Why the time for change has come – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 7 of 8)

“In an equal and electronic world, the unequal old steam-engine won’t work”


THE argument for direct democracy is not just a matter of beating off the mostly unconvincing objections its opponents throw at it. The bigger part of the argument consists of pointing out that the world has changed hugely since the other version of democracy, the representative sort, first came into widespread use in the 19th century. These changes make the vote-every-few-years brand look increasingly unworkable, and strengthen the claim to workability of the emerging alternative.

The idea that government by the people really meant no more than letting the people from time to time elect a legislature and perhaps a president who between elections would take all the real decisions may have had a certain plausibility in the 19th century and the first part of the present century. Even then, the Swiss were unpersuaded: they got their referendum system going 130 years ago, and it worked fine. But for most people in those days it seemed important that only a small part of the population had a decent education, plenty of money, ready access to information about public affairs, and enough leisure to put that information to responsible use. Let this minority therefore provide the political class which would do most of the serious work, while the poor and relatively ignorant majority contented itself with the occasional broad choice between This Lot and That Lot.

That was the reasoning behind the idea of representative democracy. It was an over-simplification even in the 19th century, in the judgment of men as different as a conservative novelist like Anthony Trollope and Keir Hardie, the founder of Britain’s Independent Labour Party. By the end of the 20th century, it has become untenable.

The table on this page illustrates the economic and social upheaval the richer part of the world has gone through in the past 100 years. A century ago, the average Briton and American produced an annual GDP of only $ 4,200 and $ 4,500 respectively at today’s prices; today, the Briton’s great-grandchild produces more than four times that much and the American’s almost six times (and the growth in many other countries, such as Italy, has been even faster). A century ago, few people got a proper education: only one child in France, for instance, went to a secondary school compared with every 60 who do so now, and only one went on to college or university for every 50 who do now; and the spread of learning has been even more spectacular in, for instance, Japan.

These things have enabled the average citizen of the rich world to save much more money than he could even 60 years ago, and thus to expand his ownership of shares, housing, cars or whatever. Meanwhile the amount of time he has to spend at work has considerably diminished, leaving him more time to take an intelligent interest, if he wishes, in the way his country is governed. To do that he has at his disposal not only the enormous expansion of newspaper circulation that began a century ago but also the 20th-century innovations of mass radio and television and, the latest arrival, a 34,000% increase in the number of networks linked to the Internet in the United States and a 27,000% increase elsewhere in the world in the past eight years alone.

This is a revolution, and it would be extraordinary if such a revolution did not rattle the foundations of a political system based on pre-revolutionary assumptions. The rattling of representative democracy would presumably have started years ago if it had not been delayed by the cold war. The self-discipline required by the struggle against communism made the democracies reluctant to think of changing their own political arrangements; so the half-way-house sort of democracy erected in the 19th century lasted longer than it would otherwise have done. But once the cold war had loosened its grip, things were bound to start changing.

As good as you are

One sign of the change is already clear. By the late 1990s, many people have come to realise that they are as well (or as badly) equipped to make most political decisions as the men and women they elect to represent them. They have as much education, nearly as much access to the needed information, and as big a stake in getting the judgments right; if they give a question their attention, they can usually offer a sensible answer. The longer the past half-century’s economic expansion can be prolonged, and the wider the information revolution extends its embrace, the larger the proportion of the population of which all that will be true.

The ordinary man no longer feels, as his grandfather felt, that his representative is a genuinely superior fellow. Indeed, the huge new flow of information that has become available to ordinary people by grace of electronics in the second half of the 20th century has made it painfully clear that those representatives are not at all superior. They are as capable of laziness, stupidity and dishonesty as the ordinary man. That may have been true a century ago, too. The difference is that then it was not generally realised; now it is.

Even a dozen years ago, it was hard to imagine that Italy’s whole parliamentary edifice was about to be brought crashing to the ground because its corruption had become public knowledge and Italians were horrified by what they had discovered. At the end of 1996, Belgians are wondering whether something almost as bad may have happened in their country in the past few years. These are extreme cases. But in many other countries the voters no longer extend to the politicians as much trust and respect as they once did. Opinion polls in America, Britain, France and elsewhere all make the same point: people nowadays look on their representatives with a disillusioned eye. That is the result of the past century’s economic and social equalisation, and of the fact that a richer and better-educated electorate can now keep a pretty constant eye on most of its politicians’ activities.

The end of the cold war has brought another change, and this one too suggests that democracy needs modernising. The disappearance of communism has greatly reduced the ideological content of politics. The shaping power of ideas has not entirely vanished, of course. A recognisable post-cold-war frontier is starting to emerge between a new left and a new right in the debate about the competing claims of efficiency and compassion, the proper functions of government, the best economic way to pay for sickness and old age, and so on. But these are nuances compared with the thunderous old battles between socialism and individualism, between the command economy and the free market. This dilution of ideology has two consequences.

One is that the agenda of politics, the list of decisions to be taken, has grown much more prosaic. The choice at voting time is no longer even in theory a choice between two radically different bodies of ideas. It is a series of selections among relatively small differences of opinion about the details of economic management and fairly minor disagreements over the amount and direction of public spending. This is not the sort of thing that is best presented to the voters once every few years in the parliamentary-election programmes of competing parties. That is like being told to do your supermarket shopping in one half-hour trip every half-decade. The modern agenda of politics is much better handled by the regular routine of visits to the voting centre that is offered by direct democracy.

The other effect of the fading of ideology is that political parties are losing their old power. This is important because parties-the things you vote for or against on parliamentary-election day, and the building-blocks of the governments thus created-are keen supporters of representative democracy. Their existence largely depends on it. They therefore oppose direct democracy. In post-cold-war politics, however, the parties can no longer claim to be carrying banners inscribed with the name of a great idea that unites a whole segment of humanity. As the banners are lowered, the loyalties that used to hold the parties together begin to dissolve; people move more readily from one party to another; parties become woollier, weaker things. As they lose their old clout, they can no longer put up so much resistance to the modernisation of democracy. These days, voters do not need a special class of people called politicians to interpret their wishes; they have learned that politicians are a rather unreliable lot; and the trade unions into which the politicians have organised themselves, the political parties, are growing feebler. Between them, those three facts can push open the door to direct democracy.


GDP per head, dollars* 1900 1995

Britain 4,200 18,900

Canada 3,000 19,200

Italy 1,400 19,000

United States 4,500 26,700

Educational Enrolments (thousands) 1900 1995


Secondary 98 5,822

Higher 30 1,526


Secondary 121 11,288 (1)

Higher 25 2,139 (1)

United States

Secondary 519 17,117 (2)

Higher 238 14,120 (2)

Savings per head, dollars* 1930 1995

Britain 170 1,500

United States 140 950

Britain 54 43

Canada 57 39

United States 53 42

Internet – number of connected networks** 1988 1996 (2)

United States 301 104,000

Non-US 33 91,000

*1995 prices and exchange rates (1) 1992 (2) Projected
** Separate groups of linked computers that can share information
Sources: The Economist; International Labour Organisation; Internet Society; national statistics; OECD

© 1996 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved