Frank Vibert draws from his new book to outline how our current democratic institutions are increasingly in need of reform in order to address the blind spots and content-lite nature of our current democratic politics.

Those of us who follow politics on a daily basis suffer from information overload, trivia fatigue and ‘sorting failure’ as we try to distinguish between facts and falsehoods. It all seems far away from the underlying purposes of democratic politics and the framework needed to support those purposes.

The purposes of democratic politics

One way of formulating the underlying purpose is that democratic politics provides for finality and closure to debates on important matters of public policy.

A second way of viewing the underlying role of democratic politics is that it offers to polarized societies a means of achieving moderation in political exchange and accommodation between contending viewpoints.

A third way of looking at the purpose of democratic politics is to think about its role as a means of social adaptation so that people are willing to modify their views about important values and work together towards something that is still a ‘better there’ compared with the existing position.

Governing rules

Each of these different ways of thinking about the underlying goals of democratic politics is attractive from a normative perspective. At the same time they lead to very different ways of formulating the rules and institutions that provide support. If we look to democratic politics for finality then we may want to restrict the role of courts. If we look to politics to provide accommodation rather than polarisation then the institutions will need to provide for power sharing. If we hope that democratic politics will encourage socially adaptive values then the rules have to address the dominance of short cut political communication between like-minded social associates.

The relative merits of these different ways of formulating the underlying goals of democratic politics can be assessed in two ways.  The first is in relation to the social setting. The second is to look at what they assume about the processes of political exchange, debate and persuasion.

The social setting

The main feature of the contemporary social setting is its deep diversity. The world we live in today is a mainly urban world where we have day to day interactions with those holding different values and of different ethnicities and where different values cut across the different ethnicities. People hold different views about the appropriate role of men and women, about attitudes to authority and towards the future. We cannot easily talk about majorities versus minorities because those majorities are themselves transitory and made up of shifting alliances of minorities.

This world of cross-cutting social diversity and shifting alliances is a hugely invigorating world. At the same time we have to recognise that it is most unlikely that in such a world we will find final resolution for any area of policy making where deep values are involved. We also have to recognise that it is a setting where people may often feel defensive about what is important to them. Defining politics in terms of accommodation provides a way of containing defensive behaviour by individuals and groups.

The difficulty in focussing on institutions that simply encourage accommodation is that they tend to lead to only low levels of agreement, and permit what is known as ‘hold out’ behaviour where the last one into an agreement extracts a particular advantage. From a normative perspective, we want to be able to move beyond stasis and low levels of agreement. In most situations we want democratic politics to achieve more than side-by-side living between parallel societies. Thus from a normative perspective it is the model of a socially adaptive politics that seems the most attractive.

The question still remains about what assumptions the different models make about how democratic processes work. In particular the model of social adaptation focusses attention on assumptions about the processes of political persuasion. If people are to find their way to be a ’better there’ despite their defensiveness, they may need to be able to be persuaded to change their views, or at least to put them into abeyance.

The politics of persuasion

The model of democratic politics that looks for finality and closure of areas of dispute typically assumes that political persuasion hinges on rational debate, deductive logic and well-considered reflection. One version centres on the ‘Town Hall’ as a metaphor for a reasoned exchange of views between people and between people and their leaders. Another version centres on the incentives for political parties and party leaders to make rational policy offerings in the light of voter preferences. One is a ’bottom up’ model of political rationality; the other a ‘top down’ model.

The difficulty with either account of rationality in politics is that they are so at variance empirically with the real world of the twitterstorm and short cut communication between the like-minded. We also have to recognise that political parties have lost their edge in setting the agenda for public debate. Social association remains highly important but it is not the association provided by membership in political parties. People connect through the new social media. The platform is the mobile not the party.

It is tempting therefore to turn to the model of politics that stresses the institutions of accommodation. In this model, power sharing does not depend on the processes of electoral persuasion. Accommodation is forced by decision rules among pre-determined power sharers at the top of policy making.

However, we can also think about new rules and institutions that take into account the new forms of social association and the short cut communication of politics, but that also encourage people to be able to adapt and to change their views. Decision making can follow procedures that encourage the inclusion of wider sources of information and different ways of framing the issue beyond what we hear from our like-minded associates. Institutions can be reshaped in order to address blind spots such as intergenerational fairness.

Amidst our annoyance with the abysmal quality of day to day political debate we should not give up on the fundamental value of democratic processes just yet. Instead we should think about the transformations needed to the rules and institutions that can provide new forms of support for democracies.

image credit: ILO / Byamba-ochir Byambasuren

Frank Vibert is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the LSE Department of Government.

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.