The Battle Between Emotion and Fact in 21st Century Democracies
06 October 2019, 21h30 EDT (UTC-4)
My Address to the Constitutional Democracy Under Stress Conference
Click image to see the video
The 20th century began as the age of dictators, and ended with democracy triumphant across the world. Yet the 21st century has witnessed a terrible reversal of that momentum, with collapsing public confidence in democratic institutions and the rise of elected authoritarian governments.
Peter Biro and Howard Aster organised the remarkable Constitutional Democracy Under Stress Conference, to build the “heroic citizenship” necessary to foster states that are democratic, pluralistic, inclusive, just, free, prosperous, and sustainable.
The video above is my live address to the conference, and the text below is my contribution to the book published afterwards.
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The constitutions of the past were often framed in soaring poetry: “The French people are the friends and natural allies of all free peoples...”; “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union...”; “The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal.”
The constitutions of the modern era are more often grounded in turgid legalese: “Using the procedure for monitoring the subsidiarity principle referred to in Article I-11(3), the European Commission shall draw national Parliaments' attention to proposals based on this Article...”
Part of the shift from the old to the new tone of constitutions undoubtedly reflects efforts by governments to ensure that their fundamental laws are legally precise. But it also represents a failure by modern political actors to understand that constitutions — and democracies more broadly — can come to grief, if they do not appeal to the hearts of their peoples, and not just to the minds of their courts.
The truth is that as human beings, we tend to be creatures of passion before we are creatures of reason. Sometimes, our emotions are formed in response to logic; we may warm to policies because they have passed an intellectual test, and may cool to policies because they have failed. But often, we seek out arguments to justify our support of policies to which we are emotionally drawn, and cast about for arguments to excuse our rejection of policies that leave us emotionally cold.
Both the interpersonal and public spheres have always involved a pendulum swinging between passion and reason.
However, we have arrived at a moment in history when emotion appears to have utterly defeated facts in public discourse, to the great undoing of our societies.
Why has this happened, and how can constitutional democracies survive this moment?
In many ways, it seems outlandish that we need to even ask this question. The twentieth century began as the age of the dictator; it ended with the triumph of liberal democracy as the ascendant political philosophy across the globe. Today, virtually every state claims to be a democracy, and virtually every political actor claims to be a democrat, not least those who do not have a democratic bone in their bodies.
Yet everywhere, democracies are in crisis.
In both the newest and the most-established democracies, populations are losing faith in democratic institutions, and even in the concept of democracy itself.
A Lesson from Petra
For me, this is a deeply jarring and unsettling development. Much of my voluntary and professional life has centred on international democratic development, and on trying to make a contribution to Canada’s system of democracy. I have always felt that public service in support of democratic ideals is the highest secular calling, an edifying response to the yearning we all feel to be part of something greater than ourselves.
But increasingly, my fellow citizens in Canada and my fellow human beings around the world view that calling with scepticism and derision. Both my heart and my mind rebel against this, but I can not deny the reality of it, nor can I fall into the trap of substituting my feelings about democracy for the fact that democracy is losing its appeal to the very people it is meant to serve and empower.
How is this possible?
Fourteen years ago, I was in Jordan on a small project at what was then the Amman campus of the United Nations University. During a day trip to Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time,” I fell into conversation with a Bedouin woman named Nazeh Lafi. She asked what I was doing in the country, and listened indulgently as I described my work in democratic development with legislators from across the Middle East.
The translator sitting with us laughed uncomfortably as she considered how to convey Nazeh’s response to me. She eventually said, “Is it possible that you are fetishising democracy?”
Those words have remained with me all these years later, and often come back to me as I consider why democracy appears to be faltering today.
Nazeh saw clearly what I did not, that a democratically-elected prime minister or president could be just as tyrannical or just as incompetent as any hereditary king or military strongman. As a result, democracy does not have the purchase on her emotions that it has on mine. Her test for a system of government is not whether it emerges from principled arguments; her test is whether the system can deliver quality of life to her and her family.
Will the system acknowledge her dignity as a person? Can it discourage political corruption that impoverishes and oppresses her community? Can it reduce her exposure to violence? Can it enable her and her family to enjoy a decent standard of living?
Nazeh did not care about beautiful theories of popular will or social contracts. She did care about whether the system of government under which she lives will meet her practical needs as a human being.
Ultimately, the decline in public confidence in democratic institutions, the collapse of facts in public discourse, and the ascendency of emotion in politics, are all deeply intertwined with Nazeh’s insight.
The Case for Democracy
The rational case for democracy must be that it is the system of government most likely to meet the practical needs of populations. I believe it can make that case, because democracy is, by its nature, the one broad system that can reliably deliver governments that are legitimate, just, and in the public interest.
Firstly, at its heart, democracy in all its forms is fundamentally about the legitimacy of state power. It is about government only with the consent of the governed. It is about government being conducted by us and for us, and not being done to us or imposed on us. It is a system that enables each of us to remain masters of our individual destinies, and to retain our individual autonomy, while sharing in the authorship of our collective society. At its core, for any system to be worthy of the term “democratic”, it must uphold the ideal that citizens are all equal in dignity before the law, with an equal voice in choosing government and holding it to account.
Secondly, while not all democracies are just societies, all just societies are democracies. That justice flows inexorably from democracy’s core idea of equality before the law, and therefore government restrained by the rule of law, rather than enabling the caprice of governors.
Thirdly, while democracies can certainly be ponderous, inefficient, and bureaucratic, they yield the governments with the greatest incentive to pursue and achieve objectives that satisfy the popular will, if only to enable the governors to realise their ambitions of remaining in office.
When Democracy Fails
All the benefits of democracy hinge on one critical assumption: that we as citizens are the best judges of our own best interests. If reason falls to emotion, and if facts perish before sentiment, then the very incentive structures that push democratic institutions towards fulfilling our will, also lead them away from meeting our needs. It ends with a complete reversal of the promise of democracy, and yields governments that are illegitimate, unjust, and work against the public interest. It ends with the people losing faith in democracy itself.
In recent years, we have seen the shadow of this reversal spreading across the democratic world.
Demagoguery has come back into fashion, as we witness the rise of political leaders and political parties who are elected not because they argue for enlightened self-interest, but instead because they appeal to our darkest emotions, to our primordial fears and thoughtless bigotries. They offer our societies no real solutions, but do give us people to blame. They seek to delegitimise all the institutions that could hold them in check.
Authoritarianism walks hand-in-hand with demagoguery. Its champions are elected to office precisely because they promise to strip us of our democratic rights. They convince us that the laws and political norms that are our protections against them, are barriers to them raining down vengeance upon those they have caused us to despise.
The bitterest irony is that demagogic and authoritarian governments are typically being elected by the people most apt to be harmed by their policies. A clear majority of Welsh voters supported Brexit, even as the principality will lose billions of dollars in EU investments. A clear majority of White women voted for Donald Trump, even as the revelations of his misconduct towards people like them flashed on every screen. A majority of Brazilians voted for Jair Bolsonaro, even as he promised to respond to the Amazon fires with intensified deforestation.
In each of these cases, too many voters chose easy lies over hard truths, and comforting political fantasies over discomfiting reality. In essence, they preferred blazing emotions over cold reason.
Why the Pendulum has Swung
Over the past generation, the pendulum has swung decidedly away from reason and towards emotion for a variety of separate but mutually-reinforcing reasons: growing difficulty in weighing purported facts; traditional authorities squandering public confidence; and rising anger at the loss of personal dignity.
In an increasingly complex world, it has become steadily more difficult to rationally assess facts through our own knowledge or expertise. Often, our only option is to weigh the credibility of the institutions and supposed experts who are offering competing facts. Even here, we are faced with the conundrum that traditional intermediaries, such as newspapers or major television stations, have been shifting into commentary, and out of dispassionate investigation. The rise of social media and the proliferation of new media channels with low capacities for independent inquiry, also means that the media ecosystem is at once hyper-targeted and awash with unreliable content. If our ability to rationally assess facts declines, we are left with little choice but to rely on our feelings about those purported facts, feelings that will inevitably align with our preconceptions and prejudices.
At the same time, traditional political institutions are being dismissed by citizens as closed circles of self-serving elites. In Canada, every province has seen increasing economic inequality over the last generation. Social mobility has fallen, and two-thirds of the wealthiest 1% of Canadians work or worked for the same corporations as their fathers. The vast majority of economic growth accrues to a tiny sliver of the wealthiest members of society. In sum, citizens feel that public institutions are serving only the interests of the people who inhabit those institutions, rather than the interests of the public at large. This has created a ready appetite to tear down institutions and humble their inhabitants. Ironically, the political actors most apt to exploit those sentiments have been bona fide members of political and economic elites.
In this context, citizens around the world feel that democratic institutions have strayed from their egalitarian roots, and are fostering semi-feudal societies of inherited wealth, inherited power, and inherited servitude. It has cultivated a widespread sense of despair in democracies. It has nourished a political discourse based on polarisation, blame, and rage. And worst of all, it has stripped citizens of their sense of personal dignity.
Reason can not long withstand those emotions. And the flight from reason into emotion caused by these factors is becoming the democratic world’s equivalent of the Reign of Terror.
How Democracies Could Respond
We are at a serious pass in the history of democracy, but we still have a chance to reclaim the high ground. The measures we need to take, are the natural corollaries of the challenges we face: improved public education; restoration of social meritocracy; and a re-emphasis on elevating the dignity of citizens.
If one of the key challenges facing our democracies is to restore the primacy of fact over emotion, then the critical response must be to reinforce public education, to strengthen the ability of citizens to judge facts, to weigh evidence, to assess claims to expertise, and to think critically. This necessarily means engendering a public education system that is the system of first choice, and not the system of last resort. It also means ensuring that public schools are not socially or racially segregated, as happens both inevitably and silently when students only have a right to attend the schools in their immediate neighbourhoods: in these cases, students from rich families, who live in rich neighbourhoods, attend schools that are likely to open doors for them, while students from poor families, who live in poor neighbourhoods, attend schools that are likely to subject them to a tyranny of low expectations.
The policies that would blunt inherited status and that would foster greater meritocracy are easy to describe, but have proven politically perilous to implement. They would include significantly more progressive taxes, taxes on wealth as well as on income, and the restoration of inheritance taxes.
No one likes to pay taxes, but it is the poorest members of society who bear the burden of the absence of a fair tax system.
Elevating the dignity of citizens is as much a question of the tone of democratic politics, as its substance. Demagogues and authoritarians have appealed to disaffected citizens by learning to speak the language that valorises the working classes, even while implementing policies that grind the working classes into the soil. Those who believe in democracy must learn humility in appealing to all voters, and conduct political campaigns that are based on genuine respect for the equal dignity of all citizens, irrespective of class, education, or social standing. By its nature, democracy can not be done to the people, even if it is for the people; it must be done with the people and by the people.
Reclaiming the Heart of Democracy
All of these measures are not about setting aside emotion in public discourse; that would be a fool’s errand. They are instead about democracies reclaiming the hearts and the confidence of their peoples, by showing themselves to be deserving of public trust and public enthusiasm.
Although I have argued that there is a rational case for democracy — that it delivers governments that are most likely to be legitimate, just, and in the public interest — I confess that when I look into myself, these are not the reasons I am so personally invested in democratic ideals.
The true reason is that democracy speaks to my deepest emotions, convictions, and hopes. In a fully-realised democracy, we have the chance to become better people, by building better societies, where we join hands with one another as free and equal citizens, and enjoy a share of one another’s strengths, and shoulder a share of one another’s burdens.
Democracy relies on human reason to function, but it needs human passion to survive. We need to reclaim democracy for both our hearts and our minds.