Brexit & the risks of democracy

August 30, 2016 09:00 AM
All over the world, the voice of the people is being heard. Sick of being condescended to, voters are kicking out formerly entrenched elite technocrats in acts of anger and frustration.

All over the world, the voice of the people is being heard. Sick of being condescended to, voters are kicking out formerly entrenched elite technocrats in acts of anger and frustration. That desire for revolutionary change powered both the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump; it also resulted in Britain’s seismic vote to leave the European Union.

Political elites will always be with us. By definition, any new legislators brought in to represent the will of the people will be the new government, the new elite. In any representative democracy, a relatively small group of people does the work of running the country — and it’s not as easy as it looks. If you don’t like the incumbents, that’s fine, but when the people jettison the old guard without giving much thought to who, or what, should replace them, the result is often worse.

Democracy is not the act of voting; democracy is a system of government. That’s why referendums like the UK Brexit vote are deeply undemocratic: they overrule the government without being able to replace it. Referendums take a complex representative democracy with checks and balances, and replace it with something much less stable and much more uncertain.

Much of the talk about Brexit has been focused on the risk of democracy. One vote, in one of 28 European countries, managed to send currencies out of control, and altered global growth projections sickeningly downwards. But there’s a different type of risk at play here, too, which is the risk to democracy. A lot of people think that referendums are the highest and purest form of democracy, but that is false. It confuses the how of democracy with the what.

Referendums are a betrayal of the highest goal of democracy, which is the best form of government yet. Government is not a sequence of yes/no decisions; rather, it’s an increasingly complex and difficult job done by millions of dedicated professionals and citizens around the world.

No stable government can ever be run by referendum, not even Switzerland. And when a government calls a referendum, that’s a clear abdication of its democratic responsibilities. Anybody who believes that black lives matter, or that love wins, understands that unless you protect the rights of the minority, you abrogate any right to claim democratic legitimacy.

This hijacking of the technocrats by the people is not a purely British phenomenon. The people are calling the shots more and more in a way that never used to happen. Look at the American presidential primaries. They came down to Cruz vs. Trump for the Republicans, and Sanders vs. Clinton for the Democrats. Of the Final Four, three candidates were running on a platform of “we hate the entrenched elites, and the people need to take back power.” Three of the final four were basically anti-technocrat, running against the ruling classes of both parties. 

What we’re seeing is a post-crisis loss of faith in the ruling class. And it’s understandable. For the past 30 years or so, the cosseted members of the elite have managed to do much better for themselves than for everybody else. And the result is that millions of people are voting for Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, Sanders or Trump; none of whom is equipped to govern.

What happened in the UK can happen elsewhere. The toothpaste is out of the tube now and can’t be pushed back in. Inequality is increasing in almost every country in the world, even if inequality between countries is coming down. That’s a really bad recipe, because politics is national, rather than global. 

In today’s world, in any given country, the majority has good reason to resent the governing elite. 

That resentment is not misplaced. The elites have made grievous mistakes, including causing the global financial crisis. If as a result of those mistakes the people want them ousted, then they should be kicked out of government. That’s the essence of democracy, and it’s the reason why democracy is superior to an autocratic system where the government is unaccountable to the people. But while kicking the bums out might be necessary, it is far from sufficient.

If you really believe in democracy, you don’t just kick out the elites. You take it upon yourself to put together a coherent alternative —one which will spread prosperity more evenly. All democracies need effective leadership and plan beats no plan every time.

The largest generation in America, armed with new ideals, has the demographic power to seize the reins of government and implement a nobler, fairer society. President Obama has done his part. It is now up to the people to decide whether they will build on his constructive legacy, or whether, in their anger, they will be content to tear it down.

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