Democracy doesn’t stop at the election – and ours is broken

Locked up. Yossi Gurvitz/Flickr

It’s only after an election is over that real politics begins. The polls themselves are designed to preserve almost perfect equality among citizens in the electoral process.

But that’s just the formal side of democracy. Election campaigns have become almost liturgical, heavily choreographed events. And what takes place during the rest of the five years is the informal side – a much rougher affair, with no gestures towards equality at all.

The contrast between the two parts of politics has been stretched to breaking point as campaigns become ever more artificial, while inequalities of wealth and income grow more extreme and play an ever greater political role.

That rising inequality is creating economic and social problems is now widely understood, but there’s been far less discussion of the threats it poses to democracy. The issue really comes into focus when we recognise these differences between the formal and informal sides of democracy, and the very different ways in which they treat inequality.

In the electoral process, we quite rightly insist on important principles of perfect equality. We stick to one citizen, one vote and punish those who try to cheat, hold the parties’ broadcast presentations to strict fairness rules, ban party materials from polling stations, and closely limit individual candidates’ spending.

But democracy isn’t just about voting. It’s about campaigning, discussing, lobbying and imposing pressure – things that go on all the time, not just during elections. This is the informal part of the political system, and if it did not exist we could hardly say we lived in a democracy.

The problem is that these parts of our democracy offer no guarantee at all of equality among citizens.

Squaring the circle

That much is evident even at election time itself. Outside the elaborate balance of radio, television and the campaign spending of individual candidates, the corporations that own newspapers are under no binding obligation to show fair treatment, and there are few spending controls on the central campaigns of parties. And all this is minor compared with the torrent of political activity that goes on for the five years between elections, when there is almost nothing to stop wealth being used to influence policies and win favours.

So while informal politics is vital to the strength of democracy, it also massively undermines the equality of the electoral process. How can we square that circle? The classic political science answer has two parts.

First, unequal access to lobbying and campaigning resources doesn’t matter so long as different interests gather their resources around different issues. Informal politics threatens democracy only when the same interests exercise their power across the board. Where a genuine diversity of interests and a balance among them exists, we can speak of genuinely “plural” democracy.

Just a small part of the picture. Guzmán Lozano/Flickr, CC BY

Second, political campaigns are not that easy to organise, as they are subject to what is called the logic of collective action. This principle holds that it rarely pays for individuals to contribute to mass campaigns since their contribution to the whole is infinitesimal, while they can still benefit from policy changes has even without contributing. This limits the amount of non-electoral pressure that the public can impose on politicians.

Therefore, provided the same people don’t win all the time, and provided there are limits to the amount of lobbying going on, the gap between the equality of formal democracy and the inequality in the rest of politics will be limited.

Rising inequality of the kind we are now experiencing threatens this balance at both points, especially when it takes its present form of a concentration of income and wealth in the leaders of a number of global corporations.

Beyond the limit

Since political activity on a large scale costs money, the very wealthy are able to trump other interests across a wide range of issues, frustrating the requirement of plural democracy. Just as these corporations limit competition in the economic market, they can do the same in the political market.

Just as crucially, the very wealthy do not face the problem of collective action. They do not need to mobilise masses of supporters as workers, small firms, environmentalists, consumers, and others do; they can just employ staff to lobby for them.

The Conservative-Liberal coalition was alert to the challenge lobbying posed to democracy, and introduced the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 as a response. But this only accelerated the trend to inequality.

The act limits political campaigning before elections by charities and trade unions, but not newspapers – which are in the main owned by large, wealthy corporations and individuals. Outside election periods, it also requires the registration of “consultant lobbyists”, meaning those working for others, but exempts “in-house” lobbyists working as employed staff for their own firm or other organisation.

In other words, those already facing the problem of collective action had new hurdles placed in their path, while those who are rich enough to make their own propaganda and employ their own lobbying staff escaped altogether.

Rigged

But the really rich and powerful don’t even need to lobby. As was made plain when the banks were deemed “too big to fail”, if a corporation is big enough, its interests start to become synonymous with the general interest, and governments will offer it whatever it says it needs to thrive.

Unlike the rest of us, including small and medium-sized firms, large corporations can bargain with the authorities how much tax they will pay. Even if they offer far less than they should, the government worries it could lose even that if companies threats to move to another country.

So with several sectors of an economy dominated by giant corporations, the little island of formal equality we rightly treasure in the electoral process is being overwhelmed by the money-driven tsunami of the rest of political life. The election was just a sideshow.