By A. C. Grayling

225 pp. Oneworld. $22.99.

From The New York Times

A. C. Grayling, a British philosopher and critic whose subjects range from 17th-century epistemology to 20th-century war crimes, has come to tell us what he knows: that at one time we admired and understood representative democracy, and not without reason, but that in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, democracy has been “made to fail.” Why has this happened? Because of insufficient checks on the power of political and economic elites, a failure in the civic education required of an informed populace and the ideological distortions created through the lobbying efforts of special interests.

Representative democracy ticks more of the boxes citizens want from their government than any other system we’ve tried to design. But when we forget this, rancorous populism and plebiscitary politics take hold, and we need to be given an old-fashioned history lesson to warn of the dangers ahead. As Grayling reminds us, democracy, understood as the rule of the majority, has never been sufficient in itself. Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli all knew that more was needed, whether that meant enshrining constitutional rules to avoid the arbitrary exercise of power, imposing standards of behavior on elected officials or supporting a healthy ambivalence toward rulers by the ruled.

From these classical debates, increasingly complex defenses of representative democracy emerged in England, America and France. Leading thinkers in the age of revolutions tried to reconcile the need for modern republics of great size and diversity with the idea of popular sovereignty – without succumbing to traditional sources of division and faction, most notably brought about by inequalities of property and wealth. What these representative structures never resolved was the question of how much economic inequality was necessary to make the system work and how much might flip it into oligarchy, threatening its very foundations.

All this was standard fare for classical political economists, but 19th-century writers like John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant had other worries, focusing on the extent to which individual liberty in a democracy might be threatened by popular ignorance, sectional interests and ineffective constitutional norms. They chose, that is, to go beyond republican concerns with property and institutional constraints, advising us to be jealous of our liberty and wary of our politicians. But they also insisted that representative democracy would leave us freer to pursue our own interests and prosperity.

In taking readers through this history, Grayling wants us to become aware of the possible failings of democracy – institutional dysfunction, citizens unequipped for practical judgment, the distortions of corporate power. What is to be done? He advocates civics classes in schools, the enactment of proportional representation, compulsory voting from the age of 16 and taking back control over egregious institutional dysfunctions (unfettered party funding, for example, and targeted political messaging). Most important, he urges us to remember that referendums should have nothing to do with representative democracy. In particular, he lambastes “in-out” votes like Brexit.

The difficulty with Grayling’s history lessons and suggested reforms is that considerably more structural surgery may be needed if we are to safeguard the health and longevity of representative democracy, and that’s much harder to design. Governments seem increasingly incapable of determining where their systems are broken and agreeing on how they might be repaired. Meanwhile, public discourse becomes infused with moralized language, fixated on terms like “dignity,” “equality” and “respect” that float free of these structural problems. In one way, though, Grayling is right. The thought that plutocrats and oligarchs can fix what needs mending, or do anything much about the economic inequalities that have always threatened political stability, is difficult to countenance. In fact, it seems inconceivable.

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