A challenge to representative democracy and an argument for more deliberation and participation?

An old argument for representative democracy depends on politicians being better qualified than the demos. The thought is that legitimate government requires consent, but professionalising politics leaves policy decisions to knowledgeable individuals. This argument may no longer hold. Basic provision for education has improved, higher education is more accessible, and greater information is now available, narrowing the alleged gap between electors and their representatives. A further argument for representative democracy suggests that politics is inconvenient, and it is better left to an interested subset of the population.

How do these arguments change when political decisions have such radical consequences? Is it plausible to suppose that voters gave the Prime Minister permission to make decisions the pandemic demanded on their behalf? Or would a more realistic suggestion be that he simply had to make them because there was no better alternative?

Decisions made in the last year could not have been dreamt of prior to the pandemic. Indeed, many of them were not even contemplated during its early stages. Lockdowns were not, it seemed, a policy option for liberal democracies. Priorities for reopening, the aspects of our lives that should be kept on hold while others resume, do not feature in manifestos. It is hardly plausible that a voter could have predicted, in 2019, how the Prime Minister would have chosen between the available options.

Here, then, is a tension in need of resolving. At a time when justifications for representative democracy seemed increasingly under strain, representative government was making decisions on our behalf that could not have been anticipated and had the most profound of consequences. Perhaps those arguing for a more hybrid model of democracy have a point. It might even inspire confidence in the legitimacy of a system that is under significant threat across the globe.




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