We are in a strange and dangerous moment for democracy. The resurgence of ugly and authoritarian nationalism has renewed an older strain of liberal commentary among allegedly enlightened intellectuals and conventional political commentators. It appears they don’t like democracy so much these days.
In 1959, amidst the height of Cold War fervor, George Peek, a professor of political science and a gentlemanly Virginian who called himself a Southern Democrat, counseled his introductory students (including myself) that “every procedural claim has a substantive interest.” Boiled down: when people don’t like the result, they criticize the process.
After 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU, many pundits (who incidentally were strongly in favor of a “Remain” vote) claimed that the Brexit referendum vote a) should not have been called, or b) was so important that it should have required a qualified majority, perhaps 60 percent, or a repeat after an interval.
Ten days after the Brexit vote, the New York Times editorial board expressed doubt about the propriety of a referendum on such a question. More recently, however, the Times endorsed referenda on gun control, the substance of which it approves, in a number of states where it seems likely to win. It is worth keeping in mind that Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had previously fumed at the Republicans in the U.S. Senate for turning every single policy vote into a threat of filibuster requiring a sixty-vote majority. Likewise, the Times vigorously supported the Iran nuclear deal when a minority of senators voted for it (since it was an executive order requiring a two-thirds vote to overturn). Substantive interest indeed.
Hungarians voted in a recent referendum against the EU proposal to impose minimum refugee admission quotas on member states. The vote was invalidated after less than half of voters turned up at the polls—the constitutionally required minimum—but of the 44 percent of voters who did participate, 98 percent rejected the EU quotas. This prompted even the left-leaning editor of Foreign Policy in Focus, John Feffer, to argue that after all Hungary is not a direct democracy and it should not have been put up for a vote.
Colombians surprised liberals throughout the Western hemisphere by voting against a historic peace pact with FARC rebels, who have been at war with the country’s government for fifty-two years. When it looked like it was winning by two to one, there wasn’t a bit of criticism; now Feffer says it was inappropriate to put it to a referendum. Low turnout was not part of his objection.
What’s in the air is a new version of an old theory: that mass democracy needs enlightened elites to restrain the bestial instincts of the deracinated mob that the otherwise sturdy citizenry becomes when it disagrees with the chattering classes.
The clash of fascism and communism in Europe provoked just such thinking. In his 1930 classic The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish liberal elitist Ortega Y Gasset lamented the rise of “mass man”:
The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: ”the reason of unreason.”
Ortega was part of a longer tradition of European elite theorists, like Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, who feared The Masses and respected enlightened elites.
As a student in the early sixties I was tutored by political theorists well versed in the analyses of communism and fascism that dominated Cold War academic culture. The sociologist Arthur Kornhauser formalized this theory in 1959 with The Politics of Mass Society. It went like this. Modernity (in particular its industrial type as in Western capitalism) strips away older communal forms of affiliation and identity (church; ethnic groups; a vast array of groups making up what is now called “civil society”). Family and local affiliations take up less space in the life-world of mass man and woman. So modern citizens are individuated, atomized souls. As such they are vulnerable to direct appeals from leaders, movements, governments, unmediated by the older pluralistic (read: more enlightened) intermediate leaders of times past. They are more easily mobilized, including in ways Kornhauser (and others of his generation) characterized as violently irrational.
At the height of Cold War anticommunism, this theory was used to explain both communism and fascism and their alleged similarities. Even the great critic of American power C. Wright Mills adopted a version of it, referring in his towering classic The Power Elite to mass society and the decline in “publics”—that is, engaged citizens who discuss issues with each other and then finally come to reasoned decisions.
So the new doubts about democracy and those doing the doubting sound familiar to a student of social theory and history—right down to the canard that Sanders supporters and Trump supporters were really very similar. As if wanting to tax the rich was the equivalent of racist attacks on immigrants and Muslims.
Sometimes progressive causes lose elections and referenda—probably most of the time. Wealth, and the power and prestige it brings, historical cultures of racism and ethnocentrism, media outlets dominated by either of these or, alternatively, staffed by personnel with little historical education—all of these and many more factors can lead to electoral losses for secular and egalitarian forces. The current skeptics of democracy, however, are too hastily dismissing Baby as they express their dislike of her bathwater. They don’t like the results, but instead of examining the failures of policy that lead to resentment (job loss, wage loss, pension erosion, escalating medical costs), they now doubt the propriety of empowering the victims.
What after all are the alternatives? Well, the corrupted practice of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate is one model: require qualified majorities for everything. And kiss much of the progress of the last century good-bye. (One example: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 passed ,with fifty-six votes—short of the sixty-four votes then required to kill a filibuster.)
Or we could go the way of Socrates and the Iranian Ayatollahs’ Supreme Council: only approved canonical candidates and only approved laws may be considered. We have quite enough trouble reconciling ourselves to the Supreme Court, and what the Times’ Kristof in another mood called the the party of “No” in the Senate.
Or leaders could get smarter, tougher, closer to the people. Acknowledge their grievances, get their hands dirty, and fix the mess rather than denying it. One virtue of the Sanders campaign was how much it built on local insurgencies. In his forthcoming book on Richmond, California, Steve Early notes that Bernie showed up repeatedly to support a progressive coalition that has taken on Big Oil and real estate interests—and the coalition showed up for him. In Seattle, the socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant says “the Vermont senator’s candidacy has created ‘enormous momentum’ for change.” The link between movements concretely addressing the problems faced by “The Masses” on a local level and a leader advocating for their interests on the national stage is actually the opposite of what the new and old critics feared from the “revolt of the masses.”
Vital democratic movements are all around us. After two years of street protests and civil disobedience, Black Lives Matter has released a detailed policy platform, drafted collectively by some fifty organizations. And lively new faces are defending union teachers in Chicago and Massachusetts. Though the New York Times and the British elite don’t like him, Jeremy Corbyn has won a resounding reelection as head of the Labour Party, expanded its membership, and defied its centrist establishmentarians—though the party faces an uphill battle in the next general elections.
A thousand flowers are blooming all around us. Rather than denigrating the masses, our leaders should be working to address their concerns. The year of Donald Trump has shown all too clearly what happens when they don’t. With his veiled threats of violence at the polls or refusal of the election result—not to mention his threats to jail his opponent—Trump’s challenge to democracy is far more threatening than that posed by the sermonizing editorialists.
But they go hand in hand. Not for the first time the coming years will challenge egalitarian democrats to defend and extend their vision. A retreat to superior elitism will have exactly the wrong effect: it will deliver the grievances of ordinary people into the hand of the demagogues.
We have all met the democracy deniers earlier in our lives. They are the kids who took home bats and balls and jacks and jump ropes when they were losing. It’s kid stuff.
Robert J. S. Ross is a Research Professor of Sociology and the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University and the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.