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The Farage and Coutts case shows that low decouplers threaten liberal democracy
Following the Nigel Farage and Coutts case, the Brexit leader being debanked for his political views, certain analysts have mentioned the concept of decoupling: the ability to separate an idea from its context. For example, there is a difference between ‘immigration depresses the wages of certain occupations’ and ‘immigration is bad’, low decouplers being unable to appreciate this.
Many liberals have been unable to separate dislike of Farage from his liberal-democratic rights. Admittedly, positions on this affair are imperfect indicators of the ability to decouple – specific cases can be debated and conservatives are equally prone – but the episode is part of a wider trend. For example, positions on Brexit were associated with support for measures which lay in tension with liberal democracy, such as the prorogation of parliament and second referendum.
Fewer people understand the threat to liberal democracy. Beyond the universal right to vote, liberal democracy depends upon a class of elite deliberators who can balance competing prerogatives against each other. Aside from politicians, judges and senior civil servants are members of this class.
In liberal democracies, such deliberators must be high decouplers. Constantly, governing elites consider rival demands for resources and justice. Some demands may come from unpalatable groups – many young democracies must accommodate the apparatchiks of former regimes – yet stability may depend upon respect for the rights of such groups. Emotional appeals (‘There cannot be democracy without justice!’) can be misguided and, for the good of the nation, elites must decouple themselves from such calls.
Challenges in established liberal democracies are different, but the decoupling of liberal-democratic rights from attitudes towards groups remains essential. Even if elites hate a group, they must guarantee them full liberal-democratic rights. When elites are unable to do this, liberal democracy deteriorates and, in the longer term, may break down.
Alas, there are challenges to this model, many being recurring themes of this Substack. Increasingly, politics has an activist tone and society is divided on tribal lines. Elite institutions are exposed to popular pressure and are politically stratified, higher education being a strong predictor of liberalism and a condition for employment in these institutions.
Of course, people have different capacity to decouple. There is limited research on the phenomenon, yet it may be associated with low education; thinking in nuanced terms is unnatural and people must learn it. Observing social media, very stratified groups appear susceptible to low decoupling, echo chambers encouraging simplistic thinking. Pressure from such groups can sway those who should know better. Years ago, Farage might have received more support from elite liberals, most of whom are able to decouple. But in the age of social media and stricter tribal affiliations, groups such as Labour MPs have become reluctant to dissent.
What can be done? Traditionally, liberal-democratic institutions guard against popular illiberalism and prejudice. All citizens may vote, ensuring a link between interests and representation, but the imprudent and extreme are excluded from deliberative, elite governance. Low decouplers should fall into this category. If liberal democracy is to thrive, the habit should be discouraged.
But this is easier said than done. Formal efforts would be impractical and illiberal, decoupling being difficult to measure and contested.
Cultures which discourage low decoupling are desirable. Historically, liberal democracies have been blessed with these, reflecting peculiar conditions. Often, these systems are established after periods of conflict, exhaustion necessitating compromise, and provide elites with insulation from popular pressure.
But as we have seen, these conditions have been reversed; society is tribalized and elite institutions are exposed to popular pressure. In these circumstances, sympathy for Coutts’ action against Farage, even when it was found to be political, is a respectable position among elite liberals.
The age of low decoupling may be upon liberal democracies; we should be worried.
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