But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies. Liberal progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power. It helped them to ignore the apparent wishes of the voters. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these wishes — by keeping them out of politics. Immigration and ‘Europe’ are examples. Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers and became merely one player in the system. Majoritarian democracy mutated into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.
Here’s my theory. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people.
On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short,’ as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.’ The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. The answer is to discuss the issues at their heart.
When I speak of elite failure, this capitulation to “post-democracy” is a large part of what I mean. The promise of democratic governance in the West has always lived uneasily with the human reality of elite rule. Elites want to manage relatively stable and predictable societies and want to ensure certain kinds of outcomes. They also want to move societies in certain directions, along specific lines and towards very certain ends. Actual democratic government can get in the way of this. Mass democracies were then managed things, in which elites carefully guided and arranged mass social and political activities in ways that mostly worked in concert with elite desires for the societies they governed.
And elites broadly understood their role. They were inside their societies, but they could see above them.
Three things happened to slowly undo this. First, mass politics was discredited with World War II. Or rather, mass politics was seen to cause the war (actually, both world wars), to create the governments that caused the war, so in the West at least, mass participatory politics was replaced with a consumerist politics, in which citizens would no longer be expected or mobilized on behalf of the state. Instead, they would increasingly become passive consumers of politics produced by others.
Second, a broad and widely shared material prosperity (again, in the West) made this consumption possible. It’s easy to become passive, to accept passivity, when life is easy.
Third, history intervened. The economic conditions of the post-WWII world could not hold. And they didn’t, for a zillion reasons I won’t go through here. The broadly based prosperity came to an end, and as it did, Western elites stopped being able to act as people both within and above the system they governed. They came to see themselves as solely inside that system. Perhaps the neoliberals who embraced financialization of the economy saw themselves as above the fray, but if they did, it was a cynical oversight, or an ignorant one, and one they kept to themselves.
As it became clear to Western voters that the prosperity they had come to expect was no longer working for them, they sought political answers, but action was limited because they had very purposefully been deprived of the tools of mass politics. Their outrage at the failures of liberal democracy prompted them to support for the only critique in town, neoliberalism, which further damaged the system that had worked so well to their benefit. And further impoverishes them.
Seeking blame, they have only one target — the liberal order. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Democracy focuses on popular will and promises majority rule. Well organized, confident, and thoughtful elites can direct, manage, and focus majorities and their will, and they did successfully in the United States for much of the 20th century. Note well, however, that elite guidance of the masses is an effective betrayal of the promise of democracy, no matter how well elites govern and how well they guide majority opinion. We, however, are no longer governed by such elites, and we haven’t been since sometime in the 1990s. Self-righteousness and arrogance are not confidence. In the midst of this elite failure, when majorities realize that despite what they will they are not allowed to rule, that the promises of democratic governance are hollow and empty, they will revolt. And a democratic revolt looks just like Brexit and just like Trump.
(And yes, I realize the “majority” in the case of Trump is only regional, and not national.)
This is the future. Even if we could remake the West of 1958, the economic conditions that made a broadly shared prosperity possible no longer exist. For lots of people in the West, a return to 1958 is hardly desirable anyway, given that they weren’t allowed to share in that prosperity. It may be some will learn from the coming failure of the Trump regime that his critique is not the answer, but given the past, I think that unlikely.
I suspect the failure to deliver on the promises will not cause people to rethink their desires, but instead, to double down. When Brexit fails, when Trump fails, there will be no soul searching. Only a lot more anger.