Don’t blame democracy

by N. Gabriel Martin

“It was wrong to underestimate the ignorance of the ruling class.” —Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent

a crowd
Photo by Rob Curran

The old libel that the masses are too ignorant and irrational for democracy is having a moment. Elections of populist demagogues in the US, Brazil, India, and other countries, together with the failures of many democratically elected governments to respond adequately to crises such as climate change and COVID-19, seem to have vindicated the case against self-rule.

Democracy is in crisis, but not because of the fundamental stupidity of the masses, as the libel would have it. It is in crisis because of the evisceration, over the past 40 years, of any real democratic alternative to the status quo. Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative!” has turned out to be all too true. But if there is no alternative, then nobody can make good choices (or any meaningful choice at all). Democracy is not doomed because of some inherent flaw, or because of some inherent vice of the masses, it is undermined by contingent historical conditions that can be reversed, and must be if democracy (and anti-authoritarian politics of any kind) is going to survive.

There has always been a strong current of anti-democratic thinking in western culture. From Plato on, political thinkers have often offered their own contempt for the people as an objection to majoritarian rule. The position is essentially authoritarian; it is based on the notion that the majority—that we—cannot make our own decisions, and are better off if someone else chooses for us. And yet, terrible democratic decisions—the election of Trump, for example—in recent years have led many commentators across the political spectrum, and even some on the Left, to dredge up the stale idea that “democracy simply doesn’t work.” The idea can even be made to seem edgy today, because decades of abusing democratic ideals as a causus belli, and degrading it in domestic politics, has taught us to be cynical about it. Read more »