Long-read

Democracy besieged

From anti-populists to environmentalists, too many regard democracy as an obstacle to their aims.

Frank Furedi

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When was the last time you came across a book whole-heartedly celebrating democracy? Or an op-ed saying we can trust people to make wise decisions about the future of society? Or an essay demanding we expand democracy, and provide greater opportunities for citizens to voice their views on the key issues of our time?

Not recently, if at all, I expect. That is because virtually every take on democracy today expresses reservations about it. Environmental campaigners claim that democracy works far too slowly to be able to deal with the ‘climate emergency’. Opponents of Brexit openly argue that ‘yes, there is such a thing as too much democracy’. And others unashamedly declare, as the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh does, that ‘democracy works better when there is less of it’.

American economist Garrett Jones is at least honest in expressing his disdain for voters. In his 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less, he argues for a modest contraction of democratic accountability on the grounds that it would allow experts the freedom to get on with deciding what is in our best interests.

Jones’ unabashed elitism is all too common among academics, commentators and the broader leadership class. In their heart of hearts, they really do believe that ordinary citizens are their moral inferiors. American journalist James Traub expresses this sentiment in an article entitled, ‘It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’. He vents against the ‘mindlessly angry’ and ‘ignorant’ masses. ‘Did I say “ignorant”?’, he writes. ‘Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them.’

Contempt for the people who fail to vote in accordance with their betters’ wishes is one of the main drivers of elite hostility towards democracy today. This sentiment can be seen in Against Democracy, American philosopher Jason Brennan’s invective against the people. ‘Most citizens are not doing us any favours by voting’, he writes, adding, ‘asking everyone to vote is like asking everyone to litter’. When the casting of a ballot is viewed in terms of littering, you know that the democratic way of life is in serious trouble.

Democracy panic

In my new book, Democracy Under Siege: Don’t Let Them Lock It Down, I call the scaremongering about there being too much democracy the ‘democracy panic’. You can see this panic reflected in the melodramatic titles of a glut of recent books, from Saving Democracy from Suicide to Democracy in Chains and How Democracy Ends. All these dystopian tales of democracy’s demise have one thing in common: their authors’ shared sense that democracy is no longer delivering the ‘right’ results. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put it in How Democracies Die, this ‘democratic backsliding’ ‘begins at the ballot box’, with the unpredictable and irrational behaviour of the people.

There is little doubt that the democracy panic has escalated in response to Brexit and the populist revolt more broadly. For British philosopher AC Grayling, the rise of populism shows that ‘something has gone seriously wrong in the state of democracy’ (1). Two Dutch academics, Koen Abts and Stefan Rummens, even claim that populists are ‘no longer ordinary adversaries, but political enemies’ (2), who, ‘if necessary, [should be] isolated from power’ (3).

Like Abts and Rummens, many democracy panickers regard populism as akin to a disease afflicting today’s body politic. ‘I think what we have at the moment is a populist virus’, complained Tony Blair’s former spindoctor Alastair Campbell. According to one professor of politics, populism is a ‘recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy’. Given the prevalence of the disease metaphor, it is perhaps unsurprising that a Wall Street Journal op-ed went so far as to ask hopefully, ‘Will coronavirus kill populism?’.

Outwardly, anti-populists pose as a bulwark against the supposed threat of fascism, xenophobia and the politics of hate. Unsurprisingly, then, the anti-populist script frequently draws facile comparisons between Nazi Germany and 21st-century populism. But, in pursuing such a wilfully misguided comparison with the politics of 1930s Europe, anti-populists often indict democracy itself, by claiming that it was democracy that facilitated Hitler’s rise. Yet anyone with a knowledge of history knows that the Nazis had to destroy democracy physically – killing and arresting thousands of their opponents – before they staged the coup that actually brought Hitler to power. It was not through democracy that the Nazis came to rule Germany; it was through the violent destruction of democratic practices such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, not to mention the removal of the vote from those they detained and arrested.

This tendency to accuse populist opponents of being ‘just like Hitler’ doesn’t only distort history; it also trivialises the most tragic event of the modern era. That so many are prepared to distort history in this way, likening those who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump to the Nazis, is symptomatic of a deep-seated mistrust and often hostility towards people who vote the ‘wrong’ way. I would argue that this anti-populist pose, this democracy panic, this fear of rejection at the ballot box, is one of the most disturbing developments within Western elite politics.

So, while the democracy panic appears to be born of a genuine concern about the future of democracy, on closer inspection it reveals its true fear — that there is too much democracy.

The loss of democracy’s normative foundation

The idea for Democracy Under Siege first began to take shape one night in June 2018. I was giving a talk at the De Balie cultural centre in Amsterdam, arguing that the rise of populism in Europe reflected a step forward for democracy. Throughout the evening, members of the audience challenged my views, with many insisting that ‘democracy had gone too far’. When I replied that you can rarely have ‘too much democracy’, one man stood up and, with a look of incredulity, asked, ‘Professor Furedi, do you actually believe that democracy is good in and of itself?’. He looked even more shocked when I replied ‘Yes’. Like many Western intellectuals, he thought of democracy in narrow, instrumental terms. It was fine so long as it brought about the ‘right’ result.

Since that night in Amsterdam, I have frequently encountered the claim that democracy is a means to an end rather than an important value in and of itself. The prevalence of such an instrumental view of democracy is not surprising, given the shallowness of its normative foundation. Democracy today is simply not valued in and of itself. Rather it is valued only as a process, in the main, for the election of representatives, and even then only if it delivers the right results. If the wrong people are elected, then democracy, valued only as means for the election of the right people, loses what instrumental value it had. In this, its procedural version, democracy possesses no inherent value.

A representation of the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 on 27 February 2017 in Berlin.
A representation of the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 on 27 February 2017 in Berlin.

This instrumental approach was most famously expressed by Winston Churchill. ‘Democracy is the worst form of government’, he said, ‘except for all those other forms that have been tried’. Here democracy is endorsed, but only negatively. It is valued not for what it is, but for what it is not.

The problem with this endorsement of democracy is that so long as it is conceived merely as a system of procedures, a technology of government, it is unlikely to win hearts and minds. What is there about these kinds of electoral systems or processes that could possibly inspire people, especially young people, let alone lead them to embrace democracy as a way of life? Given this, it is hardly a surprise right now that, according to a report from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge, dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high throughout the world.

The report claimed that millennials are particularly turned off by democracy, with just 48 per cent expressing satisfaction with democracy. Robert Foa, lead author of the report, attributed this youthful ‘democratic disconnect’ to the inability of Anglo-American societies to deliver economic benefits to young people, and the failure of successive governments to address inequality and climate change.

No doubt economic factors have played a role in young people’s disillusionment with democracy. But this disillusionment has deeper social roots. Most young people have been raised in a world in which democracy has at best a symbolic significance. Throughout their education, democracy has been presented as little more than a procedure for electing governments, rather than as a foundational value of public life. There is little in this instrumental version of democracy to which their youthful idealism could attach itself.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Young people are more likely to channel their idealism in opposition to democracy. Take the environment activists of Extinction Rebellion, for example. A statement on XR’s website reads: ‘Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5 per cent of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about two million people.’ The aim of this movement is not to convince and win over the majority of the electorate. It is merely to empower a supposedly enlightened minority, who would then bring about the desired societal transformation.

Extinction Rebellion claims its strategy is ‘one of non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience – a rebellion’. If so, it is a rebellion of a minority against a majoritarian democracy deemed too slow and recalcitrant.

The green critique of democracy is not just accepted by sections of the media; it is often celebrated, too, with many commentators, academics and activists contending that we should suspend democracy in the interests of the planet. This sentiment has been systematically promoted by the philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-93), who has arguably been the most influential intellectual figure in the environmental movement.

As Jonas argued in his 1979 book, The Imperative of Responsibility, ecological problems are far too important to be left to the vagaries of democratic decision-making. People simply cannot be relied upon to do what they ought to. Jonas claimed that people would likely resist attempts to restrain society’s ambition, and refuse to accept the imposition of a regime of austerity and the consequent lowering of living standards.

That was the problem with democracy for Jonas. It was not up to the task of delivering the punishing austerity deemed necessary to avoid ecological collapse. So instead of democracy, Jonas proposed the rule of a benevolent elite, or, as he portrayed it, an ecologically aware ‘Marxist’ tyranny. Jonas well knew that Marxism, given it was pro-science and in favour of technological development, and in favour of expanding production and consumption, was alien to his project of world-changing austerity. But he hoped that a non-accountable but enlightened elite could use the intellectual facade of Marxism as a veil for what was really a harsh regime of austerity.

Extinction Rebellion protesters block traffic in London, 15 July 2019.
Extinction Rebellion protesters block traffic in London, 15 July 2019.

At times, Jonas was aware of the depressing and dehumanising aspects of his deceitful vision. But he was convinced that such dishonesty was necessary if the planet was to survive. As he put it in The Imperative of Responsibility, ‘perhaps this dangerous game of mass deception is all that politics eventually has to offer to give effect to the principle of fear under the mask of the principle of hope’ (4).

Here, lying acquires the appearance of virtue, and the principle of fear wears ‘the mask of the principle of hope’. And Jonas presents it all as entirely ethical because his lies were serving a higher truth. As he put it, ‘we are also saying that in special circumstances the useful opinion may be the false one; meaning that, if the truth is too hard to bear, then the good lie must do service’ (5). No doubt Plato would have approved of this latter-day version of the noble lie.

From our perspective, what is most remarkable about The Imperative of Responsibility (which was translated into English in 1984) is not its anti-democratic content but its reception in Western societies. Jonas is now frequently regarded as a profound thinker whose writings energised the environmental movement in Germany, and a personification of ethical, responsible behaviour towards the planet. Astonishingly, his promotion of an anti-democratic ethos, his elitist contempt for people and his advocacy of deception and tyranny are rarely held to account.

Living democratically

Jonas’s argument that it is necessary to bypass democracy and the electorate in the interests of a higher good is now frequently echoed in relation to a variety of causes. Advocates of open borders, for example, view the electorate as an obstacle to be overcome. Writing in this vein, the political philosopher Christopher Bertram stated that:

‘Even within particular states we have seen that the desire of countries to control migration, often under democratic pressure, can have terrible consequences for the liberal, democratic and egalitarian character of those societies, because of the presence on the territory of people who do not fit neatly into the container model of nation states and their citizens.’ (6)

It is not Bertram’s support for open borders that is shocking, but his disdain for democracy. He more or less suggests that we should disregard the views of the electorate, claiming that the issue of migration is too big for a democratic electorate to handle. Bertram writes, ‘We cannot think about the rights and wrongs of migration simply from the perspective of what is in the interest of the electorates of particular states’ (7). The questions left unanswered are: whose perspective should prevail on ‘the rights and wrongs of migration’?; and who gets to decide what are its rights and wrongs? Obviously, not an electorate, whose casting of a ballot is deemed akin to littering by democracy panickers.

The issue of how to respond to Covid-19 is also deemed too important and tricky a question to be decided democratically. Hence many democracy panickers have argued that authoritarian regimes like China have been able to respond far more effectively to Covid than their liberal democratic counterparts. Apparently a strong autocratic state is better for achieving public health than our noisy democracies. As one commentator explained:

‘The pandemic has highlighted the contrast between the democratic West and authoritarian (some would say totalitarian) China. That the comparison is unflattering to the democracies may not surprise but should dismay us. It points not only to systematic failures in crisis-management and governance, but also to one of the reasons for the widespread disillusionment with democracy of the youngest generation of adults: the millennials.’

Perhaps those 1930s analogies are not quite so wrongheaded after all. After all, anti-democrats back then argued that Italian fascist Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. In other words, authoritarians get things done. It really does seem that today’s anti-democrats share many of the assumptions of their 1930s predecessors. For them all, freedom stands in the way of efficiency.

Attacks on democracy are now coming from all sides, be they environmentalists, anti-populists or public-health zealots. Democracy really is under siege. This is why it is so important to stand up for democracy. Not as a means, or a procedure, but as a good in and of itself, an expression of the potential creative powers of people harnessed to the full. It is essential to regard democracy as a way of life – indeed, as the only way of life that allows people to exercise their freedom and to find their voice. This demands courage, trust in one another and, above all, a willingness to take responsibility for our future.

Frank Furedi’s new book Democracy Under Siege: Don’t let Them Lock It Down is published by zer0 books.

(1) Democracy and Its Crisis, by AC Grayling, Oneworld Publications, 2017

(2) ‘Populism versus Democracy’, by K Abts and S Rummens, in Political Studies, vol 55, no2, 2007

(3) ‘Populism versus Democracy’, by K Abts and S Rummens, in Political Studies, vol 55, no2, 2007, pp423-424

(4) The imperative of responsibility: In search of an ethics for the technological age, by H Jonas, University of Chicago Press, 1984, p149

(5) The imperative of responsibility: In search of an ethics for the technological age, by H Jonas, University of Chicago Press, 1984, p151

(6) Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants, by C Bertram, Polity Press, 2018, p121

(7) Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants, by C Bertram, Polity Press, 2018, p121

All images by: Getty.

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