Churchill once described democracy as ‘the worst form of Government except for all those others that have been tried from time to time’; and that’s probably the best that can be said for it. Nowhere has it ever produced the utopia that was confidently predicted for it in its early heady days, and some of its recent outcomes must cast doubt upon its capacity to do any good at all. OK, so Donald Trump didn’t win the popular democratic vote; but the fact that such a flawed candidate could come as close as he did to a majority would be a cause for concern, even if the less than democratic Electoral College had not delivered his victory to him. Likewise, the British European referendum result last summer was far from convincing as an expression of the ‘popular will’ on the particular vital issue it was supposed to rule on, as I’ve argued before. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.)
Of course these judgments are made from a particular political point of view, by a self-styled liberal (me) who could be said simply not to like the results that Democracy is currently throwing up. In both these cases, it could be argued, Democracy – at long last allowed to express the genuine wishes of the people, rather than of ‘elitists’ like me – got it right. To think otherwise is to demean the intelligence of the ordinary mass of the population – the Demos – as ‘educated’ people often do. Yet the results – both of them – were very close, and yet also extreme in their effects; which must cast doubt on the capacity of our two forms of democracy to reflect any kind of popular consensus, at the very least.
Exactly. It’s the forms of our two democracies which are the problem. I certainly hope so, for in company with most other liberals I wouldn’t be happy with the idea that the masses are simply too fundamentally stupid to deserve to govern themselves. That way lies monarchism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, rule by Old Etonians, the ‘Führerprinzip’. As against this, however, it’s fair to point out that in both the American and the British cases, our means of expressing our respective ‘popular wills’ are beset with imperfections that must obviously skew the results of any election; ranging from gerrymandering (especially affecting the black vote in America), the way candidates are selected, lack of political education, the excessive roles played by money and propaganda, and our respective voting systems (like ‘first past the post’: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/); and then, arising out of all this, the feeling it gives to voters that their votes are not going to count much anyway. These problems will need to be addressed if people are going to repose enough confidence in their democratic rights and duties to use them responsibly. Then we might see whether or not Democracy ‘works’.
Beyond that, however, there’s another factor. Currently even the best-managed democracies seem relatively powerless in the face of great worldwide movements that are proving difficult for them to control, like global warming, mass religious zeal, population growth, and – in particular, I would say – the final stages of unregulated market capitalism, powered by its own internal imperative, and overriding all. ‘Globalism’, in the narrow economic sense in which the word is generally used today, is clearly (to my mind) at the root of most of the economic and social ills the people of the American rustbelt and the north of England are suffering now; which, however, those people’s ‘natural’ representatives – the Democrats in America and traditional Labour in Britain – have not yet properly addressed. They really were out of touch. That’s why voting for them seemed so pointless.
Those who did respond to this new overriding factor were the Trumpists and the Ukippers; which is why they won. In this sense the results of these two votes – however perverse they may have seemed to us liberals – did fairly reflect the common mood and the genuine and rational grievances of their respective electorates, far more closely than a Hilary or a Remain result would have done. The pity of the whole situation is that it was the political Right that put itself in the right place to profit from all this – just as Hitler did in the 1930s – rather than the Left, which could so easily have done. Bernie might have harnessed the American Rustbelt grievances to better effect, if he hadn’t been squeezed out by the Democratic Party machine. So might a more left-wing Labour Party in better touch with its natural constituency, somehow.
Then we would have been spared the current desperate situation, in which the USA has a government which, whatever it may or may not do for the Rustbelt in terms of putting ‘America First’ in the international jobs market, might – with its alarming foreign policy – bring the world to an end (the worst-case scenario, obviously); and in which Britain is left isolated, humiliatingly dependent for her trade on this monster over the pond, and so even less able to counter the late-capitalist/imperialist global behemoth which lies at the root of her people’s problems, than if she had stuck with Europe and worked along, in hope at least, with its burgeoning Left.
And if Brexit sparks a more general break-up of Europe, which both Trump and Putin clearly desire, there will be no chance at all of stopping the behemoth; which individual nations below the size of, say, America, Russia and China, can have little purchase against on their own.
Who or what is to blame for this? In my view the tragedy was at least facilitated by the systemic deficiencies of British and American ‘democracy’. That, rather than being the fault of Democracy, or of the Demos, themselves.