I feel like a broken record sometimes. It seems like every single time I interact with a Brexit supporter it boils down to them making some version of the statement “we won, shut up”. (I’m not trying to claim that remain voters are above this sort of crap. I have no reason to believe that there wouldn’t have been the same thing going on if the referendum had gone the other way).
Well, if you believe that “might is right” or that tyranny is OK just as long as it’s the tyranny of the majority then fine, I suppose. I can disagree with you but I wouldn’t be able to fault your logic. The disagreement would come down to a difference in fundamental values and there’s not always a lot you can do about that.
The problem I have is that they always go on to claim that this silencing and domination of the opposition is in some way democratic. Well, it has some surface similarities in that there was a vote at some point but it manages to miss out on everything that makes democracy worthwhile.
Think about the most basic, and loose, definition of democracy possible. What’s distinctive about democracy? Why should we prefer democracy to dictatorship or absolute monarchy?
The core idea of democracy is that it is a method for groups to make decisions where the participants in that decision making are equal. So, why should we want our political systems to be democratic rather than authoritarian? There are plenty of reasons which have been given both for and against democracy, (take a look at the SEP article on democracy, it’s well worth a read) but the most important reason is that political equality is only way for everyone’s interests to be taken into account. It’s a question of legitimacy, if my interests are not being taken into account, if I’m not even given the opportunity to state my case, then what reason do I have to respect the decision?
Of course this doesn’t mean very much if there are no limits placed on what can be decided. If a majority can legitimately call for the enslavement of everyone else then we lose both the justification for democracy and the democratic position of everyone except the majority. It may be the case that everything up until that enslavement is done well enough to count as democratic, but everything after that enslavement is no longer democratic.
If democracy requires equality in decision making and is valuable because it ensures that everyone’s interests are taken into account then there must be limits to democratic authority. If a majority can vote to take that equality away from the minority then the system ceases to be democratic. There may still be democracy amongst the majority but the minority is now living under tyranny. Let’s assume for a second that it’s legitimate for a majority to vote everyone else out of having any say and take this to an extreme.
- We have a population of 100 people.
- They vote and 52 of them vote that the other 48 should be excluded from future decisions. The 48 are no longer living in a democracy.
- Time passes and at the next vote 27 vote to exclude the other 25. 73 are now living under the authority of the 27.
- More time passes and 15 vote to exclude the other 12. 85 are now living under the authority of 15.
- 8 vote out 7. 92 live under the authority of 8.
- 5 vote out 3. 95 get to live how 5 tell them to.
- 3 vote out 2.
- 2 vote out 1.
- Stalemate, neither of the 2 have the democratic authority to vote out the other. They have to find solutions which work for both of them (which is really what they should have been doing amongst the 100). At least they get to tell the other 98 people what to do and none of them have the right to complain, after all, they were voted out democratically.
It’s not necessarily the case that there was anything wrong going on at each point, but it should be fairly clear that the reasons for wanting a democracy in the first place are no longer there for the people who were voted out at each stage. As such, they have no reason to recognise its authority.
Reality is less extreme but the same principle is at work whenever anyone says “we won, shut up” and claims it as democratic. Even if we assume that the referendum was run perfectly, everyone was perfectly informed, perfectly rational and voted for the option that they believed was best for the country as a whole the most that could be claimed is that the referendum was democratic.
In or out? Are we leaving the EU? That was the only question we were given.
The questions that remain are: How are we leaving? What sort of arrangement do we want once we have left? What concerns do people have? Why did people vote leave? Why did people vote remain? How can we address the interests of both?
As I wrote before the referendum, and will no doubt write again before too long, I don’t think that referendums are good expressions of democracy. At least not when they are run as an “us vs them” rather than “let’s try to reach a solution that works for us all”. I believe in public deliberation and trying to reach a consensus rather than simple domination of one group by another. Of course consensus may not always be possible and some people may have to go along with democratically made decisions that they do not agree with. As long as those decisions were made with a genuine attempt to take their interests into account I don’t think this is the worst thing in the world. They can always fight to change the decision later.
However, any claim that a person has no right to disagree with any democratically made decision is a claim that their citizenship was revoked as soon as they disagreed with the majority. That’s not democracy. It’s simply mob rule and I will not accept it.