It is fair to say that the one thing we have learned over the past two years is that we need more democracy, not less. For all the hysteria after Donald Trump’s election that populism was taking over — that we needed technocrats to defend us because Trump would subvert our core institutions — something like the opposite has taken place.
Trump has made his most lasting marks (tax cuts, right-wing judicial appointments, immigration restrictions) through the nation’s institutions, not against them. And he has made his moves not just through any institutions but the country’s most undemocratic ones — the Electoral College, the courts, the Senate, by executive decree. We do not need to save democracy from the people, we need more democracy.
In the United States, the Left can only dream of eliminating the Senate or the Supreme Court; even getting rid of the Electoral College looks improbable in any foreseeable future. But the sudden casting off of an equally undemocratic institutional regime is on the agenda elsewhere.
Though it might seem distant and obscure, tied down in parliamentary maneuvers and hum-drum legalisms, much more is at stake in the current negotiations over Brexit. On the one hand, the UK electorate’s vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union was a significant blow to the most undemocratic aspects of capitalist government in Europe. On the other, the ongoing machinations inside and outside the UK parliament to frustrate Brexit call into question the health of democratic government in one of the world’s major capitalist states.
The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics, and therefore the mass of people, in the world today. Its central purpose is to constrain popular sovereignty through an executive-heavy, often-secretive complex of organizations. It has no fewer than five presidents; makes key decisions behind closed doors, with no recorded minutes; has a parliament that is its weakest branch; and renders amending its basic constitutional features nearly impossible.
This baroque, opaque institutional arrangement has the severe consequences of weakening the mechanisms and culture of popular control over politics. Recall not just the way European institutions punished Syriza and the Greek people during the debt crisis for daring to ask for better terms, but that European institutions effectively allowed Angela Merkel and Nikolas Sarkozy to replace two nationally elected governments in Italy and Greece with handpicked technocrats.
The EU isn’t so much a tyrannical super-state, as some right-wingers imagine, as it is the institutional consequence of elected officials looking for ways to evade the political accountability they must endure in a representative democracy. National politicians created the EU institutions in a bid to avoid the rough-and-tumble of democratic representation, turning Europe’s nation-states into member-states. These member-states retain the worst, coercive elements of statehood while reducing the influence of the democratic element, allowing elected officials to avoid accountability by retreating into supranational and intergovernmental institutions.
The effect has been to weaken democracy at every level — not just subordinating the people to the executive branch, but also attenuating the relationship between representatives and those they represent. Part of what underlies the current mess in the UK is that members of parliament (MPs) can agree much more on the need to preserve EU institutions than they can on a positive vision for those they represent. The vote in favor of leaving the EU is therefore a product of longstanding popular frustration at the sense that politics is out of the electorate’s control and that elites have little to offer but ruses to avoid being held to account.
As the date that Britain is scheduled to leave the EU approaches (March 29, 2019), the prospect of exiting has thrown the UK’s political class into an almighty panic. There is now a realistic possibility that parliament will fail to carry out the people’s will and decline to leave the EU. This would be an act of breath-taking contempt for democracy that would rival the acts of the right-wing populists who get most of the airtime these days.
Many members of parliament are trying to delay the Brexit date to give them time to organize a second referendum. That referendum would likely include a vote on whether to reverse the entire Brexit process and stay in the European Union — not only flouting the results of the first referendum, but thereby attacking British democracy itself.
A basic feature of democratic politics is that the sovereign should control government. When the people are sovereign, they determine the shape of their institutions and elect their governments. That was the core political point of the first referendum: the British people voted to withdraw from the constitutional constraints of the European Union. This principle was confirmed in the 2017 general election, when 85 percent of MPs were elected on manifestos promising to implement the referendum result.
The political meaning of a second referendum, at least one that involved making Remain an option, would therefore be the opposite of the first. Having been given the task of exiting the EU, the British Parliament would be effectively saying it just wasn’t up to the task — that it was refusing to carry out the people’s wishes and, therefore, deciding to try to reverse that will itself. It would not be far from that old Brechtian line, “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”.
This is not the first time European elites have turned the relationship between the people and government on its head. When in 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice — which reorganized key EU institutions in preparation for eastward expansion — elites arranged another referendum the following year to achieve their desired result. Then, in 2005, after France and the Netherlands resoundingly voted against the European Constitution, the ruling class responded by turning basic elements of the constitution into the Lisbon Treaty, which could be approved by national legislatures instead. Rather than ask the peoples of these countries, the politicians decided to ask themselves.
Except those pesky Irish intruded once again. The Irish, who were required by their own Supreme Court to approve the accord by popular referendum, voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Undeterred, European elites decided that the Irish could not possibly have meant to vote the way they did — they simply needed more education and pressure. A second referendum was arranged, in a manner heavily favoring a “yes” vote, and once again governments had their way with the people.
We’re witnessing a similar tendency in Britain. Prior to the Brexit referendum, the government pledged to abide by the outcome. Immediately after, the major parties agreed to follow the results. And in the most recent general election, both the Tory and Labour manifestoes committed those parties to implementing the results. In every articulation of democracy — referendum, national elections, legislative government — the major parties have said they would carry out the people’s will and have taken office based on those commitments. Yet there is still enormous resistance to doing the democratic thing and actually leaving the EU.
At this point the one democratic act possible is to insist on exiting the EU, deal or no deal. To withdraw from these institutions is a necessary (though certainly insufficient) condition for revitalizing democratic politics. Reasserting popular sovereignty over governments is only possible by reclaiming that sovereignty from the EU — and sketching out a positive vision for a post-EU future.
Unfortunately, with the exception of Theresa May’s plan, which only just barely separates the UK from the European Union, no positive vision for a post-EU future is on offer. This should be an opportunity for Labour, but Labour is just as riven as the Conservatives on the issue. Jeremy Corbyn has offered no clear alternative to May’s unpopular Withdrawal Agreement plan, except to insist that Britain remain tied into a customs union with the EU. Although Corbyn himself is widely believed to oppose EU membership, the party’s membership overwhelmingly prefers a second referendum, and numerous Labour MPs are involved in parliamentary maneuvers to delay Brexit.
This division is complicated by the large minority of Labour constituencies where a majority of the electorate backed Leave, and where polling suggests voters have not changed their minds. For Corbyn to support Brexit with any enthusiasm would alienate his political base in the party membership, but to oppose Brexit or support a second referendum risks massive electoral losses in the North of England. Faced with this dilemma, the Labour leadership has not chosen to embrace the opportunity for democratic renewal offered by Brexit, but instead gone for short-term opportunism, calling for a general election that is unlikely to come about and hoping the Tories will continue to flounder.
The majority of British representatives don’t really want to leave, or at least engage in the hard act of coming up with a plan for post-Brexit UK. But they know it’s difficult to baldly go against the will of the people. Hence the lure of the second referendum. They are hoping to be let off the hook by engaging in what has practically become a Brechtian tradition of EU politics.
If they do so they will not only announce their contempt for democratic majorities, but also raise a serious question for existing institutions. If democratic institutions, procedures, and parties are not there to allow the people to create and control governments, but are instead to be used to manage the people, then why participate at all? If there is a majority decision — in fact, repeated majority decisions — that one can expect will be reversed anytime representatives find them too difficult or unpopular, why have those institutions?