There are living citizens of Britain who were born before mass representative democracy. Not all women had the right to vote until 1929; not all men until 1918, and it took exposure of the atrocities of the Great War to shame the state in their emancipation.
This, I stress, is Britain, steeped in centuries of political enlightenment. In other countries, representative democracy has even more blurred roots. The norm we grew up with, that most of the population is free to choose their leaders, has been around for the historical equivalent of the time it takes to cough. During his most severe ordeal, World War II, he was suspended. During another great ordeal, the Interwar Depression, she surrendered to strong men in cultures as sophisticated as Germany and Italy.
It is inherently difficult to imagine the end of the only political system we have ever known. When we try – and many far from hysterical commentators have been moved since Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency of the United States, moderate conservative David Frum among them – fear is still an authoritarian dictatorship.
In a typical dystopia, Trump is in the third term of his two terms, Britain is ruled by (depending on your feverish nightmare of choice) conservatives hostile to foreigners or socialists hostile to property rights, and France is finally consuming his flirtation with the National Front.
This assumption that autocracy is the alternative to what we have is understandable. When representative democracy fell before, it fell in that direction. It also matches the trend of events in places like Russia and Turkey.
Much more insidious are the unprecedented and therefore unchallenged threats. There is no popular memory of a nation losing its mind to endless referendums, so we dismiss the prospect.
The problem was, 43% approved a system in which “experts, not elected officials, make decisions” (Britain and America were in line with this average) and 70% wanted one. where “citizens, and not elected officials, vote. directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law ”. Britain, despite or perhaps because of its referendum experience, was relatively weak on this point, but still approved by 56% to 38%.
The plausible threat to representative democracy is not dictatorship. This is the Platonic rule by genius or, probably, direct democracy.
The public has not lost its vigilance towards despots. The 20th century has given too many examples in too many countries for too bad an effect. As a rule of thumb, the more a culture cares about strong men, the less sensitive it is to them, and the West worries as a full-time job. It’s there in Philip Roth’s dystopian commentary and annoying re-read The plot against America (a novel whose grandeur, like that of 1984, lies in everything except its predictive power).
Much more insidious are the unprecedented and therefore unchallenged threats. There is no popular memory of a nation losing its mind to endless referendums, so we dismiss the prospect. But look at Pew’s findings – and trends in economics and technology.
The best argument against a second referendum on leaving the EU (there are some good ones for) has nothing to do with Europe. It is the normalization of direct democracy. Imagine mass direct votes on tax rates or the number of migrants. Or, to save yourself some sleep, don’t.
What Karl Marx said about the instabilities inherent in capitalism is truer of democracy. The poor will always outnumber the rich. Technocracy can protect the rich from the poor. Direct democracy gives the poor maximum power over the rich. Representative democracy is not optimal for one or the other. If he falls, the culprit does not need to have the specific human face of a dictator. He might have the bubbling faces of all of us. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017