One of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.
Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.
The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.
Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.
In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.
For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.