In Defence of Democracy
By Roslyn Fuller Polity, 257pp, £15.99/$22.50
The Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, both in 2016, are often seen in context of each other. Both are deemed to represent a populist revolt of the ordinary man against the “liberal elite”. And both have elicited a similar response from this liberal elite: that the hoi polloi didn’t really know what they were voting for, and had thus made the “wrong” decision.
To prevent such “wrong” decisions happening again, voices in the liberal elite have argued that the populace needs better education on pertinent matters, or else those deemed (by them) unqualified to vote shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Only those with mature opinions should decide who should govern us.
This top-down anti-democratic sentiment was in abundance after the shock Brexit vote. In October 2016, the philosopher Julian Baggini said trusting the majority “to reach a fair and wise decision” was “borderline insane”. The human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson urged MPs to overturn the vote because “democracy has never meant the tyranny of the simple majority”. Spiegel Online said that it was an “abuse” of “direct democracy” and concluded that instead we should “delegate authority for most decision-making to our elected representatives”.
Highbrow journalistic thought normally has its origins in academia, where tomorrow’s opinion writers form future op-eds, so the Leave and Trump victories confirmed what many had learnt already: that democracy should be qualitative and that we should choose our rulers on merit, not according to what voters want. In his 2013 book Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century, Nicolas Berggruen had advocated a “depoliticised meritocracy” to prevent “short-term sentiment” from harming “the long-term common good”. In 2015, in The China Model, the influential Canadian thinker Daniel Bell argued that “political power should be distributed in accordance with ability and virtue” and that we shouldn’t decide who governs us by voting, but that the latter be appointed according to exam scores. In 2016 itself, Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy, called for the disenfranchisement of the stupid and ignorant, and in their place the instillation of an “epistocracy” or “rule by the knowledgeable”.
In this spirited, brisk and occasionally breathless book, the Canadian-Irish lawyer Roslyn Fuller argues passionately in defence of democracy against the attack by the elites – not least because this assault is based on myths. While we heard – and still hear – from elite opinion that Trump voters and Brexiteers are stupid and racist, this is a convenient untruth. People voted for Trump for the same reason they had voted for Obama: both had emphasised in their rhetoric the need for “change”. A Bloomberg report two months before the election showed that the number one appeal of Trump among non-college-educated voters was “changing Washington, knowing what it takes to create jobs”, while his number one negative point was “his verbal treatment of women”. In other words, the proletariat voted for Trump not because of his misogyny, but in spite of it.
In Britain meanwhile, a 2017 ICM poll found that 56 per cent of British people “support a controlled migration system where immigrants contribute to society”.
A separate Ipsos MORI poll found that compared to other European countries, people in Britain have a much higher positive attitude to immigrants, and had become more positive towards this group between 2011 and 2017. The same study found that attitudes towards immigration had softened since the Brexit referendum.
Fuller also dismisses the notion that there is any answer to a political quandary, let alone a “wrong” one. “Democracy,” she writes, “is not a method for finding the single right answer, but rather of mediating conflict”. As for Brexit voters being ignorant, in the first half of 2016 you would hear the EU issue being talked about in public to a degree unknown before any general election. People were clearly thinking the matter over. Rather than based on ignorance, the Brexit referendum was probably the most considered vote in our lifetimes.
The anti-democratic discourse of the elites is not merely a case of sour grapes. It’s because in our vastly accelerating digital age, the ordinary man has greater access to information and greater means of forming mutual networks.
Direct democracy, which Fuller ardently advocates as the next step from representative democracy, threatens the existence and need for elites to tell us what is good for us. They want to take away our vote before it’s too late for them: “Anti-democrats are not, when it comes down to it, pining for a better, more enlightened humanity; they want people to be racist, sexist, ignorant and everything else, because it is the only way to continue to justify their own privileged position in the new interconnected age.”