Until 2014 the majority of the UK electorate supported the re-introduction of the death penalty. Only in 2014 did they turn against it in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey (run since 1983), and only by a very narrow margin.
Mainstream political parties (run by an enlightened liberal elite) have conspired to keep this issue off the agenda since capital punishment was suspended in 1965. That suspension was unpopular at the time, and has probably remained so until recently (even longer than I’ve been a member of Amnesty).
The issue of the death penalty has been highlighted recently, because voters for Brexit were more likely to support hanging than they were to be members of UKIP. If liberal democracy does not (usually) give an apparently illiberal electorate the brutal and self-harming policies that they say they want, then what is it for?
One could try to argue that democracy is a way of taking decisions that are popular, even if they are bad ones. However the Brexit referendum result has highlighted the weaknesses of that argument.
Direct democracy (referenda for example) often lacks a deliberative element. Some people decided how to vote in the recent referendum based on what they saw on Facebook, or in the tabloid press. They didn’t really think for themselves about the issues, they didn’t read serious newspapers, nor watch/hear TV/radio documentaries. It would have been preferable to have unbiased expert advice put to a citizens panel, and their conclusions included on the ballot paper.
According to the Venice Commission code of practice for referendums in Europe, a majority of 50% +1 person should be enough to win a referendum, even if this leaves an electorate deeply divided.
Even representative democracy can still be very divisive. The last coalition government was the result of an election in which no party had an overall majority in parliament. Nobody voted for the compromise programme of legislation that they enacted. I’m not saying that all of it was bad, merely that it lacked legitimacy.
A significant minority are either unable, or unwilling, to vote. This is true even in referenda, where the issues are clear, and every vote counts.
A tiny majority in a referendum, or a coalition of minority parties at a national election, or even a low election turn-out can all reduce the perceived legitimacy of the outcome.
Regardless of the issue of legitimacy, any group is more likely to make bad decisions than an individual.
“Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds”, “The Human Zoo”, Series 8, Episode 5 of 8
According to this documentary, had the electorate been asked a simple numerical question, such as guessing the number of jelly beans in the jar, then we might have had a better collective decision than an individual one. More complex value judgements often tend to come out wrong when a crowd is making the decision.
Unfortunately, the alternatives to democracy are even worse. I think the best thing we can hope for to help democracy to work better is that basic economics is made compulsory in schools.
“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons (11 November 1947).
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”
Attribution debunked in Langworth’s ‘Churchill by Himself’. First known appearance is in a 1992 Usenet post.