The problem with democracy, it is sometimes said, is that it gives too much power to the people, most of whom don’t understand how society or the economy work. According to this interpretation, voters are motivated mainly by greed, prejudice and an inability to see beyond the current crisis.
How true this is depends on where you’re coming from. We all support those who support us. Worse, though, than capricious changes of mind or the near-certainty, sooner or later, that a total chump (or Trump) will be elected to high office, is the abuse of language – what we mean by what we say.
It starts with the idea of democracy itself, which rarely works even on its own terms. No government coming to power in the United Kingdom ever since the Conservatives in 1931 has secured even half of the popular vote. Margaret Thatcher won just 42 per cent in her 1983 “landslide”. David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2005 with the blessing of less than one third of the electorate. At the same time, only a minority of MPs take their seats in accordance with the expressed wishes of their constituents. Typically, winners are no more than the least unpopular of a desultory bunch of unknowns.
But don’t fret, we are told. Our first-past-the-post system means that we get stable government, in which the approximate views of one section of the population are imposed on everybody else. Government of the People by a group of the people for a section of the people is the inevitable result.
In the June 23 referendum, only one third of those entitled to do so voted for Brexit, yet it was apparently the “overwhelming” verdict of the British people that we should get out of the European Union, bag and baggage, as soon as possible, with scarcely a thought for the morrow. Unabashed, there are even Remainers, including the prime minister, who have arrived at this same position. Having lost the referendum, they seem to believe it morally imperative that they should adopt the mindset of their opponents.
It is as if campaigners against the death penalty were to begin training as hangmen the day after a “popular” vote to bring back the rope.
In America, it seems to work the other way round. Last November, Hillary Clinton scored 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump only to be disqualfied from the presidency on the basis that she had won the big states handsomely but lost narrowly in a handful of the lesser states. The preposterous Electoral College, which in 2001 handed the keys of the Oval Office to George W Bush after he was beaten by Al Gore, stood back a second time, endorsing the system rather than the will of the people.
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Trump knows this, which is why he continues to allege, against all the available evidence, that mass voter fraud depressed his total while falsely adding to that of his opponent. In victory, magnanimity is not a concept he willingly embraces.
So the question arises, can the oafish impetuosity of Trump be offset by America’s much-vaunted constitutional checks and balances? It is probably too early to say. But my feeling is that Republican Senators and Representatives will be wary for some time to come of crossing their newly-elected President – a notoriously vindictive man – until he does something so asinine, so contrary to the dictates of good sense and the national interest, that they feel they have no alternative.
Incumbency, not democracy, is the dominant creed on Capitol Hill, and incumbency requires that members respond first and foremost to the crazies who dominate primaries – often in carefully-rigged districts – rather than to the people, the Republic, or even the flag.
In the EU, where unelected judges and bureaucracy are supposed to be the principal reason we voted Leave in the first place, populism – democracy’s evil twin – may not yield the kind of sea-change that produced Brexit in Britain and Trump in the U.S. But it is not hard to imagine a Europe in which the atavistic prejudices of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini enter the bloodstream of the body politic, promoting not so much demands for change as the re-awakening of an older order, marked by national rivalries and ideas of racial purity. All it needs for the floodgates to open is for the balance to shift another two or three points to the right.
Further down, on the lower rungs of the democratic ladder, things are no better. In my native Northern Ireland, where the recent collapse of the ruling Executive forced an early return to the hustings, the election fever of past years has given way to election torpor. It is not simply that the Stormont Assembly, mired in incompetence and allegations of corruption, came to power less than two years ago – it is more that voters have lost all faith in the capacity of their elected representatives to do anything remotely inspiring.
The Democratic Unionist Party, a collection of ideological deadbeats led by Arlene Foster – a throwback to the era of Protestant Ascendancy – is up against Sinn Fein, newly led by Michelle O’Neill, who, with her pro-IRA background and determination to exponentially increase government spending, could easily be mistaken for a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
One of these will become First Minister, the other her deputy. Neither believes a word the other says. But the peculiar system of sham democracy under which Stormont labours, predicated – correctly – on the notion that each community wishes to dominate the other, means that they must be shackled together in defiance of the wishes of those who elected them.
Have I depressed you? A little, perhaps. But you will still, I imagine, share the view famously expressed by Churchill – the last great imperialist – that democracy is the worst form of government apart from all of the others. And you are, of course, right. But that doesn’t mean that the system isn’t running on empty.
The UK High Court and Supreme Court ruled recently on the supremacy of Parliament in consideration of Brexit. As a result, judges were deemed by the populist right as “enemies of the people”. In America, Donald Trump responded to the rejection by the courts of his ill-thought-out plan to ban Muslim immigration by denouncing “so-called” judges and threatening, absurdly, to “see them in court”. It is as though all that matters in these post-truth days is that the “people” should get what they want, regardless of the offence given to due process or minorities.
But hang on, you say. We’re not trying to build Utopia here. Democracy is bound to be messy. True – and even if we could plan a perfect state, who would want to live there? But the pendulum has swung too far. From populism to mob rule is but a step into the dark. It’s time to restate our faith in the fullness of democracy, complete with respect for the law, for the independence of the judiciary and, most important, for the rights of those we disagree with. Today, with the West’s liberal supremacy threatened on all sides, is not the time to give in to our own worst instincts.