In Defence of Democracy - Roslyn Fuller - ebook

In Defence of Democracy ebook

Roslyn Fuller

62,99 zł


Should Brexit or Trump cause us to doubt our faith in democracy? Are 'the people' too ignorant or stupid to rule? Numerous commentators are seriously arguing that the answer to these questions might be 'yes'. In this take-no-prisoners book, Canadian-Irish author Roslyn Fuller kicks these anti-democrats where it hurts the most - the facts. Fuller shows how many academics, journalists and politicians have embraced the idea that there can be 'too much democracy', and deftly unravels their attempts to end majority rule, whether through limiting the franchise, pursuing Chinese 'meritocracy' or confining participation to random legislation panels. She shows that Trump, Brexit or whatever other political event you may have disapproved of recently aren't doing half the damage to democracy that elite self-righteousness and corruption are. In fact, argues Fuller, there are real reasons to be optimistic. Ancient methods can be combined with modern technology to revitalize democracy and allow the people to truly rule. In Defence of Democracy is a witty and energetic contribution to the debate on the future of democracy.

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Front Matter

Introduction: Why This? Why Me? Why Now?


Part I The Terrible Truth: People Aren’t All That Stupid or Evil

Objection One: Democracy Can’t Work Because People Are Too Racist and Sexist

Objection Two: People Are Too Stupid for Democracy

Objection Three: There’s No Point to Democracy Because People Don’t Know What Is Good for Them Anyway

Objection Four: People Are Just Too Crazy for Democracy to Work

To Conclude


Part II Fixing Politics the Anti-Democrat Way

Section 1 Assorted Libertarian, Authoritarian and Explicitly Elitist Solutions

Section 2 Sortition: The False Democrats

Conclusions to Part II


Part III A World You Might Want to Actually Live In (Fuller Democracy)

Five Principles for Transformational (but Responsible) People Power

Why It’s Worth It


Final Words: Buckle-up Buttercup: The Future Is Going to be Interesting


End User License Agreement

List of Illustrations

Part I

Fig. 1

US Presidential Election 2000

Fig. 2

US Presidential Election 2016

Part II

Fig. 3

Forms of Sortition

Fig. 4

The Athenian System

Fig. 5

Legislative Process in Later Athenian Democracy

Fig. 6

Participation in Athens vs. Participation under Sortition

Fig. 7

Chance of Ever Being Chosen for a Sortition-Based 2nd Chamber

Fig. 8

Average Lifetime Participation Hours

Fig. 9

Participation in Athens vs. Participation under Sortition

Part III

Fig. 10

Ethelo Decisions

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Participatory Budgeting in Iceland. Courtesy of Citizens Foundation Iceland.

Fig. 13

Idea of how an eAssembly could work

Fig. 14

The Five Principles of Modern Direct Democracy



Table of Contents

Begin Reading






































































































































































































































In Defence of Democracy

Roslyn Fuller


Copyright © Roslyn Fuller 2019

The right of Roslyn Fuller to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2019 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3315-2

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Fuller, Roslyn, author.Title: In defence of democracy / Roslyn Fuller.Other titles: In defense of democracyDescription: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity, [2019] | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2019004023 (print) | LCCN 2019016699 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509533152 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509533121 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509533138 (pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: Democracy--Philosophy.Classification: LCC JC423 (ebook) | LCC JC423 .F895 2019 (print) | DDC 321.8--dc23LC record available at

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:

First things first …Introduction: Why This? Why Me? Why Now?

When I first started writing about democracy in 2006, I did not feel the need to defend the idea of self-government. After all, back in those halcyon days, people who started a conversation on why there shouldn’t be democracy often quickly moved on to why Hitler wasn’t totally wrong, with occasional asides on the merits of tin foil hats. To be against democracy, against majority rule, against political equality as concepts was considered to be vaguely treasonous and definitely pretty fringe.

Unfortunately, only a dozen years later, things have changed dramatically.

There are plenty of people willing to attack the idea of democracy today, and they are agreed on what the problem is: the ‘demos’ bit, that is ‘the people’ – specifically anyone who doesn’t belong to what they define as the class of ‘superior’,1 ‘respectable elite’2 or ‘knowledgeable’3 persons.

This latest wave of anti-democrats is of a decidedly new and peculiar stripe. Unlike so many of their predecessors, they don’t sport swastika tattoos or dispose over small but varied arsenals of pilfered Apocalypse-ready army materiel. Instead, you’ll find twenty-first-century anti-democrats lounging in professorial chairs, clinking glasses at intellectual soirées and delivering their opinions on the faults of the masses straight into camera on prime time. Some of these new anti-democrats are libertarians, others are liberals, still others technocratic centrists, but they all have something in common: they oppose the idea of majority rule; they reject the doctrine of human equality; they deny the inherent value of one-person, one-vote. Philosophers now openly argue that some people don’t deserve a voice in politics;4 professors preach that it is permissible to ignore the popular will because people don’t actually want the things they say they want;5 newspaper editors float the idea that maybe it’s time to just give up on the whole democracy thing.

Like medieval inquisitors, these new anti-democrats claim to have always known the horrible ‘truth’ about humanity – that we are all just too stupid and evil for politics – they were just waiting for proof so that they could swing into action.

With Britain’s vote in favour of leaving the European Union in June 2016 (the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum) and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States in November of the same year, they’re sure that they’ve finally got it. At last, the people have been caught red-handed exercising their virulent racism, sexism and general stupidity at the ballot box, bringing poor government upon us all. Since ‘the people’ were at the base of these two ‘wrong’ votes, the obvious answer is to cut them out of politics and allow society to be governed by an ‘enlightened minority’ that would never have voted for either Trump or Brexit.

This version of events, which casts majority rule as an illegitimate evil and a self-proclaimed enlightened minority as a noble good, has, despite its arrogant and fanatic overtones, been persistently put across by the political left, right and centre over the past few years with an insistence as pervasive as it is aggressive. In an October 2016 article published in the Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini described trusting the majority ‘to reach fair and wise decisions’ as ‘borderline insane’, before telling us that ‘Plato and Aristotle get a bad rap these days for their rejection of democracy. But the substance of their objections were spot-on.’6 According to the Spiegel Online, Brexit is nothing less than an ‘abuse’ of ‘direct democracy’ that shows that ‘[i]n our complex 21st century world, we have no choice but to delegate authority for most decision-making to our elected representatives’.7 British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson urged MPs to overturn the Brexit vote because ‘[d]emocracy has never meant the tyranny of the simple majority’,8 while the UK Independent ran articles arguing that some things are just ‘too important to be decided by the people’9 and accusing British MPs of hiding ‘behind the vapid UKIP mantra – the so-called will of the people’.10 According to Mai’a K. Davis Cross, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston, there is ‘Nothing Democratic About Brexit’.11 Gerard Delanty, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex, agreed in his post, ‘Brexit and the Great Pretence of Democracy’ that ‘the notion that 50 per cent plus one is an acceptable threshold is a fiction’,12 while in Foreign Policy James Traub let us know that it is ‘Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses’.13 Belgian author David van Reybrouck called the Brexit referendum a ‘primitive procedure’ and a ‘blunt axe wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens’,14 while former Independent journalist Richard Askwith warned readers that they were about to be overrun by the ‘tyranny of the mob’.15 Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economics at Oxford, proclaimed: ‘You may say that Leave Voters will lose their faith in the democratic system if Brexit doesn’t happen, but the same is surely true of Republican voters if Obamacare is not repealed. That is hardly a reason to do it.’16 In ‘More Professionalism, Less Populism: How Voting Makes Us Stupid and What to Do About It’,17 Brookings Fellows Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes argued for less participation by the average person and more ‘intermediation’ by institutions built from a political class empowered to do no less than engage in corrupt practices for everyone’s sake. Kenneth Rogoff, former Chief Economist of the IMF and a professor at Harvard, declared that simple majority rule is ‘a formula for chaos’ and this ‘isn’t democracy’,18 while Daniel W. Drezner at Tufts University proclaimed that ‘Of course, there can be too much democracy’.19 Last, but not least, in their much quoted book Democracy for Realists,20 Professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels promulgated research that purported to show that people are so incapable of expressing their own best interests at the ballot box that elections are won and lost on everything from shark attacks to the weather; an interview with the authors ran on Vox under the headline ‘The Problem with Democracy is Voters’.21

While these writers by and large consider themselves to be liberal progressives, or at least centrist technocrats, whose sole noble aim consists of rescuing the ignorant from themselves, when it comes to democracy they’re singing off the same hymn sheet as their decidedly more conservative and libertarian brethren. According to Jason Brennan, Georgetown University philosopher and author of Against Democracy, the stupid and ignorant should simply be disenfranchised, a state of affairs he terms ‘epistocracy’ or ‘rule by the knowledgeable’. Against Democracy was reviewed in The New Yorker22 and The Washington Post,23 and Brennan’s genius concept of simply depriving people of their right to vote was deemed so worthy of discussion that numerous papers published his op-eds24 elaborating on his view that: ‘In an epistocracy, not everyone has the same voting power. But what’s so wrong with that?’25 Brennan is buttressed by fellow academics and Cato Institute scholars Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan, whose numerous op-eds26 and books, such as Democracy and Political Ignorance27 and the Myth of the Rational Voter,28 repeatedly excoriate the ‘ignorance’ of any voters who happen to disagree with their views on labour regulation and free trade. Canadian academic Daniel Bell provides a snobbier twist on the same theme in his book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, arguing for rule by an unelected virtuous ‘superior’ elite.

Right-wing journalists haven’t just been generous in granting column inches and interviews to these authors, either; they’ve been more than willing to chime in against wayward voters themselves. According to James Kirchick, writing in the Los Angeles Times, the 2017 British election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party surged in the polls is ‘a Reminder of the Perils of Too Much Democracy’, because ‘“the people” – that expression beloved of Third World tyrants and increasingly adopted by leaders in advanced industrial democracies – got their say’. Kirchick went on to claim: ‘Amidst the global populist insurgency, our duly elected representatives should depend more upon their own judgment and worry less about the uninformed opinion of the masses.’29 In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan confidently informed the world that ‘Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic’;30 at Bloomberg, Justin Fox opined that ‘Voters are Making a Mess of Democracy’;31 and in the New York Times, Bret Stephens claimed that ‘the people’ are responsible for ‘anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism; anti-Americanism masquerading as pacifism; fellow-traveling with dictators and terrorists masquerading as sympathy for the wretched of the earth’, which evils apparently manifest themselves in voting for long-time MP and current British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.32

It’s endless, it’s alarming (and purposely alarmist) and it’s bullshit. In fact, it is all so ridiculous and shoddily researched that were these books and articles to be published at all, it should have been in the entertainment section. ‘E for effort’, my mother often says when confronted with a piece of particular stupidity, but this doesn’t even rate that. F for failure, F for fraud, and F for trying to fuck you over.

And it is no coincidence at all that this is coming out of the woodwork now.

The anti-democratic movement isn’t really, when it gets down to it, about Trump or Brexit. It’s about something else entirely, something much bigger.

You see, agreeing to the theoretical principle of political equality is a different ball of wax entirely than agreeing to the reality of it. But up until now an agreement in principle was all that was required of anyone who wanted to label themselves a democrat.

This is because democracy has traditionally been a fairly passive activity, involving nothing more impactful than casting a ballot for one of a tiny number of candidates every few years. For practical reasons only very small numbers of people could be directly involved in politics on a daily basis and for that reason it has been the nature of the beast that in our democracy to date there has been a split between the ideology of equal participation and the practical reality of elites running the show: political elites drafted and voted on laws; media elites decided which stories to publish; financial elites determined which candidates and parties to back. Thinking, speaking and acting publicly were activities that the average person had virtually no share in. The occasional mass mobilization surfaced when things were really tough, but such movements were rare and difficult to get off the ground, because it was impossible even to know what millions of individuals thought or wanted at any given time, much less effectively channel that into action or any kind of government.

But now it is impossible not to know.

Technology finally managed to do what it promised to do for so long – disrupt things – and it did so by sending the cost of political participation through the floor. Thinking, speaking and acting publicly, and therefore politically, has within a few short years become as cheap as it is easy. Suddenly, anyone and everyone can engage in political action on their own at any time. People who had for decades become comfortable saying that they supported ordinary citizens holding power as an ideal, but that it sadly just wasn’t possible, have woken up to a world where it is possible. And they don’t seem to like it quite as much as they claimed they would.

Indeed, the theoretical understanding that people held power in our democracies, but that this rather conveniently manifested itself in passively receiving information and instructions from ‘the respectable elite’, suddenly clashes very, very hard with a real-world set of circumstances in which the traditional middlemen of politics – politicians, journalists, academics – are no longer strictly speaking necessary for the system to operate. You don’t need a reporter to tell you what is going on in India or China when you can get on Facebook and ask someone who lives there; you don’t always need to ‘ask an expert’ when you can access more information than you will ever be able to digest on Wikipedia and YouTube; and if you want to know what people think about current affairs, you need look no farther than the comments section of any major news website. From a ‘value-added’ point of view, the traditional power-broking jobs are taking a nosedive, as rather than facilitating participation, as they previously (to some extent) had done, they have become a bottleneck for something that could happen more efficiently without them.

Just as we can book our own flight tickets and manage our stock portfolios online, we no longer technically need anyone to guess ‘what the people want’ or tell us ‘what everyone thinks’, because it is possible to acquire that information directly.

Thus, the elites who traditionally exercised the political functions of speaking, thinking and acting publicly on behalf of everyone else are rapidly becoming surplus to requirements. If democracy continues to evolve with advances in technology, it will naturally become more participatory and direct, because not only is it now possible for people to communicate easily on a peer-to-peer basis and thus to coordinate political action without involving middlemen, it is already foreseeable that this trend will only continue into the future. If elites want to prevent that from happening – and many of them do consciously or unconsciously want just that – they have no choice but to attack the idea of democracy and convince us (the people) that we cannot trust each other and need the elites – not to fulfil traditional democratic functions (like providing information or a best-guess at the popular will) that would otherwise go unmet, but to save us from ourselves.

In other words, they are attempting to change their job description, because, like a courtier around Louis XVI, they have begun to have a vague sense of foreboding that if the ancien régime goes down they are going with it. In this changed world, the only hope for anti-democrats to maintain their prestige and power is to clamp down and exclude the ungrateful masses even further from political life than they have been in the past.

And they are hard at work on doing just that, which is why I think this book is so necessary.

In the following pages I’m going to examine some of the most celebrated arguments and research purporting to show that the problem with democracy is the people; that they are stupid, that they are racist, that they are incapable of assessing their own welfare; that we must give up on political equality for our own good; that disagreement is the same as treason; that the worthy must be separated from the unworthy; that submitting to control is the only way to be safe.

While, as I will show, these claims are every bit as crazy as they appear to be on the surface, anti-democrats have already made progress in putting them into action and attempting to restrict the principle of one-person, one-vote.

Their proposed solutions to cure democracy of its ‘people problem’ – and we will go into these in some detail – range from the apparently brilliantly simple (‘don’t let them vote’) to the somewhat more subtly complex (‘select people at random and subject them to expert lectures until they agree to do the right thing’). Anti-democrats around the world have already established well-funded institutions and organizations to implement these strategies and bring about their goal of sanitizing democracy from the ‘demos’. And the very fact that anti-democrats have managed to get this far means that now we – the masses, as it were – are at a crossroads, too.

We don’t actually have to sit by and watch our civilization dissolve into a dystopian hellscape of warring factions or rigid, hierarchical control. We have the means to make things better – to make a more participatory and inclusive democracy than any of us has ever known – and we should grasp those possibilities with both hands.

Democracy isn’t getting worse – it’s getting better.

Some people just don’t want democracy.



Daniel A. Bell,

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

(Princeton University Press 2015).


Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels,

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

(Princeton University Press 2016); Jonathan Rauch & Benjamin Wittes, ‘More professionalism, less populism: how voting makes us stupid and what to do about it’, Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings (May 2017),



Jason Brennan,

Against Democracy

(Princeton University Press 2016); Ilya Somin,

Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Better

, 2nd edn (Stanford University Press 2016); Bryan Caplan,

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

(Princeton University Press 2007).



Against Democracy



Achen & Bartels,

Democracy for Realists



Julian Baggini, ‘Think democracy means the people are always right? Wrong’,


(5 October 2016),



Michael Sauga, ‘Brexit vote underscores limits of direct democracy’,

Spiegel Online

(5 July 2016),



Geoffrey Robertson, ‘How to stop Brexit: get your MP to vote it down’,


(27 June 2016),



Emily Badger, ‘Brexit reminds us some things are too important to be left to the people’,


(27 June 2017),



Tess Finch-Lees ‘Brexit is not the high point of democracy – it’s the greatest fraud ever perpetrated in British politics’,


(2 February 2017),



Mai’a K. Davis Cross, ‘Don’t be fooled by the UK election: there’s nothing democratic about Brexit’,

Washington Post

(7 June 2017),



Gerard Delanty, ‘Brexit and the great pretence of democracy’, Routledge Blog,



James Traub, ‘It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’,

Foreign Policy

(28 June 2016),



David van Reybrouck, ‘Why elections are bad for democracy’,


(29 June 2016),



Richard Askwith, ‘People power: if we want to defend our democracy we must expel the Lords and replace them with the people’,


(19 February 2018),



Simon Wren-Lewis, ‘Brexit and democracy’,

Social Europe

(11 August 2017),



Rauch & Wittes, ‘More professionalism, less populism’.


Kenneth Rogoff, ‘Britain’s democratic failure’,

Boston Globe

(24 June 2016),



Daniel W. Drezner, ‘Yes, there is such a thing as too much democracy’,

Washington Post

(28 June 2016),



Achen & Bartels,

Democracy for Realists



Sean Illing ‘Two eminent political scientists: the problem with democracy is voters’,


(24 June 2017),



Caleb Crain, ‘The case against democracy’,

New Yorker

(7 November 2016),



Ilya Somin, ‘Democracy vs. epistocracy’,

Washington Post

(3 September 2016),



Jason Brennan, ‘Is this the end of democracy?’,

New Statesman

(21 December 2016),

; ‘The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge’,


(29 September 2016),



Jason Brennan, ‘Can epistocracy, or knowledge-based voting, fix democracy?’,

Los Angeles Times

(28 August 2016)



E.g., Ilya Somin, ‘Time to start taking voter ignorance seriously’,

Washington Post

(8 November 2016),

; ‘Moving vans more powerful than ballot boxes’,

USA Today

(18 October 2016),

; Bryan Caplan, ‘5 myths about our ballot-box behaviour’,

Washington Post

(6 January 2008),

; Caplan’s book was also reviewed in the

New Yorker

: Louis Menand, ‘Fractured franchise’ (9 July 2007),

; and in the

Financial Times

: Samuel Brittan ‘The devil in democracy’ (28 July 2007),




Democracy and Political Ignorance




The Myth of the Rational Voter



James Kirchick, ‘The British election is a reminder of the perils of too much democracy’,

Los Angeles Times

(9 June 2017),



Andrew Sullivan, ‘Democracies end when they are too democratic’,

New York Magazine

(1 May 2016),



Justin Fox, ‘Voters are making a mess of democracy’,


(6 July 2016),



Bret Stephens, ‘The year of voting recklessly’,

New York Times

(9 June 2017),


Part IThe Terrible Truth: People Aren’t All That Stupid or Evil

The first objective in the anti-democrat strategy is to create the idea that there are insurmountable ‘problems’ that make it impossible for one-person, one-vote majority rule to work. Unto itself, it is a fairly inchoate argument – the main point isn’t really to lead to any specific conclusions (that comes later), but merely to firmly anchor the idea that the biggest single problem with politics as we know it is … people. So if things aren’t 100 per cent satisfactory, then that is where the blame clearly lies. People, as a generality, just aren’t good enough for democracy to work. In fact, people are nothing less than stupid and evil.

Anti-democratic writers engage in a kind of Tet Offensive on the human psyche to try to drive home this point – articles decrying the depraved state of the average human and its fatal effect on politics can be found in virtually every newspaper virtually every day.

This onslaught, however, is based on half-truths, strange flights of fancy, leaps in logic that don’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny and point-blank factually inaccurate statements. Just a few minutes of scrutiny are enough to show that even the anti-democrats’ strongest and most coherent points on human fallibility make about as much sense as a bad piece of Dadaist poetry; that there really is nothing to the claim that ‘the people’ are dangerous, that their will is bad for humankind and that they need to be controlled by the benevolent few for everyone’s sake.

Let’s take a closer look.

Objection One: Democracy Can’t Work Because People Are Too Racist and Sexist

That’s right: one-person, one-vote democracy can’t work because people are racist and sexist. This is a specialized form of the more general ‘people are crazy’ argument that we’ll look at later on, but with an ugly twist. The crux of this thesis is that many people don’t really want the policies or politicians they vote for, but rather that they are led to vote a certain way due to their uncontrollable tendencies to racism and sexism which override all reason. Since these votes aren’t ‘real’ but merely the by-products of irrational and evil tendencies, it would only be right to discount them. Anti-democrats are a little vague on exactly how this would be achieved, but they are fairly clear on the point that political participation should not necessarily be a universal right, but rather something accorded only to people who possess a certain minimum level of ‘virtue’.

To give a flavour of how this sentiment is propagated: on 17 February 2018, science writer Ben Goldacre retweeted a Venn diagram in which circles labelled ‘racists’ and ‘idiots’ overlapped to form a category identified as ‘racist idiots’, adding the caption: ‘Brexit voters get tremendously upset when you say they are racists and idiots. I think they misunderstand the criticism. This Venn diagram communicates the issue very clearly. I hope it can bring some healing.’1

Joining this general sentiment in his exhortation to the elite to rise up against the ignorant masses, Foreign Policy columnist James Traub speaks of Leave and Trump voters as an ‘angry, nationalist rank and file’ and as ‘people whose familiar world is vanishing beneath a welter of foreign tongues and multicultural celebrations’.2 Others argue that ‘psychological predictors of xenophobia were strongly linked with voting to leave the EU’,3 while the leader of the British pro-Remain Liberal Democrat party stated that Leave voters longed for ‘a time when faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink’.4 In America, where, it appears, the wonders of the Venn diagram haven’t been discovered, arguments rage between pundits as to whether Trump voters are idiots5 or racists6 (but apparently not both), while Hillary Clinton’s difficulty in securing the Democratic Party nomination as well as her ultimate defeat in the 2016 presidential election is repeatedly blamed on sexism, not least by Clinton herself.7

So, the question is: are we there?

Have racism and sexism skyrocketed in the UK and the USA in past years to the point that our only hope lies in forgetting democracy as we know it, capping the political rights of the unworthy (albeit in some illdefined way) and throwing ourselves on the mercies of the blessed elite to ensure that the morally ‘right’ decisions are always taken? Have things deteriorated to the point where we need to predetermine which votes are good and which votes are not? Is it time we accepted that some people just don’t deserve to participate in the same way as others?

Let’s start with the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary in the USA.

The argument here is that Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity with traditional Democratic voters was not related to her policies or political record, but rather to racism and sexism on the part of the voters themselves. It is this irrational racism and sexism that ‘distorts’ electoral outcomes from the ‘true’ considered will of the people, and provokes the need for anti-democrats to find ‘innovative’ ways to improve democracy by reducing the impact of those votes. In pursuit of this argument, anti-democrats frequently label supporters of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main rival in the 2016 Democratic primary, ‘Bernie Bros’ – white men who supported Bernie over Hillary out of sexist and racist motives. In their widely read book Democracy for Realists, political science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels note that Bernie Sanders polled eleven points worse among women than among men and eighteen points worse among non-whites than among whites. Thus, they conclude that voters did not actually espouse Sanders’s left-wing policies, but rather that the Jewish septuagenarian with a forty-year track record as an Independent politician was merely ‘a convenient vehicle for anti-Clinton sentiment … especially [among] white men’.8

That’s right – Bernie supporters didn’t want universal healthcare, affordable tuition fees or a somewhat less warmongering foreign policy. They just said all that to rationalize their true motives of being racist and sexist ‘disaffected white men’ who wanted to follow a politician from ‘lily white Vermont’ for deeper identitarian reasons.9

It’s quite the claim.

Maybe if people don’t vote for any actual reasons, but merely to express their group identity, one-person, one-vote democracy doesn’t make sense.

But … the data adds up to a very different picture.

While Clinton did win more female votes during the primaries, as those who favour the sexism narrative for her flagging popularity like to point out, what they’re a little less keen on is the fact that Bernie Sanders consistently polled higher among young women than Clinton did, about … 500–600 per cent higher.

To say that is off the charts doesn’t even begin to cover it. In fact, during the primaries, the difference in voting preferences between the youngest and oldest female cohorts was greater than the difference between male and female voting preferences.

At the Iowa primary, 84 per cent of under 30s and 86 per cent of women under 30 indicated a preference for Sanders, with only 14 per cent in favour of Clinton,10 while in New Hampshire, Sanders took 82 per cent of votes from women under 30.11 Just a month before he formally ended his campaign, Sanders was still polling 37 percentage points ahead of Clinton with women aged 18–29.12

And he wasn’t just more popular with young women, either. In an analysis of twenty-five state primaries, Sanders won under-30s black support by 52 per cent compared to Clinton’s 47 per cent. In another survey, black millennials reported voting for Sanders over Clinton by 44 per cent to 32 per cent.13

So Achen and Bartels aren’t lying when they say that Clinton won both the black and female vote in the Democratic primaries, but explaining this as a factor of racism and sexism is only possible by concealing the whole truth – that Clinton did not win these demographics across the board, but rather through her overwhelming popularity with the oldest cohorts, who often outnumbered younger voters. For example, in the aforementioned twenty-five-state survey, Clinton won over-60s black votes by 89 per cent compared to 9 per cent for Sanders; that helped because over-60s black voters outnumbered under-30s black voters by more than 2:1.14

The pattern held true for other groups as well. An LA Times/USC survey put support among Latinos under 50 for Bernie at 58 per cent versus Hillary at 31 per cent, while among Latinos over-50 support for Sanders was at 16 per cent versus 69 per cent for Clinton.15 Young Asian Americans were also apparently more drawn to Sanders, with 75 per cent of 18–34-year-olds viewing him favourably, compared to 55 per cent for Clinton.16

When 18–30-year-olds were asked who they wanted to win the Democratic nomination in June 2016 (just weeks before the Democratic convention), the breakdown according to race was as follows:

African Americans: Sanders 53 per cent, Clinton 39 per cent;

Asian Americans: Sanders 69 per cent, Clinton 21 per cent;

Latino/as: Sanders 71 per cent, Clinton 24 per cent;

non-Hispanic whites: Sanders 62 per cent, Clinton 32 per cent.


According to these figures, young Asian Americans and Latinos liked Sanders even more than their Caucasian counterparts did.

If Bernie Bros were so racist and sexist, why were so many of them female and non-white?

Perhaps because these young voters weren’t unthinking automatons motivated by an identitarian kinship with an old white man, but were in fact deeply concerned about important issues such as wages and education, which they felt were not being adequately addressed by Clinton.18 In any event, the numbers clearly show that the Great Divider of the 2016 Democratic Party contest was not race or sex – it was age.

Rather than negotiate with younger voters, Clinton’s campaign attempted to coerce them into changing their allegiances by implying that they ‘owed’ their vote to Clinton. Feminist icon and Clinton-supporter Gloria Steinem, for example, claimed that young female Sanders supporters were not motivated by their own political convictions but by the prospect of meeting boys at rallies, while former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told them they were going to hell for failing to support another woman.19

These heavy-handed and insultingly patronizing tactics do not appear to have endeared Clinton to younger voters and her lack of popularity continued throughout her presidential campaign against Donald Trump. In particular, polls indicated that Clinton was less popular among young people of colour than Obama had been (despite having the obvious advantage that her opponent was Donald Trump, a candidate whose platform included building a border wall with Mexico).20 Compared to the previous election, young black turn-out was lower,21 while many young voters opted for third-party candidates.22 Attributing Trump’s victory to resurgent discrimination overlooks both that Clinton failed to motivate key sectors of her own base, for the rather obvious reason that, unlike Bernie, she didn’t offer policy that served their interests, and that Trump still lost the popular vote by a significant margin. Rather than Trump’s campaign presenting a kind of reinvigorated goosestep to victory, the 2016 presidential campaign was lacklustre, with considerable voter apathy on both sides. Indeed, it is noteworthy that in this alleged existential battle between good and evil, turn-out barely topped 60 per cent.23

As if that weren’t enough, even among those who voted for Trump, racism and sexism are hard to discern as primary motivating factors.

During a stay in Indiana a year after Trump took office, Guardian reporter Gary Younge interviewed a number of residents who not only voted for Trump, but continued to be satisfied with his activities in office. Despite their continued political support, nearly everyone Younge spoke to disapproved of Trump’s bombastic and, at times, offensive persona. One voter stated that ‘[He is] a 70-year-old white man. He’s been supported in bigotry his entire life. He’s been validated his entire life. And people wonder why he acts like this’, before referring to him as ‘like your drunk uncle at a party’. Another referred to Trump’s tweets as ‘wordvomit’ that made them ‘cringe’. However, his voters still felt that Trump was a necessary evil. One of them cited the need for disruption in politics (‘disruption’s never easy. But it is important’) while another said that the most important thing was to get things done, explicitly