News Politics

Thursday 19 September 2019

A new world order: With the US and the UK in disarray, where can Ireland look for a new democratic role model?

As Ireland's Dáil celebrates its centenary, democracy is in decline right across the world. With the UK and the US out of contention, Maria Farrell asks where can we turn to?

US President Donald Trump meets UK prime minister Theresa May last year
US President Donald Trump meets UK prime minister Theresa May last year

Maria Farrell

Watching this week's shambolic Westminster live-stream of Theresa May's Brexit travails, it's clear that British democracy is not in good shape. With Donald Trump holding sway in the US, things are no better.

And while the democracies of the UK and US look more vulnerable by the day, countries as diverse as India, Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela and the Philippines are already in the hands of authoritarians.

In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index recorded a fall in the number and quality of democracies in every region of the world, as countries struggled to deal with deeply divided electorates.

After the 'holiday from history' when the Berlin Wall came down and it looked like democracy would soon rule the world, we're now in the middle of a global backlash. What's going on?

52:48 The Numbers Making Politics Impossible

When architects look at classical buildings, they see the 'Golden Mean', the mathematical proportion that creates symmetry and harmony. When pollsters look at electorates, they see everywhere the ratio 52:48, the bare majority that means constant political anger and seesawing between extremes.

In the spotlight: Ireland's Citizens' Assembly, chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy, has gained notice worldwide for its democratic heft
In the spotlight: Ireland's Citizens' Assembly, chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy, has gained notice worldwide for its democratic heft

* Brexit v Remain: 52:48

* Current composition of the US Senate: 52:48

* Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's 2017 referendum power-grab: 52:48

* Cyril Ramaphosa's 2017 ANC leadership vote: 52:48

* And just this week on the US polling geek's website,, disapproval of Trump: 52:48.

Part of the problem is electoral systems. The two democracies - the US and UK - currently facing acute legitimacy crises are "First Past the Post" (FPTP) systems.

The winner takes all and the losing voters are locked out until the next election. Only a small percentage of the UK's single-seat constituencies change hands at any election, meaning most votes "go to waste" and a tiny minority of the electorate determines the overall victors. FPTP countries may be inherently more vulnerable, or they may just be the canaries in the coalmine, warning us that democracy can't reconcile divisions beyond a certain tipping point.

The elections that have withstood disinformation attacks and polarisation - so far - are those in countries with track records in coalition-building; Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand (whose 'multi-member, proportional' system, is similar to Ireland's multi-seat, proportional representation, single-transferable vote (PR-STV).

US political scientist Adam Przeworki says it's not news that most presidents around the world routinely scrape bare majorities of just over 50pc, and multi-party system winners rarely attract more than 40pc of votes cast. So perhaps what's changed recently is the sense of illegitimacy of these outcomes. Democracy's strength is not in determining winners - any mid-sized military junta can do that - but in giving losing voters just enough hope that they might prevail, next time. When that goes away, we're in deep trouble. The current crisis tracks quite closely to rising inequality, itself driven by globalisation. It's no coincidence that Norway frequently tops lists of both the most equal and the most democratic countries in the world.

Conversely, the UK's current political turmoil may have its roots in the dramatic increase in inequality over the last decade, when austerity cut life expectancy and increased poverty, and fiscal policies boosted the finances of investors and shareholders while real wages fell. (Though it doesn't explain why the "just about managing" and "left behind" demographics voted angrily for Brexit, given they'd re-elected the Conservatives only a year before.)

Is it the beginning of the end for democracy?

It's worth keeping in mind that there are fewer than three dozen functioning democracies on the planet. Most people live in managed or illiberal democracies, sneaking autocracies or under outright authoritarian rule.

Perhaps democracy only seems in crisis to those of us used to believing political equality is a basic condition, something we can insulate from social and economic inequality by things like campaign finance laws, electoral advertising transparency, or media plurality.

But if you live somewhere elections are merely a diverting pantomime the ruling families stage from time to time, then what's happening in the US and UK is as familiar as a performance of Punch and Judy.

Democracy may be down, but it's far from out.

Mexico elected a moderately leftist president in July and has managed a completely un-newsworthy transfer of power from the long-entrenched ruling party.

Thailand's military junta just announced an election in early 2019. Early by-elections in the heartland of India's increasingly authoritarian BJP indicate the country's mid-2019 general election will be no walkover.

Even better, ideas to deepen and extend democracy are starting to go mainstream. Just as TV-viewers are turning to long-form series and immersive podcasts, policy processes are turning to slower, deeper forms of deliberation. Ireland's Citizens' Assembly, itself borrowed from British Columbia, has grabbed attention all over the world.

In a climate of lightning fast news and outrage cycles, the radical idea of using thinking and feeling, talking and listening, weighing evidence and listening carefully to people's stories is catching on. All of this takes more work than we've been used to.

The real challenge for democracy is much bigger. How will we tune up a machine that works nationally and in, at most, four to five-year electoral cycles, to deal with a global, longer-term and truly existential threat, climate breakdown? Can we bind our politicians and ourselves to forego current luxuries to protect future necessities? Since the 18th century, democracy has spread in successive waves, receding a little, then pushing on. The current contraction may be part of that cycle, but whatever version of democracy evolves from here, it will need to be very different in order for us and it to survive.

The New ­Democractic role models


British Columbia/Canada

Has trialled and spread much emerging best practice on “deliberative democracy”.


The internet

“Liquid democracy”, uses technology to allow people to vote directly on all issues themselves, or delegate their vote.



We’re far from perfect but the Citizens’ Assembly showed how carefully examining all aspects of a difficult issue can change hearts and minds.

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