The people. Have you noticed how often that phrase comes up these days? In the wake of the democratic revolts of 2016, this phrase, which echoes down the centuries, which is more at home in a past revolutionary tract than on the lips of contemporary politicos, is being uttered on TV, radio, at public meetings, on a daily basis. Squirming anti-Brexit politicians, cooking up schemes to overturn the Glorious Referendum, are asked by trenchant interviewers if they intend to ‘thwart the will of the people’. It’s used cynically, too. When our unelected PM Theresa May pledges her commitment to ‘the will of the people’, as expressed on 23 June, it rings hollow. But the return of that potent, historic phrase tells us something.
It tells us how incredible, how Earth-moving, 2016 was. It tells us that this year, at a time when the gears of technocracy seemed likely to grind on for decades to come, the public intruded on history. From the Brexit vote to the election of Trump to the Italian referendum, the people made their presence felt this year. After decades of having a walk-on role in political life, of being nudged, hectored and, above all, ignored from a distance, of being asked to do little more than shuffle the deck every four or five years, we have potentially changed the course of politics. We stood up to the political, media and capitalist class and struck a blow to the status quo. We did that.
The revolts of 2016 differ. Lumping every anti-elite uprising in the world under the dreadword of populism is just the means through which anti-democrats try to delegitimise the threat that confronts them, to paint the intrusion of the people as a global Endarkenment. Brexit was an unmistakable demand for more control, for self-determination, for a way of doing politics differently. The Trump vote, sadly, has outsourced the same democratic fervour from which Brexit sprang to one perma-tanned charlatan. And the elections in France and Germany next year could well bring genuinely dark forces closer to power. But it is the public desire for democracy, not the bluster of ‘populists’, which so scares the elites – and it’s also where the biggest opportunity lies.
In a recent essay for the Observer, Nick Cohen, lamenting our post-Brexit ‘populist’ age, said politics is now hostage to ‘“the will of the people” in its unmediated rawness’. Unmediated rawness. That’s what these people really think: that democracy is a surrender to the baser instincts of the electorate; that we are raw, primitive, chaotic and that our desires should be mediated rather than respected. This is the unspoken prejudice that 2016 has made brutally clear. The calls for parliament to overturn, or at least dilute, Brexit, or for the Electoral College to ‘do the right thing’ and dump Trump, have revealed an elite desperately trying to mediate our unleashed passions. And all this begs the question: who does the mediating? If not Mr Cohen himself.
In steps representative democracy. In a shameless, Orwellian turn, elite Remainers and Trumpophobes have begun arguing for overturning democracy in the name of democratic process. Witness the sudden passion among Remainers for parliamentary sovereignty, which they didn’t give a damn about when Brussels undermined it. The ongoing Brexit legal challenge was clearly brought in the hope that a vote in parliament would be a chance to vote Brexit down. In the US, the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan lamented what he sees as an unwillingness to exploit the checks and balances built into the US system to halt ‘democratic wildfires’, in particular, the delegates of the Electoral College’s slavish tendency to follow the state-by-state vote rather than cast their votes in accordance with their conscience.