Democracy is of course a great thing. Even in Finland, many people have been glowing in recent weeks about how privileged it is to be able to elect a president for the country in free elections.
However, democracy is not a panacea.
“Democracy does not guarantee anything for the poor, only for the average voter,” says a professor at the University of Oxford Ben Ansell.
According to Ansell, the poorest tenth of the electorate does not really benefit from the democratic process. The poorest part of the population is important to politicians only if they are important mobile voters at the same time.
If democracy does not serve the poor, then what?
“We need solidarity,” Ansell, speaking at a meeting of London-based correspondents, said.
Present 2024 is an election year in many of the world’s democracies. The main focus will be on the US presidential election. British parliamentary elections will most likely also take place in the fall.
Having lived in both the United States and Britain, Ansell’s specialty is democracy and democratic institutions.
Somewhat surprisingly, the professor does not feel that he should try again for the presidency of the United States Donald Trump would be a threat to American democratic institutions. He is confident that the system will continue to hold.
The danger comes from elsewhere: “The threat is that Trump will leave NATO.”
The Baltic countries and Ukraine would then be the biggest sufferers.
in Europe it is often difficult to understand why Americans still support Trump.
According to Ansell, Trump’s lawsuit losses do not increase Trump’s own popularity. Instead, Trump’s supporters get angry at Trump’s opponents – liberals – which in turn plays into Trump’s pocket.
It’s about so-called negative partisanship phenomenon. The decision to vote is driven by opposing a party or person, not so much by supporting something.
If a politician declares that he is following “the will of the people” in some matter, according to Ansell, it should be treated with caution.
There is no common will of the people, because people are basically always selfish. Disagreements start at the latest when talking about the details of common goals or practical arrangements.
That’s why politics and democracy also fail time and time again.
“We disagree on things, and that’s what makes us human.”
In Britain too has been ridden “by the will of the people”.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak is demanded the upper house of the parliament to support a law on flying migrants who arrived across the Channel in small boats to Rwanda, because otherwise “the will of the people would be obstructed”.
In reality queries show that the nation is anything but a united front in support of Sunak.
“If a politician starts talking about the will of the people, it’s better to just close your ears,” Ansell said.
Looking for a unified “will of parliament” is equally doomed. An example of this was seen when the lower house of the British Parliament (and especially the MPs of the Conservative Party) argued for more than three years about how the EU exit, i.e. Brexit, should be implemented in practice.
Democracy is a value and an ideal state, but nurturing it requires constant effort even in the most democratic society.
Goals that are equally difficult to achieve are equality, solidarity, security and prosperity.
Ansell writes in his acclaimed work Why Politics Fail (2023) about political traps that make it difficult to achieve important goals. The trap is triggered by self-interest.
Is this how it goes:
Democracy does not work because there is no single will of the people.
Equality does not work because improving equality in one place can eat away at it in another. An example of this is wealth taxes for the rich, i.e. the promotion of economic equality.
“No matter how obvious (the idea of the tax) is, it doesn’t work. It is difficult to achieve the goal without restricting other rights (of the rich).”
These rights include, among other things, the right to spend the money (that is, to decide about one’s own property) or to move to a country with lower taxation.
Solidarity doesn’t work again, because well-to-do people tend to skimp on paying into the common fund. The desire for joint responsibility often only arises if you are in need of support yourself.
One way to increase middle-class solidarity towards the poor is to include middle-income people in benefiting from public services. This is especially known in the Nordic countries. However, gimmicks require money, which in turn means heavy taxation.
In Britain, solidarity boils down to a matter of national pride, i.e. the free public health care system (NHS) for all residents.
Safety “trap” on the other hand means that minimizing anarchy can lead to tyranny. For example, China wanted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but at the same time severely restricted the freedom of movement of citizens and foreigners.
Achieving wealth also comes with a trap. Decision-makers and consumers often favor short-term advantage at the expense of long-term good.
A typical example of this is combating climate change. A holiday flight to the other side of the world is more attractive than compromising on consumption for the benefit of future generations.
“If environmental measures start to complicate one’s own life too much, their support will decay.”
Democracy nurturing is, according to Ansell, nurturing political institutions and practices. Institutions should not be shaken unnecessarily.
This also applies to the judiciary and the free media.
In Britain, the BBC is the subject of constant accusations of bias from both the right and the left. Survey by You Gov by The BBC is still the country’s most trusted news station.
According to Ansell, the public appreciates reliable reporting and shuns excesses. Even British conservatives reportedly do not trust the conservative tabloid The Sun, read as it is.
“People are not stupid. They cannot be taken away by biased media.”
Democracy in itself does not inoculate against any extremism.
“Democracy does not guarantee that there will be no extreme right-wing parties.”
He quotes his colleague’s theory: The far-right gets stronger in democracies when the center-right starts copying the ideas and thoughts of the far-right.
“When people see this, it legitimizes (extremism).”
At the same time, many voters may think that why vote for copycats when you can vote for the original fathers and mothers of the idea. At the same time, extremist movements are becoming more accepted even in democracies.