citing the arrogance of the elites. Of course the most skilful analyses will attempt to combine these different explanations, setting out the connections between them. But that there are profound differences of perspective amongst commentators is obvious.

These three books – one by a British philosopher, one by an Australian satirist and one by a British commentator and broadcaster – locate the current political disarray within the broad history of democracy itself. All are defences of the representative principle, but are also critiques of its contemporary condition. And what each proposes is some kind of change, either to the mechanics of the democracy itself, or to the civic education of those who regard it askance, or to both. In order to preserve representative democracy it is necessary to remake or rethink it.

A. C. Grayling’s Democracy and Its Crisis is a strenuous defence of liberal democracy from one of the world’s most strenuous liberals. It can be read as a companion volume to his 2007 book Towards the Light, a history of liberty and rights in the West, but its impetus is clearly the populist insurgency, and Trump and Brexit in particular. For Grayling these two episodes are ‘morbid symptoms’ of problems inherent to the democratic project. In order to treat those symptoms, he suggests, it is necessary to remind ourselves of democracy’s history, to accept its inevitable limitations, and to readjust its settings.

Essentially Grayling takes Winston Churchill’s view that democracy is the worst possible system of governance, apart from all the others. Beginning from Plato’s claim (in Republic) that democracy is always liable to collapse into ochlocracy or oligarchy – into rule by the mob or rule by the few – he sets out a view of democracy as a necessary compromise between liberty and security, and argues for a ‘reconfiguration and reconstitution of the political order’ in line with that compromise.

To this end he charts the history of liberal-representative democracy from the ‘Putney debates’ in post-Civil War England – the first attempt to really grapple with the subject in a practical sense – to John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, which savaged the absolutist principle and prepared the philosophical ground for an alternative idea of legitimate authority, to the ideas of Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. Along the way he considers such historical episodes – the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution, the French Revolution – as have been influenced by these ideas, and have, by that token, put them to the test.

This half of the book is fascinating. Grayling is a peerless guide to ideas and his sober exposition of their evolution is an antidote to the kind of easy cynicism that holds that ‘if voting changed anything they’d abolish it’. But there are also problems with Grayling’s analysis, not the least of which is his tendency to treat populism as a problem of governance, rather than a phenomenon with deep cultural and economic roots. Referring to the various problems contemporary democracy faces – the rise of ‘dark money’ and media manipulation, concentration of power under the Westminster system – he proposes a number of key reforms, including greater independence for politicians, compulsory voting, proportional representation, a written constitution and education of voters. But he ignores entirely the question of technocracy – a key issue in Brexit debate – and says nothing about the neoliberal assault on social democracy in Europe and elsewhere. Characterising Trump and Brexit as crises of legitimacy, he evinces a rather snobbish suspicion of the uninformed electorate, and more than implies that the political system should be reengineered in such a way as to ensure a more progressive outcome. I’d suggest that this is precisely the kind of elitism that many voters had in mind when they cast their votes for Trump or Leave.

Nevertheless Grayling’s central contention – that representative democracy is essential for good governance but currently unfit for purpose – is one with which many will sympathise. Certainly Richard Walsh would do so. The former editor of Oz magazine thinks democracy is due a new outfit, something more befitting our tech-savvy times. In Reboot he takes a careful look at the state of our democracy, and the public’s disengagement from it, and decides that Australia needs to rediscover its role as one of the world’s ‘electoral pioneers’. Having led the way on innovations such as women’s suffrage and compulsory voting, Australia has fallen way back in the pack. For Walsh, we are due a ‘democracy makeover’.

His timing is perfect, on the face of it. As I write this Australians are facing the prospect of a constitutionally dubious postal survey, a debate about four-year parliamentary terms, an indigenous ‘voice to parliament’ and renewed agitation for a republic. At the same time Malcolm Turnbull’s government, riven with internal infighting and hampered by minor parties in the Senate, finds it impossible to move on an array of issues, from energy to economic reform. Rarely has the gap between political action and aspiration been so conspicuous. With every rev of the engine Australian democracy seems to sink deeper into the mud.

Walsh’s rescue plan is a bold one. He envisages a one-house republic (no Senate), with a president elected every four years. That president will sit atop a council of advisors whose primary role will be to appoint Australians of proven competence to ‘non-political’ positions such as the ABC board, the bench of the High Court, royal commissions and the AEC. The council members will be non-political too, chosen for, and motivated by, their commitment to public service. Ideally they’ll be ‘living treasures’ able to unite the country.

Beneath this will sit the House of Representatives, also elected every four years, in the middle of the presidential cycle. Representatives will be either ‘closed’ or ‘open’, with the former elected anonymously on a (redesigned) constituency basis and the latter elected by non-constituency voters who’ve shopped around for the candidate who seems best to represent their values. It will be up to individual voters what kind of rep they choose to support, but Walsh’s expectation and hope is that most will plump for the open reps, whom electors will be able to petition directly.

Finally it will be up to the representatives to choose the Australian Prime Minister, whose job is to appoint government ministers and smooth the passage of legislation through the House. Legislation will be proposed by the reps, and experts invited to talk on topics relevant to each bill. Political advocacy will occur outside the parliament, with representatives who ally themselves with one or other of the major parties (again, this is Walsh’s expectation) unable to attract as many voters as those of a more independent cast of mind.

All this is set out with clarity and wit, and en route Walsh makes some interesting points about the effect on Australian democracy of student politics, political donations, party grandstanding and ‘post-fact abuse’. But there’s a technocratic streak in his thinking – one that survives his (very reasonable) desire to make our democracy more representative. His suggestion that experts, not politicians, should be given the floor in parliamentary debates reveals, I think, a wrongheaded idea of what politics actually is, or entails, and this serves to undermine his project. He regards ‘adversarial’ politics as a problem and seeks to separate the decision-making process from questions of ideology. But the idea that legislation can be argued for ‘on its evidence-based merits’ is a category mistake; there are no ‘right’ answers to political questions, because politics involves a battle for resources and conflicting ideas about how they should be allocated. Walsh writes that our adversarial politics has its roots in British legal traditions. Maybe so. But they lie too in our class divisions, and Walsh’s faith in the good sense of experts is itself an aspect of ‘knowledge-class’ thinking. Certainly his suggestion that the GST was a brilliant piece of legislation held up on the Labor side by cowardice and expediency – as if no one on the left had ever made an argument against regressive taxation – reflects his own political bias.

Still, at least Walsh is thinking creatively about how to refine the representative model in order that it can function more effectively. By contrast Steve Richards’ Rise of the Outsiders is a defence of the political establishment, albeit with some caveats. An analysis of the movements that have mounted a challenge to the liberal centre in recent years, it recommends, not a shift in the locus of power, nor an alteration to its institutions, but a change in the attitudes and expectations of politicians and public alike.

For Richards the populist insurgency – the titular ‘rise of the outsiders’ – is a species of anti-politics that fails to take account of reality. Though he criticises the ‘insiders’ for their faith in markets – the centre-left is rebuked for its spinelessness in this regard, the centre-right for its ideological monomania – Richards’ sympathies are all with the established politicians, who despite their shortcomings are the only ones capable of understanding the trials of power. Thus, when insiders are criticised it is less for their policy failures than it is for their failure to frame their politics in a way that appeals to their electorates. Populists of both left and right, by contrast, are dismissed for their idealism and lack of experience.

In this respect, as in others, Richards stacks the deck in favour of power. The characterisation of effective politicians as experienced ‘insiders’ is plainly self-reinforcing, and allows Richards to skirt the depth and diversity of the populist response to the ‘double liberalism’ (economic and social) at the heart of the establishment, while also downplaying the responsibility that establishment bears for economic inequality, debt and all the other ills we associate with neoliberalism. As the sociologist Cas Mudde has written, the populist insurgency is an ‘illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism’. Richards writes as if it’s a tantrum, and that even the effort of radical social democrats in Greece to escape the chokehold of austerity was an indulgence of the ‘rock star’ left.

Richards provides a serviceable overview of the scope of the populist insurgency, but his analysis is paper-thin. Begging the question, it asks us to accept that there is some essential quality insiders possess and outsiders lack, and in that respect it smells strongly of the very complacency that has led us to this chaotic juncture. Surely the beginning of wisdom here is to accept that whatever populism is, it isn’t ‘anti-politics’.


First published in The Weekend Australian Review, October 2017.