The twin prospects of Brexit and Trump may not appeal, but denying people the right to vote is much more dangerous
The vote always had to be fought for, and the combat was often noisy. From the 1866 Hyde Park riots through to the suffragettes and the African National Congress, the rallying sobs echoed and inspired long after the struggle for democracy was won.
When people power is on the wane, by contrast, things dont change with a bang but a whimper. To take one comparatively benign instance, consider the way in which New Labour ceded democratic control of interest rates to the Bank of England in 1997. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown watched economic advantage in putting mortgage costs, and effectively the unemployment rate too, above the political fray.
Who now remembers the machinations by which elected Italian and Greek “ministers ” were replaced by technocrats early on in the euro crisis? Who, indeed, recalls the ermine-trimmed arguments that the British peerage rendered to kill off Nick Cleggs plan for an elected House of Lords in 2012?
It is as well to be aware of the quiet way in which democracy can drain away because as several pieces in Februarys issue of Prospect highlight these are perilous hours for the ballot box. Last week Barack Obama used his final presidential oration to warn the world that self-government always had to be guarded with, as George Washington had long ago put it, jealous anxiety. The conduct of the election to choose Obamas successor amply justifies that emotion.
Republican state governments suppressed turnout through tricks including stringent demands for forms of ID that poor and African-American voters are less likely to possess. Oxfords professor of US government, Desmond King, points out that the drop-off in turnout in Democratic parts of Wisconsin, one of the three states that dedicated Trump the White House, was about 41,000, roughly double the 23,000 -vote advantage he notched up across the state as a whole.
Such threats to the integrity of an elections conduct directly undermine the democratic ideal, at a more immediate practical level even than Vladimir Putins audacious campaign of cyber-disruption. More than that, however, they undermine the precarious faith on which democracy must always rest. Its unlikely promise is, after all, that a frail old lady can walk into a church dorm, mark a cross on a piece of paper, and potentially bring a government down.
For roughly the first 2,400 years of democracy 2,500 -year history, the conventional wisdom was that any such suggestion was a dangerously naive dream; government by the people was a chaotic, impractical notion. As late as 1900, there was not a single true, one-adult-one-vote democracy on countries around the world. There has been much progress since, and most countries do now elect their governments, but this progress has frequently faltered. There were often hours, even whole decades, such as the 1930 s, when it appeared that history could be marching in a very different direction.
Now, 100 years on from the Bolsheviks extinction of a brief experiment with elective politics in Russia, its fate feels uncertain again. The liberal and democratic halves of liberal democracy are uncoupling in countries from Hungary to Turkey. This is dangerous. History been shown that the powerful educated bourgeoisie will put its own liberty ahead of other peoples votes.
Meanwhile, in the background, the eclipse of the west by one-party China continues apace. Research by former Bank of England rate-setter Tim Besley even stresses the superior performance of unconstrained hereditary monarchs over republics in economic history. To cap it all, we have had victories for first Brexit and now Trump. Many educated voters in the west are under their breaths beginning to question the wisdom of entrusting political power to the masses who, in 2016, failed to deliver the right results.
The political scientist David Runciman caricatured the patronising chatter in educated circles thus: Brexit is what you get if you ask people a question that they lack the basic information to answer. That chimed with me after one friend of mine asked, We talk about letting the person or persons decide, but what if the people arent very good at deciding?
It chimed, once again, when I was on a plane reading the American academic Jason Brennans Against Democracy a clever but sinister book, which I couldnt imagine anyone writing a few years ago. The mild-mannered public sector accountant sitting next to me blurted out: Against Democracy? The way things are going, that sounds like a very good notion. If the people had enough of experts last year, then perhaps this could be the year the experts decide theyve had enough of the people.
Ive little doubt that Brexit will stimulate us poorer, especially after Theresa May confirmed Britain will quit the single market( for which, incidentally, she has no obvious democratic mandate ). Ive no doubt whatever that Trump is an ignorant bully. But what I dread more than either is a climate that could lend support to Brennans unabashed advocacy of an epistocracy which literally entails regulation by the knowledgeable, and in practice entails denying the vote to people who havent got quite such good quiz results as him.
Id instead be subjected to the caprice of the ignorant than submit to this sort of elitism. For in truth, whether people are unschooled or educated, their votes are more often moved by self-interest and intestine than any rational assessment of optimal public policy. That great Victorian reactionary Lord Salisbury was honest when the last day the right of the uneducated to vote was an issue he conceded that, in the context of the franchise, one central question in play was always wealth.
Whatever frauds Trump and the Brexit brigade may have perpetrated on societys have-nots, there is no way to improve their lot that does not start by jealously guarding the power and universality of the vote. And making a whole lot of noise the moment anyone flirts with the idea of leaving political power to those privileged sorts who are deemed to know what theyre doing.
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