Democracy in danger – what to do

William Reville: Why politicians should increasingly justify policies on moral rather than economic or electoral grounds

US president Donald Trump winces while delivering remarks on the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. Public perception of the flawed character of politicians is one of the strongest causes of voter detachment from politics. Photograph: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Almost everyone would agree that liberal democracy, allowing us to rule ourselves while protecting our individual rights and freedom, is an invaluable part of our heritage. And yet democracy is in danger, threatened by declining voter turnout in general elections; plummeting levels of public trust in politicians, growing political ignorance among voters and a steeply declining quality of political discourse. Much of this danger is psychologically based and Roger Paxton discusses how psychology can help to bolster democracy in the June 2017 issue of the Psychologist.

First a few statistics and examples. General-election voter turnout in Britain was 84 per cent in 1950 and 66 per cent in 2015. Turnout in Ireland was 75 per cent in 1951 and 65 per cent in 2016. An Ipsos MORI poll in 2016 showed only 21 per cent of Britons believe politicians tell the truth. Polls also indicate political ignorance is widespread. News is increasingly sourced nowadays from biased social media outlets and we are all familiar with new terms such as "fake news" and "alternative facts".

Political discourse has become chronically coarse, with highly personalised and acrimonious debate, oversimplification, refusal to respect others’ perspectives and little shared vision of the common good. Global insecurity and terrorism exacerbates matters and the dithering of western democracies contrasts starkly with the thrusting focus of China and Russia.

We like to point to current American politics to illustrate coarsening standards but, indeed, we need look no further than our own Dáil debates. A marked intolerance and disrespect for civilised norms has entered Irish political discourse – one TD recently proposed that democratic parliamentary decisions can be commonly reversed by organising disruptive public street protests.


Paxton identifies public perception of the flawed character of politicians as the strongest cause of voter detachment from politics and of voter ignorance. He also identifies the coarsening of political discourse as symptomatic of a weakened shared moral basis for politics. This “moral vacancy” of politics has been linked to the extensive penetration of market values into society, so that instead of society having a market economy we have become a market society, and increasingly the only vision of a good life that is publicly promoted by politicians is increased prosperity.

Growing economic inequality has been linked to widening political divisions. Austerity remains the chief government remedy for budget deficits, but austerity exacerbates inequality. Psychologically, there is a strong relationship between inequality and various mental and physical health measures, personal and social cohesion and trust and political stability. And historically, economic hardship has prompted the rise of the far right or the far left.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown (The Righteous Mind, Allen Lane, London, 2012) that six foundations underlie moral judgments: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Left-liberal people are more likely to greatly value care/harm and fairness/cheating, but to have little concern with the other foundations. More conservative people place more importance in the other foundations. In other words, what is fair or right has different meanings for people who hold these different values.

What can be done? Since inequality is a primary cause of political detachment and resentment, economics must be part of the solution. Austerity policy must be replaced by economic stimulation, investment and more progressive taxation regimes. Majority voting systems should be replaced by proportional representation that strengthens the correlation between voting behaviour and outcomes, increasing motivation to vote.

Paxton also recommends that politicians must start to behave differently, employing rational and reasonable discussion and respecting expression of the views of all political opponents so long as these opponents behave within the law. Politicians should increasingly justify policies on moral rather than economic or electoral grounds.

Politicians also need to take account of the range of sincerely held moral viewpoints held among the electorate, as demonstrated by Haidt, and to communicate beyond their core supporters and thereby to narrow the divisions. And when making arguments and devising policies to create conditions conducive to allowing citizens to build worthwhile lives, politicians should take care to also refer to elements other than those that increase material prosperity.

The democratic freedoms and protections we enjoy were hard won. They could be lost easily if we don’t take care to preserve them.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC