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The Cult of Democracy

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“The bigger the election’s participation, the bigger the mandate, and so universal suffrage elections have grown into unwieldy, ugly beasts.”

We almost never complain that a country or an institution is too democratic. We never say that there really ought to be fewer elections and fewer electors or that young people are too involved in politics when they ought to be pursuing other things. Democracy is metastatic. Once introduced, unless strong efforts are made to restrain it, it soon infects much of society. Higher education, for example, must now be democratic: Everyone must be able to go to university if that is their wish, such that 50% of young people in Britain now attend. People increasingly identify themselves—especially online—in democratic, political terms. They are feminist, trad, liberal, conservative, LGBTQ+, socialist, MAGA, anti-fascist, pro-European Union, Republican, Democrat. Political conflicts have replaced theological ones. Now, instead of, say, not dating a Catholic, someone might not date a Tory. Most people have a side, a faction they tend to sympathize with and trust. Worryingly, this is often their deepest moral commitment.

To increase democracy is to increase the influence of politics in people’s lives. This is why modern authoritarian and totalitarian regimes love to use referenda. It is why they often have the word “democracy” in the title of their country and go through monumental efforts to stage elections. It is also why monarchies tend to be freer, better governed countries. To be a subject of a monarchy is generally less oppressive than to be a citizen of a republic. To be a citizen, one has an obligation to engage in politics, and, in turn, he owes his freedoms to politics. Indeed, if one compares republics and monarchies, the monarchies are generally preferable. Was the French Third Republic governed better than Victorian and Edwardian England? Is republican Italy better governed than monarchic Sweden?

There was a time—at least in Britain and America—when many understood that democracy was not an intrinsic good; instead, it was only good insofar as it produced desirable results. One of the most forgotten and interesting campaigns against democratic expansion was that of the female anti-suffragists. These were women who did not believe that equality meant having the same political privileges as men. They also believed that progress—when it came to issues affecting women—was not necessarily helped by enfranchisement. (There had, after all, been significant progress on various issues, from child custody to prostitution, before universal suffrage in the United Kingdom.) Fascinatingly, when there was a referendum in Massachusetts in 1895 on whether the electorate “supported the position that women should be allowed to vote in municipal elections,” only 4% of women turned out to vote. Consistently, in the earlier years of voting, women tended to be quite conservative.

One thing anti-suffragist campaigners would point out was the advantage of political neutrality—that it broadened one’s influence and made it more likely that one’s opinions would be genuinely considered by those in power—and how such neutrality could be jeopardized by enfranchisement. The decline of neutrality (or, at least, perceived neutrality) is a chief characteristic of our age. Very rarely is there anyone who can enter public debate as a believably impartial, if not neutral, force. Any argument comes with distinctly political suspicions, and very few are able to listen without cynicism towards charities, pressure groups, institutions, and publications whom they suspect of being on the wrong political side.

The problem is that we live in a fractious, democratic, everything-is-political society, where neutrality and impartiality are not—in most situations—considered possible.

In the era of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), for example, we do not regard even medical experts as neutral authorities; their necessary involvement in democratic politics has made us suspicious. One side does not trust Scott Atlas because he is Trump-aligned; the other side does not trust Anthony Fauci because he is Biden-aligned. Sunetra Gupta is loosely affiliated with an American free-market think tank (the American Institute for Economic Research) and is courted by right-leaning publications, so one side does not trust her. In turn, the other side does not trust Devi Sridhar because she votes Democratic and supports fashionable left-wing causes. The problem is not necessarily that we are suspicious of such people, for, given the nature of our society, we are often justified to be. The problem is that we live in a fractious, democratic, everything-is-political society, where neutrality and impartiality are not—in most situations—considered possible. The authorities one believes to be neutral and impartial are usually those who share one’s worldview. The only institution we have left that comes close to genuine political neutrality is the one institution in the United Kingdom whose members cannot vote and which remains one of the last lines of defense against further democratization: the monarchy. It is also one of the most popular institutions in the country—a superbly enjoyable irony.

Now, at the risk of being branded an incorrigible liberal, I must confess that—though I sympathize with the anti-suffragists—I am not opposed to female suffrage. I would rather apply some of the arguments of the anti-suffragists to both men and women as a general argument for limiting the franchise. With a limited franchise, I see no good reason why women who meet the requirements should not also be eligible to vote. Discussing the result of a 1895 Massachusetts referendum, one contemporary writer in The Boston Standard demonstrated an altogether different and more reasonable mindset than one would find today by writing:

“The right to vote is not God-given, in the sense that it belongs to all. It is God-given in the sense that it belongs to everyone who has the capacity to exercise it to public advantage. Many men who can vote now ought to be disfranchised. Not all women should be enfranchised. But the test of fitness ought to be applied without regard to sex. The sex limitation is arbitrary and unreasonable.”

In England, it was, in fact, possible (though rare) for women to vote before the 1832 Reform Act, which, like many early democratic reforms, was explicitly anti-woman. It is curious how some of the most pro-democracy activists in the 19th century were also among those most opposed to women’s involvement in political life. This attitude is depicted in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s extraordinary 1958 novel The Leopard, where some young women “with tricolour ribbons in their manes” protest the exclusion of women from an 1861 plebiscite on Italian unification: “The poor creatures were jeered at by even the most advanced liberals and forced back to their lairs.” The same exclusion of women applied to the plebiscites establishing Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as first president, then emperor of France. These new regimes would exclude women even though the elections were obviously rigged, such was the strength of their opposition to female suffrage.

Both of these examples also demonstrate how plebiscites are customarily used not as a way of making political decisions but, rather, as a way of legitimizing a particular policy or regime and deferring accountability away from politicians and to the electorate. The bigger the election’s participation, the bigger the mandate, and so universal suffrage elections have grown into unwieldy, ugly beasts. Even in “fair” elections, where ballots are not rigged, the level of manipulation in a universal franchise democracy is, nevertheless, staggering. As the franchise increases massively, each person’s vote becomes less meaningful. Instead what matters is money, political party machinery, special interest groups, lobbyists, advertising, and a well-funded and partial news media. One cannot stand for election without access to at least some of these things. As a result, the most thoughtful, unusual, and decent candidates are almost always excluded. Then, whichever side loses the election justifiably feels the result was as much a reflection of the flaws in the democratic process (disinformation, biased media, ultra-wealthy donors, etc.) as a result of the flaws of their own side’s campaign.

The consequence of this is that people’s opinions have become less considered and less individual. Most people seem quite happy to surrender themselves to the crowd, and it is, of course, much easier to manipulate crowds than individuals. This is why debates between individuals are more reasonable and generally lead to better decisions than debates between massive political groups. The latter tends to make a society particularly vulnerable to panics and hysteria, fashion and whims. Public opinion, as everyone knows, is fickle. Most referenda on big issues fluctuate around the 50% mark. They are often one sensational news story away from going the other way. Yet, for some reason, we sanctify this process as the best form of political decision-making. The idea that something should happen if enough people desire it is dangerous nonsense. How often is the majority more correct than the minority; how often are crowds wise?

Lest the reader think that I am just a dreadful reactionary, who wants to scrap democracy and reinstate hereditary peers, rotten boroughs, and the Stuart dynasty, consider how—as with female suffrage—progressive causes seldom win at the ballot box. Democracy has served right-wing populists more than those of the left-wing variety. The Left has had much more success with judicial action than with voting; private members’ bills more than election mandates; representative democracy more than direct democracy; cultural influence more than political efficiency.

In neither the United Kingdom nor the United States did anyone vote for abortion liberalization. In the United Kingdom, it was never in a party manifesto; it was introduced by a Member of Parliament who did not even belong to the governing party. In the United States, it was established as a federal right by the Supreme Court. Similar methods were also used in the United Kingdom to overturn obscenity laws, end capital punishment, and create same-sex marriage. Indeed, regarding the latter, most of the referenda on the issue in various American states, rather than permitting same-sex marriage, banned it. The next great left-wing cause which will, I suspect, have to sidestep the democratic process will be climate change. The extraordinary measures it is claimed are needed to stop it are too profound to achieve direct popular support; people only support such measures in principle. (An undemocratic means akin to how COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented may well be the model to follow for climate change activists.)

Activists on the Left may be among the most vocal supporters of the cult of the demos; however, their actions reveal something opposite: that no one thinks democracy is good unless it produces the desired outcome. When a given cause (or set of priorities) cannot be implemented democratically, few have any scruples about forgoing the democratic process. Democracy, one notices, is one of the most cynically used tools in a political system. When the Left fails to get results by election, it manipulates the democratic value-system now prevalent in the population—the new lingua franca of “inclusivity,” “diversity,” “representation,” and “equality”—so that the population accepts a change imposed on it as democratically legitimate. The Left has found the mechanisms of democracy much less useful than ideology. The Right, of course, does something similar with its language of “silent majorities,” ‘the ordinary working family,” “taking back control,” or “the elites versus the people,” all of which are rooted in the democratic mindset. Yet the Right has proved more successful at winning elections on this basis. And when it does, this is one of the few occasions when one will hear criticisms of democracy, by disapproving commentators who decry such victories as “populist.”

One notices a similar pattern with left-wing revolutions. It is astonishing how few realize, for example, that there was no Soviet revolution. The Bolshevik coup overturned a more moderate democratic revolution, which itself was hardly popular. The Bolsheviks successfully used democratic language to establish themselves as the government while avoiding democratic mechanisms (such as adversarial elections). One finds greater democratic success from nationalists at the time. Both the Fascists and National Socialists were invited into government on the basis of popular support. Had Germany not had the most democratic constitution in the world, could the National Socialists have so quickly and efficiently entered government, if at all? Today, nationalists of various kinds seem to be doing better than socialists in major elections.

This seems to be the reluctant, unspoken conclusion of many progressives and radicals: that democratic processes seldom beget democratic ideals and that democracy ill-serves those whose lives it was supposed most to improve.

Democracy tends towards tyranny of various kinds, and I am hardly alone in noting this. The mechanisms to protect us against tyranny and abuse are not democratic, and, indeed, they predate universal-suffrage democracy. These mechanisms include habeas corpus, trial by jury, the prohibition of trials by ordeal, freedom of speech, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, among others. Some of these protections, one may have noticed, have lapsed somewhat in modern, proud democracies. Democratically-elected national governments—who, in part because of the development of mass democracy, have become much more centralized and powerful—have found many convenient excuses to suspend liberties and protections.

H.L. Mencken was, unsurprisingly, no fan of democracy. In his short 1926 book Notes on Democracy, he mockingly wrote, “[Democracy] came into the world as a cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. Any boil upon the body politic, however vast and raging, may be relieved by taking a vote; any flux of blood may be stopped by passing a law.” I admit to enjoying the whole nonsensical spectacle as much as Mencken: “It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” Mencken ends the book with a paradox worthy of Chesterton: “How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?” This seems to be the reluctant, unspoken conclusion of many progressives and radicals: that democratic processes seldom beget democratic ideals and that democracy ill-serves those whose lives it was supposed most to improve.

Apologists for democracy often cite Winston Churchill’s line—from a November 1947 speech in the House of Commons—that “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other systems.” But Churchill’s Britain was not, in fact, a democracy. To the extent that the age of hereditary peers, monarchy, grammar schools, closed leadership elections—not to mention empire—can be called democratic, it was a late amendment to a constitution that had flourished for centuries without it.

In truth, universal franchise democracy is a wretched system. While it may be a necessary aspect of government, it must be severely constrained in any decent constitution. Otherwise, it infects and debases society. In a democracy, people argue as massive blobs and not as individuals. They are factional and unpersuadable—except by grand narratives. Some of these narratives, of course, can be true, but most are false. The democratic faith then quietly and devastatingly establishes itself in many areas of society like Japanese knotweed. Yet it is a system with such ideological power that people will believe in it, regardless of its great and obvious defects. So I hold no hope that we might come to our senses, for as Mencken observed, there is only ever one cure prescribed for the evils of democracy: more democracy.

Matthew Wardour is a writer in England.

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