Why the elites fear democracy
The Year of Elections has already terrified the establishment. Good.
‘2024 is the Year of Elections and that’s a threat to democracy.’ If you had to sum up the ideology of Western elites in one headline, you’d struggle to beat that one – from a recent Bloomberg piece about the apparent horrors that await us in the next 12 months.
Bloomberg isn’t the only journalistic outlet chilled to the bone by what really should be a cause for celebration. Namely, that this year represents a historic high point for democracy. In 2024, almost half the world will go to the polls, with elections in at least 64 countries, plus the EU. In all, that’s more voters voting than in any year ever. The first big one is taking place in Taiwan as I type.
But such is the deep distrust of democracy among our supposedly enlightened elites, the prospect of billions of the world’s plebs being given the opportunity to steer their respective nations, all at once, is enough to make the professional opinion-havers of London, Paris or New York reach for their third glass of Sancerre.
‘Can democracy survive 2024?’, asks the Financial Times . You can almost hear those pearls being clutched. This week’s episode of The Today Podcast – the new audio companion to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme; because three hours every morning apparently isn’t enough for Nick Robinson – went for the similarly hysterical title, ‘Is democracy dying?’.
So what are the chattering classes so worried about? Well, when a certain kind of commentator declares something a ‘threat to democracy’ these days what they usually, really, mean is that it is a ‘threat to my political party and / or ideology’. Their biggest fear is not so much that democracy might be overthrown this year, but that some populist parties they dislike might get themselves elected.
That’s certainly the vibe you get from a recent piece in Foreign Policy, horrified that ‘right-wing populism is set to sweep the West in 2024’ and thus be a ‘disaster for liberal democracy’. Will it, though? Some right-wing upstarts certainly have illiberal tendencies, some are genuinely disreputable, but no viable contender for power in the West is campaigning to junk the franchise or the rule of law. Electorally, it’s a non-starter. They couldn’t achieve it even if they wanted to.
Instead, they are positioning themselves as the only ones willing to court ordinary, working-class people – to countenance their supposedly ‘deplorable’ concerns about borders, sovereignty, multiculturalism and wokeism. And this has been made incredibly easy for them by an aloof establishment and disoriented left who continue to patronise voters even as they ask for their votes.
Sure, there are plenty of elections this year that will hardly be carnivals of democracy. No one’s expecting the Russian one to be close. There have always been authoritarians who try to use rigged elections to legitimise their autocratic rule. But to lump populist parties coming to power in the Netherlands or Italy with Putin’s dictatorial takeover of Russia, as one breathless piece after another is currently doing, is patently absurd.
We should be wary of politicians of all stripes when it comes to our democratic and liberal freedoms. That goes as much for Dutch right-winger Geert Wilders, who has had to drop his ‘ban the Koran’ nonsense as he tries to cobble together a government, as it does for members of the technocratic establishment, whose pious talk about freedom and democracy often belies some deeply illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies.
Indeed, technocratic elites posing as champions of liberal democracy is a bit like Iran chairing a UN human-rights forum (as remarkably happened last year). Whether they’re clamping down on so-called hate speech, or vesting ever-more power in the neoliberal Brussels bureaucracy, they are an infinitely bigger threat to our hard-won rights.
It’s perhaps telling that amid all the foreboding chatter of ‘democratic backsliding’ in one polity or another, the European Union doesn’t get a mention. Even though the EU is not a democracy, it was consciously designed to constrain national democracies, and its so-called parliament is a faux-democratic talking shop that cannot elect a government or propose legislation.
The American presidential election in November is being talked up as the ultimate ‘test’ of democracy, against the supposedly mortal threat posed to it by Donald Trump. But this is another spectacular case of projection. There have already been flagrant, anti-democratic attempts to bring down Trump, from Democratic district attorneys hobbling him with spurious indictments to Democrat-appointed judges and officials actually banning him from the ballot in Colorado and Maine.
Trump’s shameful refusal to concede the 2020 election and his many years of calling for his own opponents to be locked up hardly make him a principled democrat. But his panto authoritarianism is nothing compared to the ‘respectable’ authoritarianism of the ‘centrist’, anti-Trump establishment, which seems to have decided it must destroy democracy in order to save it.
Why do the elites so fear populism? The clue is in the name. The dictionary definition of which is ‘political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want’. To most people, that sounds like democracy. But our prolephobic elites, desperate to cling on to power, have convinced themselves that this is the stuff of tyranny.
We’re in the midst of what the author Thomas Frank has called a Democracy Scare. When the establishment rages against populism it is really raging against that still radical notion that ordinary people, rather than elite cliques, should rule. Nothing fills the political class with dread more than people actually getting what they want.
For whatever else one says about today’s populists – we at spiked would rather the field wasn’t so dominated by the illiberal right – they are united in their agitation against unelected, unaccountable bodies, from the civil service to the EU, which aim to insulate policy from popular pressure. When you hear a technocrat wail about the populist assault on ‘the institutions’, it is usually those institutions that they are referring to.
Like every elite in history, our technocratic betters believe that they are infinitely more rational, informed and qualified than the great unwashed to decide which course our societies should chart. The mask well and truly slipped in 2016, following the seismic shocks of Brexit and Trump. ‘It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’, ran the headline of one infamous piece.
The great irony of this is that the supposed experts have been getting it wrong for decades and the elites have completely lost their minds, embracing all manner of poisonous, quasi-religious faiths from gender ideology to woke ‘anti-racism’ to eco-austerity. And for all the talk of rubes falling for ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’, liberal elites are still gripped by the high-status conspiracy theory that Putin was behind both Trump and Brexit.
In truth, the elites are terrified of populism because they are terrified of democracy. And you know what, they are right to be. Now, as ever, it has the power to upend the status quo and topple tyrants, be they of the autocratic or technocratic variety. So here’s to the Year of Elections, to a historic 12 months of people power. Let’s make it count.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by: Getty.
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