A sense of democratic peril is sweeping Western countries. Right-wing populists in Europe and North America are said to menace “our democracy.” Some fear Trotskyists and communists are on the cusp of power in France. Elections in the United States, Britain, and France—the leading democratic powers of both NATO and the G7—are said to be producing dubious democratic representation. 

Such fears are misplaced. Representation has never been the sole purpose of elections, and it is often not even the primary one. Democracy is not a form of rule, but a form of legitimation. At the nation-state scale, “the people” cannot rule and never will. A more realistic understanding of actually existing democracy can lower the temperature of our discourse, calm our doomsayers, and perhaps enable a constructive debate on what democracy can reasonably produce and how much of it we actually want.

“Despite taking 63 percent of the seats, Labour won a mere 34 percent of the vote.”

Last week in Britain, the Labour party won an historic victory, securing 412 seats in the House of Commons. This was the second highest tally in British history for a single party. Even more remarkable was Labour’s majority of 291 seats over the second-place Conservatives, by far the largest ever. Yet most remarkable of all was how few votes supported the rout. Despite taking 63 percent of the seats, Labour won a mere 34 percent of the vote—the smallest share ever for a UK governing party. On the other side, the populist Reform UK party won a mere five seats off of 14 percent of ballots—two fewer seats than Sinn Fein, which garnered a miniscule 0.7 percent. The Financial Times called the election “the most distorted result in [Britain’s] history.”

Over the weekend, the second round of the French National Assembly elections produced another distortion of striking proportions. The right-wing populist National Rally, or RN, won 32 percent of the votes and 125 seats, putting it clearly in first place. However, that seat tally represents only 22 percent of the full legislature. The four-party left electoral bloc New Popular Front, or NFP, took 180 seats off of just 26 percent of the second-round vote, while President Emmanuel Macron’s four-party electoral bloc Ensemble won 159 seats from 25 percent of the votes. Although the RN is the country’s leading vote-getter and the leading party in the legislature, it is an impossibility that Macron will invite Marine Le Pen’s party to form a government. Communists, winning a mere nine seats but part of the NFP bloc, are more likely to show up as government ministers than are right-wing populists.

Meanwhile, in the United States, leaders of the Democratic Party are scheming to unseat the undisputed winner of their own party’s presidential primaries. That winner, President Biden, released a letter on July 8 explicitly attacking them on democratic grounds. Noting the 87 percent vote share he won in the party primaries, Biden insisted “it was [the voters’] decision to make. Not the press, not the pundits, not the big donors, not any selected group of individuals, no matter how well intentioned. The voters—and the voters alone—decide. … How can we stand for democracy in our nation if we ignore it in our own party?” Nonetheless, pressure mounts, and betting markets foresee his ouster.

A din of media voices is calling each of these results anti-democratic. Blame settles first on national electoral systems. Like most of the United States, Britain uses a single-member district-plurality voting system commonly referred to as first-past-the-post, or FPTP, in which the single candidate with the most votes in an electoral district wins that district’s seat in the legislature. Unlike the United States, Britain has a multiparty electoral system which results in often small vote pluralities turning into large legislative majorities, as well as significant national vote wins translating into no seats at all. France uses a more complicated two-round electoral system with a high first-round vote threshold for advancing that nonetheless is in its second round also a FPTP plurality system. Because France is, like Britain, a multiparty electoral system, it is likewise capable of producing significant gaps between votes and seats. Both Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have called their respective systems unfair.

In the United States, complaints about both the Senate and the Electoral College are longstanding and sharpest on the left, because progressive candidates are currently most harmed by them. As both institutions allocate votes along state lines, the number of voters in each electoral district is wildly unequal, which also distorts the relationship between votes and seats. Compared to the Senate and Electoral College, which date back to 1789, the relatively novel presidential primary system, begun in the 1970s, garners fewer criticisms due to its surface-level democratic qualities. Yet it is the outcome of that very system that Democratic Party insiders are presently seeking to overturn.

To understand the charges that all three countries are failing the demands of democracy, we need to understand the beliefs that animate them. First, in a democracy the people (“demos”) rule. Second, the output of elections—representatives—should be closely proportionate to the input to elections—votes. The problem is that both ideals are not only unmet in practice, but intentionally so in all really existing democracies.

Democracy isn’t a form of sovereignty. “The people” in a democracy don’t rule like a king rules in a monarchy or a cabal of elites does in an oligarchy. Beyond the scale of a few thousand at most, “the people” is an abstraction with no unified will and no ability to make regular decisions or exercise regular state power. Thus, the invention of representative democracy, in which real persons actively rule as real persons must rule. This doesn’t mean “the people” don’t exist. In actually existing democracy, “the people” is actively called into existence through periodic elections in order to legitimate the rule of legislators and executives who exercise power in the name of the people. Outside such regular moments of legitimation (or irregular moments of crisis), “the people” is latent.

“Democracy promises ‘power to the people’ who can never wield it.”

The gulf between what ideal democracy promises and really existing democracy delivers is the heart of popular discontent erupting across the West. Unfortunately for ideal democracy, this discontent is baked into the cake of representative democracy. The political scientist Margaret Canovan described populism as “a shadow cast by democracy itself”; the theorist Jan-Werner Müller refers to it as the “permanent shadow of representative politics.” Democracy promises “power to the people” who can never wield it. It proposes self-government without ever producing a self. It dangles a vision of unmediated relationship between popular will and the state, especially through referenda, while building up numerous mediating bureaucratic institutions. The inability of  “the people” to rule, or even to exist in an active sense, is a problem that can never be solved.

In large, diverse countries like the United States, Britain, and France, these perennial problems are well-known and managed through systems of representation that aren’t meant to generate outputs closely proportional to inputs. They are meant first and foremost to produce legislative majorities, on the belief that such majorities are better at producing political stability and effective governance under democratic legitimation. France’s somewhat arcane two-round National Assembly electoral system, with its high threshold for advancement, is the best case in point. Coming out of the unstable Fourth Republic, which nearly fell to a military coup within living memory, France’s current Fifth Republic was designed for stability. Its strong president, sometimes referred to as an “elected king,” further reinforces the importance of order over representation. In light of France’s tumultuous past and present, such goals are hardly irrelevant. Countries that use proportional representation and thus appear more democratic in an ideal sense tend either to be small with a strong consensus-oriented political culture (like Denmark); or else combine a proportionally elected legislature with a president elected and governing outside the proportional-representation system (like Brazil). Here, too, stability and effective governance are central political goals not to be sacrificed on the altar of democratic idealism.

Practical considerations will never dispel democracy’s shadow, whether it be named “populist” or “fascist.” Voters in democracies will continue to invoke the “voice” or the “will” of the people. They will continue to demand that the people rule, even as they dispute the people’s identity. Therefore, practical considerations must always incorporate democratic legitimacy. But we should be debating such legitimacy on terms other than demands for strict proportional representation. How far from proportionality can an elected government go before voters no longer support it or believe in it? How willing are voters to sacrifice stability and effective governance for democratic legitimacy? Should political elites pursue the common goods of stability and effectiveness, if necessary, at the cost of legitimacy? Or should they instead give the common people, in the words of H. L. Mencken, their democracy “good and hard”? Such questions will forever haunt actually existing democracy. Best to start debating them now, so we will be better prepared for the next election.

Darel E. Paul is a Compact columnist and a professor of political science at Williams College.


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