What we have just now, both in Britain and the USA, and looming in the rest of Europe, is mob rule; historically always dreaded by the privileged classes, who used the fear of it to impede the progress of democracy. Even today, referring to ‘mob rule’ leaves you open to the accusation of being anti-democratic, or élitist, which is a common charge levelled against American Democrats and British Remainers by the Trumpists and the Daily Mail. That’s what makes it so difficult to argue against verdicts passed by popular referenda; and why, for example, British MPs will almost certainly allow Theresa May to implement the ‘voice of the people’ in relation to the EU. That notorious Daily Mail headline, featuring the judges who exercised their constitutional right and indeed duty to insist on Parliamentary scrutiny for pulling out of Europe, and traducing them as ‘Enemies of the People’, must have honest MPs still quivering in their boots.
‘What is it you don’t understand about democracy?’ yelled a member of the audience at a ‘Remainer’ in a recent BBC Question Time. Well, my answer is that truly democratic decisions are only made on the basis of cool consideration, with the issues being clear and not clouded by others, and based on pretty accurate evidence. They also require the opportunity to go back on them at leisure and consider them again. Everyone must know to their cost that many of their own personal decisions, if rushed or made under stress, can turn out to be wrong. Beyond this we could probably do with more political education, or even education in logical thinking, than most Britons and Americans, of all classes, currently get in their schools, and certainly in their media. That would go some way to creating a rational democracy. But this of course is a tricky topic to raise, on the grounds that one person’s political education could be seen as another’s propaganda, or as simply an ‘alternative truth’. (I didn’t realise that Trump was a postmodernist!) But we’ll let that go for now.
A more practical argument against allowing ‘mobs’ to rule is that they can be democratically counter-productive. Most dictatorships to have emerged in history have had an element of mobocracy about them, exploited, as mobs so easily are, by charismatic but vain and dangerous ‘leaders’. Britain doesn’t seem to be headed in this direction yet, with none of the leaders of ‘Brexit’ (certainly not Nigel; not even Boris) having quite the necessary charisma; but the United States definitely does. Trump does nothing for me charisma-wise; but he seems to have all the personal qualities, and limitations, that have been shared by most megalomaniacs in history. I personally can’t see how he can last much longer, despised and ridiculed as he is by half his own people and in most countries of the world, outside Russia and Israel – unless their sneers merely serve to strengthen him. (Millwall FC: ‘No-one loves us, and we don’t care.’) And then we do, both of our countries, have ‘checks and balances’. But if he does survive, unemasculated, it must be as a dictator, albeit of a very American kind.
But good – from my liberal-élitist point of view – could come out of this. What these two ‘mobs’ have achieved is to rip the democratic veneer from our political institutions, and reveal them to be as fundamentally undemocratic as many of us on the Left had long believed them to be. An obvious example is the two countries’ voting systems, which are obviously unrepresentative of their electorates, with ‘first past the post’ in Britain, which I’ve inveighed against before (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/), and the ‘electoral college’ device in America; quite apart from the gerrymandering in both countries, and the power of money in the USA. For years now people haven’t felt represented, by their Westminster and Washington ‘bubbles’; and in particular when the vulnerability of those bubbles to pressures from outside allows ‘market forces’ to force austerity, free movement and the like on them unwillingly. This alienation has been growing for some years now; until today when, fuelled by the present crisis of late-stage capitalism, it has burst out into the political open with Brexit and Trump.
Brexit and Trump aren’t the answers to the people’s grievances, but they are symptoms of the imminent collapse that lies behind them; and they may have the practical value of stirring things up. Most of Trump’s policies are wholly unacceptable to us liberals, of course, and his attitudes, language and behaviour even more so. But in one or two cases he has, by saying what used to be regarded as politically impossible, opened up new ways of thinking and acting which should appeal to us too, and may become more generally accepted under his aegis than, for example, under Bernie Saunders’s. There are powerful Leftist reasons for objecting to TTP, though they may not be Trump’s; and for trying to reach a better accommodation with Putin’s Russia, in the interests of a stable ‘balance of power’ and realpolitik. The American election was like a tsunami; but it had the virtue of up-rooting a number of rock-like assumptions, and getting us to look critically at their undersides. We hope.
But who are the ‘mob’? ‘Mob rule’ is of course a disparaging term and always meant to refer to the ‘others’, the ignorant, ill-informed and great unwashed. It is a term from pre-democratic to conjure up the ‘horrors’ of the mass franchise. But if all entitled to vote turn out it becomes a positive thing, feared no doubt by elites, plutocrats and kleptomaniacs (Trump and Putin!) It’s harder to fool all of the people all of the time even through modern media manipulation. Bexit was the opposite of mob rule with only a minority voting for exit and Trump was elected by a minority of the popular vote. Maximising turnout is vital if mass democracy is to really work which forces parties and politicians to explain and persuade instead of ranting, raving, and twittering
Agree entirely. Of course a ‘mob’ needn’t be a majority. (OED: .’The disorderly and riotous PART of the population, the rabble; a tumultuous crowd bent on lawlessness….’) It clearly wasn’t in either of these cases. So Brexit wasn’t ‘the opposite of mob rule’ simply because it didn’t embrace a true majority. I’m sure you’ll agree.
Of course maximising turnout should be part of the answer. But it’s a bit late for that now.