On 30 January, 1649, King Charles I of England mounted a platform at Whitehall in London, in front of thousands of spectators, and placed his head on a chopping block before a masked executioner. Not only was he about to die, but the idea that kings had a divine right to rule was also about to take a lethal blow. After the axe descended and blood spurted across the platform, his decapitated head was held high for all to see. The belief that power relations were God-given, that specific people were destined to rule by divine providence, would never again go unquestioned.
The execution occurred half a century after Charles’s father, James VI of Scotland, later to be crowned King James I of England, had explicitly invoked the divine right of kings to justify the absolute power of monarchs. In The True Law of Free Monarchies James I deduced, from a creative interpretation of the Bible, that kings were “higher” beings than other men. Many rulers, before and since, have sought to legitimise their position of power through a variety of claims – the theory of “divine right” was just one such attempt.
Almost a century and a half after Charles’s execution the secondary idea that lineage and dint of birth, at least for the first born son, bestowed legitimacy on a ruler also died – this time under the executioner’s guillotine instead of his axe. In Paris on 21 January, 1793, Louis XVI mounted a scaffold in Place de la Révolution and was beheaded. Afterwards the Reign of Terror would see tens of thousands of the French nobility and aristocracy, and other political opponents, executed as “enemies” of the French Revolution.
Execution was one sure way of abolishing inherited aristocratic privilege – one of the major demands and consequences of the French Revolution. For many years the nobility and aristocracy had mismanaged the French state and its finances, and the rise of a budding capitalist class – in many cases richer than the aristocrats, yet still excluded from governmental positions of power – explicitly contradicted the feudal belief that inequality was somehow “natural” or “God-willed.” It became increasingly obvious that ability did not necessarily flow through the bloodlines of certain families. After the French Revolution heredity would no longer be seen as an adequate justification for rule. Power was not divine, and it was not even a birthright.i
Not that history progresses in straight lines. The ebb and flow of ideas does not stop, and ideas are easily trampled by those wishing to consolidate positions of power. The Enlightenment hope that humanity is continually approaching a state of perfection was destroyed during the first barbaric half of the twentieth century; progress is never assured in perpetuity.
In England, Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), who fought in the English Civil War against the royalist forces and was one of the signatories of Charles’s death warrant, later accepted the title of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland “by the Grace of God.” This was a lifetime position, with the right to choose his son as successor. His dictatorship soon ended, and less than two years after his death the monarchy was restored. In France, after the astounding rise of a “mere” soldier, Napoleon, to the position of First Consul and then Emperor of France, and the resulting destruction of large swaths of Europe, the French also returned to monarchy in 1814.
Yet in retrospect it can be seen that the tide had turned. Attempts to justify the concentration of power into very few hands were increasingly challenged. The idea of rule with the consent of all citizens, who were to be considered political equals, was slowly spreading.
This would mark a fundamental shift in the popular conception of legitimate rule. The persistent claim by unaccountable leaders that they, for various reasons, deserved to be the ones making and changing the laws would soon be commonly met with cynicism. The justifications of aristocrats and kings appeared little more than blatant attempts to maintain positions of privilege and wealth.
More revolutions followed. The dramatic political and economic changes of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continued unabated. After much brutal, and inevitably violent struggle, popular republican governments gradually spread and took control of the institutions and levers of power in many nation-states. Democracy was painfully reborn as people rediscovered a taste for the term buried in antiquity.
Not that any of the governments of the time would be called democratic by modern standards, where democracy requires, at a bare minimum, suffrage for the vast majority of adults permanently residing within a nation-state. In France, in 1789, the male property-owning authors of the first French constitution invented the concept of active citizenship – adults who paid a specified minimum of taxes – to exclude women and the impoverished rabble from voting and standing for election. Those “deprived of political rights for legitimate reasons,” such as women, children, and the poor, were believed unable to make informed decisions since they had no active (i.e., monetary) stake in the nation’s wellbeing.ii The franchise at the time was approximately one-sixth of the adult population, despite the first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stating that, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”iii Famously, the election for the French National Convention in 1792 included provisions for all males over 25 to vote, and is therefore considered the first example of universal male suffrage. It was a very short-lived, and very poorly attended, experiment. By the time of the next election, in 1795, again only active (tax-paying) citizens were eligible to vote, and this provision was incorporated into the new constitution formally adopted a few months later.
The USA had similar restrictions for many years. The irony of the mid-eighteenth century revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” was that in the new republic there would be little to no representation for the majority of people who were poor and therefore didn’t pay taxes.iv Some eighty years after the American Revolutionary War, during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency of 1861-65, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” still excluded more than half the adults from voting: women, African-Americans and Native Americans, and the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests designed to exclude African-Americans and the poor from voting were still being challenged in US courts as late as 1966. The historic piece of legislation that ended these practices, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has since been “gutted” by a US Supreme Court decision of 2013, immediately leading to the reimposition of various obstacles to voting.v
Yet the late eighteenth and nineteenth century experiments in parliamentary government, despite their severe shortcomings when measured against our modern democratic ideals, marked the consolidation of the idea that legitimate government required the assent of more than just the one (monarchy) or the few (aristocracy): it required the participation of the many – even though exactly how many was fiercely contested and disputed.
That this revolution in attitudes towards what defines legitimate rule ran on parallel tracks with the scientific and industrial revolutions, and the rise and domination of capitalism, is hardly surprising. The massive expansion and roll-out of the railway, the telegraph, and Enlightenment ideals, was accompanied by the overthrow of the ancien régime of privilege based on feudalism, serfdom and the strict hierarchical social relations of peasant and gentry. A new class of wealthy entrepreneurs clearly disproved that competence was an inherited trait. It also gave them their new qualification for rule: wealth. Money replaced lineage as a prerequisite for participation in government – and as women were in general disallowed from owning anything, their exclusion was automatic. These were indeed “republics of property.”vi
What can be said for certain is that democracy was neither intended, nor even vaguely anticipated, in the early days of legislative parliaments. In the US the majority of the Founding Fathers were profoundly anti-democratic. At the Philadelphia constitutional convention a proposal requesting a clause detailing property (wealth) qualifications for legislators was supported by ninety per cent of the attendees. It was only dropped due to reasons of expediency: they could not agree on the precise details, and most US states already implemented property qualifications, so there was no need to replicate them at the national level.vii Another feature designed to stem the influence of citizens was indirect election, whereby national senators, and the president and vice-president, were elected exclusively by state representatives. Not until the seventeenth amendment of the constitution, in 1913, was this replaced by direct election of senators; the president and vice-president continue to be indirectly elected through the electoral college system.viii
In the UK the original parliamentary system that existed to constrain the powers of monarchs included tax qualifications on the right to vote, with even higher tax qualifications to stand as a candidate – and the only taxes were usually property taxes.ix Initially the minimal expansions of the franchise were often attempts to co-opt more of the rich and powerful into the governing elite. Sometimes it was a compromise between monarchs needing funds for war and the wealthy wanting greater power, at other times a Machiavellian way to split a threatening opposition by co-optation of a subset of them.
Even as increasing popular agitation meant the general expansion of the franchise to all male adults in the mid-to-late nineteenth century seemed inevitable, it is interesting to note that these calls were often heeded by conservative politicians, for reasons such as differentiating themselves from opponents within their own party. Eventually mass protests and civil disobedience by the suffragettes and the American Civil Rights movement put political inclusion of women and African-Americans squarely on the agenda.
Slowly, often violently, a haphazard “fusion of forces... dragged Europe towards much more democratic forms of representative government,” where most of the (adult) people exercised at least some form of minimal control over their rulers through regular, open, fair and competitive elections.x Today, in approximately half of the world’s modern nation-states representative democracy and universal suffrage have triumphed as the basis of legitimate government. Politicians in democratic states can at least claim that it is the people deciding who is to make and modify the laws, and confidently reject the original “legitimate” exclusions based on gender, wealth, or skin-colour. The improbable became the possible, and now democracy is the common demand of all who wish to escape the yoke of dictatorship or authoritarian regime. This strange and illuminating story of the surprising, unintended, recent ideological success of the reincarnated concept of democracy in the last few hundred years, and its impressive contemporary history, is revisited in more detail in Part One.
Does this history show, as Fukuyama famously asserted, that we are “witnessing... the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”?xi Is representative democracy a terminus, implying that the struggle for more legitimate forms of government can now cease? Or will this very recent form, which is less than a century old if we date it from the time of wide-spread universal adult suffrage, mutate and evolve again?
Obviously challenges to democracy still exist, both from within and outside democratic states. Many authoritarian regimes (e.g., China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea) continue to claim legitimacy from paternalistic notions of guardianship, arguing that the superior knowledge and ideological or religious purity of the leaders allows them to better govern in the interests and for the betterment of the people. China claims, in Articles 1, 2 and 14 of The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, to be a “state under the people’s democratic dictatorship” where “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people” and “The state... gradually improves the material and cultural life of the people.” In the semi-theocratic regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran a “Guardian Council” and an “Assembly of Experts of Islamic Scholars” supposedly secure equity and justice for the people as their leadership is qualified in regard to the Qur'an. Or at least that’s what the 1979 constitution claims. North Korea’s official title as the “Democratic People's Republic of Korea” is perhaps the greatest tribute to democratic hubris, although the words in the preamble to its constitution, that “Kim Il Sung, regards the idea of ‘Serving the people as heaven’ as his motto” can’t be very far behind.xii
A number of states, particularly in the developing world, look to these autocratic modes of rule with admiration. Guardianship “has always been the major rival to democratic ideas... [the guardians] simply deny that ordinary people are competent to govern themselves,” says Dahl, the doyen of democracy studies in the United States.xiii It is noteworthy that all these regimes strenuously promote the idea of their own legitimacy, through a varying combination of bribery, propaganda, censorship and oppression. Even in authoritarian regimes it does matter what the people think: they must be made to understand that the rulers are ruling in the people’s best interests.xiv
Other challenges to democracy lie in the all-too-apparent failures and general disaffection with, and cynicism towards, the modern representative system and its politicians. In survey after survey politicians invariably rank among the least trustworthy and most dishonest of professions, along with car salesmen and real estate agents.xv Voter exit polls in 2014 in the USA found that “about 8 in 10 Americans disapprove of how Congress is handling its job.”xvi Compared to the 1950s, membership of political parties and unions has plummeted in most democratic states, and election turnout has, in general, also declined.xvii This leaves the machinations of state to a small class of politicians, journalists and lobbyists who, at least until the rise of social media in the last decade, pandered to traditional media conglomerates as the best way to access and influence potential voters.
Somewhat paradoxically, this retreat of ordinary people from formal politics has made it even harder for politicians to make the difficult decisions required to address the multiple economic, climatic and social crises afflicting our times. Reduced public participation increases the sphere of influence of special interest groups, corporations and their paid lobbyists, and the mainstream media. When party membership dues decline, the importance of large donations from wealthy donors and corporations increases. This capture of the political process derails any genuine attempt to tackle the problems, especially if they conflict with corporate or donor interests.
Are these problems merely inevitable gaps between our democratic ideals and its messy reality? Apathy and cynicism are easy to understand in the face of recurrent scandals, such as the breathtaking corruption and culture of payments and kickbacks between the media, the police and politicians exposed by the Leveson inquiry in the UK; and the police investigation associated with the “cash-for-peerages” in the House of Lords in 2006; or the dubious appointments and thwarting of justice by recent US presidents. Allegations of cronyism were levelled at President G.W. Bush after he had appointed a friend, Michael D. Brown, to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency and it so spectacularly failed to respond adequately to hurricane Katrina. Bush also commuted the prison sentence of a loyal subordinate (Lewis "Scooter" Libby), who pleaded guilty for a vengeful leak after an ambassador questioned the factual basis of the Iraq war – the so-called Plame Affair. And President Obama has continued the practice of awarding plush ambassadorial appointments to his most efficient fundraisers, such as Hollywood producer, Colleen Bell.xviii With the constant flow of scandal, the integrity of politicians and the political process is easy to doubt.
Is the only hope to react ex post facto to these most egregious perversions of democracy? Or do they form part of a broader pattern indicating the need to find new forms of legitimacy and new ways to govern ourselves?
Whatever the answer to these questions, it is important to remember that democracy has triumphed as an ideal: it is now the indisputable norm in western society. It has become a “global political language” and “a global value.”xix Somewhat paradoxically, as Dalton states:
Even though contemporary publics express decreasing confidence in democratic politicians, parties and parliaments… [m]ost people remain committed to the democratic ideal; if anything, these sentiments have apparently strengthened as satisfaction with the actuality of democratic politics has decreased.xx
People support democracy, but they’re highly unsatisfied with its current incarnation. Indeed, after years of spectacular technological advance, the current form of democracy looks like a dinosaur.xxi Claims that representative democracy as it now stands is the best we can possibly hope for ring hollow.
And just as modern representative democracy and the industrial revolution emerged simultaneously, another revolutionary change in the meaning and practice of legitimate government is anticipated as the information and communications revolution pushes society along on a wave of digital innovation. Part Two looks at these recent changes and the emergence of today’s highly networked economic, cultural and social structures and processes. As new forms and technologies of inclusion open up, and rapidly become commonplace, the implications for politics are profound. Combined with other recent trends in democratic theory and practice, such as the techniques and analysis of deliberative democracy, these changes hold out much hope that many of the deficits of our current form of democracy can be overcome.
How people should live together is the key question that democracy tries to answer. We have arrived at the historical juncture where at least half of the planet agrees that the formulation of a legitimate answer to that question should (in theory) involve every adult on an equal basis – even though exactly what is meant by “involve” and “equal” are deceptively slippery terms. In some minimal sense (about which much more will be said in Parts One and Three) it currently means that each person’s vote should count equally so that we collectively decide which representatives should determine, on our behalf, the laws that govern how we live together. However, even though the legal struggle for universal suffrage has been won, it often feels like the political battle for popular control of our parliaments has been lost. People vote, but a wealthy few hold the purse-strings of the parties whose leaders take power: just 76 people accounted for nearly half of all individual and corporate donations to political parties in the run-up to the 2015 UK election.xxii Elections always have, and presumably always will be, expensive affairs. A look at the history of democracy shows how money has always dominated and polluted politics. Whether inherited, earned, or “donated” to a political party, money has always bought influence.
Can the people take control, and in doing so increase the legitimacy of parliaments, while avoiding the pitfalls of the current version of representative democracy? And if so, how?
The answer to these questions, presented in Parts Three and Four, is an emphatic yes. With an appreciation of how and why the franchise was extended, combined with a better understanding of the opportunities and risks inherent in the new participatory social forms and deliberative processes, it is possible to formulate a positive answer to the question of whether the legitimacy of the laws that govern and bind us can be further increased.
The tantalising possibility that we can govern ourselves has presented itself – we no longer need politicians to do it for us. It’s time for the end of politicians and for us to become the next wave in the ongoing struggle to demand real democracy, now.
i John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 308-9, 475.
ii Jacques-Guillaume Thouret, Report on the Basis of Political Eligibility (1789), from https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/282/
iii See, for example, J. H. Colomer, Political Institutions: Democracy and Social Choice (Oxford University Press, 2001) ,54; William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 124, 420; and The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 82; Jeremy Popkin, A History of Modern France, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006), 46.
iv Keane, Democracy, 249, highlights how tax and representation were commonly linked centuries before the American Civil War.
v http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/04/republican-voting-rights-supreme-court-id, http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/06/26/gutting-the-landmark-civil-rights-legislation/ (accessed 15 January 2015).
vi Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri , Commonwealth (Harvard University Press, 2009), 4.
vii Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 102-7.
viii Keane, Democracy, 292 (footnote).
ix E.g., Manin, Principles, 97.
x Keane, Democracy, 189.
xi Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” in The National Interest, Summer 1989: https://ps321.community.uaf.edu/files/2012/10/Fukuyama-End-of-history-article.pdf
xii China’s constitution was accessed here: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html, Iran’s here: http://www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government/constitution-1.html, and North Korea’s here: http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan045234.pdf (accessed 5 June 2012)
xiiiRobert A. Dahl, On Democracy (Yale University Press, 1998), 69.
xiv Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (Abacus, 1995), 58; and Keane, Democracy, 889, note 7, for recent instances of dictators claiming to be ruling democratically.
xv E.g., http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2818/Doctors-are-most-trusted-profession-politicians-least-trusted.aspx, http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/Veracity2011.pdf, http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/2014-edelman-trust-barometer/, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/13/guardian-icm-europe-poll-2011, and Keane, Democracy, 758.
xvi http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/04/politics/midterm-exit-polls-1/ (accessed 16 Jan 2015).
xvii Paul F. Whiteley, Is the party over? The decline of party activism and membership across the democratic world (Party Politics, January 2011) 17: 21-44; Keane, Democracy, 753-4; The Guardian Weekly (23/8/2013) estimates that from 1950 Labour in the UK has “collapsed” from “nearly a million” members to below 200,000 while the Tories went from 2.7 million to “maybe under 100,000.” S. Wilks-Heeg, A. Blick, and S. Crone, How Democratic is the UK? The 2012 Audit (Executive Summary) “Long-term survey evidence suggests that the public trust politicians and political parties less and less... and have growing concerns about levels of corruption in politics and government. (13)… there are very firm grounds to suggest that the power which large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented. (16) All measures of popular engagement with, and attitudes towards, representative democracy show a clear decline since the 1970s. Whether the measures we adopt are turnout in elections, membership of political parties, voter identification with political parties, or public faith in the system of government, the pattern is the same... (17)”
xviii Embassy posts go to Obama’s big donors (Guardian Weekly, 19 July 2013) and Obama ambassadors court controversy (Guardian Weekly, 21 January 2014).
xix Keane, Democracy, 841.
xx Russell Dalton, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2004), 47.
xxi Keane, Democracy, 752: “Politicians, parties and parliaments began to look and feel like fossils – not quite trilobites, but certainly residues from better times.”
xxii Two-fifths of political donations made by just 76 people (Guardian Weekly, 19 June 2015).