All over the world, the voice of the people is rising up and being heard. Sick of being condescended to, voters are kicking out formerly-entrenched elite technocrats in acts of anger and frustration. That kind of desire for revolutionary change powered both the Sanders and Trump campaigns; it also resulted in Britain’s seismic vote to leave the EU.
The problem is that kicking out the professional politicians and the millionaires and billionaires and the privileged white urban coastal elite is the easy bit.
As George Washington tells our eponymous hero in Hamilton: "Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder."
Alexander Hamilton was about as elitist as they come. He thought the president should serve for life—and senators, too. He said that the "turbulent" population "seldom judge or determine right," and should be ruled by "men of the learned professions." America should be a democracy, sure—but for Hamilton, that didn't mean the people making the laws. It meant the people choosing the lawmakers, who, insulated from the masses, then acted in the country's broadest best interests.
Elites will always be with us. By definition, any new legislators brought in to represent the will of the people will be the new government, the new elite. In any representative democracy, a relatively small group of people does the work of running the country—and it’s very, very hard work indeed. If you don’t like the incumbents, that’s fine. But what’s dangerous is when the people defenestrate the old guard without giving much if any thought to who, or what, should replace them.
Which is exactly what we just saw in the UK.
When Britain voted to leave the European Union, the prime minister, quite rightly, immediately announced that he would resign, as everybody knew he would. In doing so, however, he created a power vacuum, which is the last thing that any country wants when it’s trying to extricate itself from a decades-old economic and political union. The Leave campaign was so busy scaremongering that it never stopped to think about what it would do if it actually won. No one in that campaign has a real plan, let alone a cadre of trade negotiators who can put together a deal which will protect Britain’s expats and exporters while saving money on EU fees and restricting immigration.
Who will be the next prime minister of the UK? One thing is for sure: it's going to be neither of the two main leaders of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Whoever it is will inherit this referendum result, more than owning it.
There’s a clear lesson here, for anybody looking to overthrow the status quo: If you’re fighting to replace an existing government, then you have to be ready to actually govern.
Democracy is not the act of voting; democracy is a system of government. That’s why referendums like the one we just saw in the UK are deeply undemocratic: they overrule the government, without being able to replace it. Referendums take a complex representative democracy with checks and balances, and replace it with something much less stable, and much more uncertain.
Most of the talk about Brexit over the past week has been focused on the risk of democracy. One single vote, in just one of 28 European countries, managed to wipe trillions of dollars of value off stock markets, send the currency markets out of control, and cause expected future global growth to lurch sickeningly downwards. Worse, it caused a major uptick in overt racism in the UK, and a broad loss of faith, among Britons like myself, that the UK will ever again be globally relevant.
But there’s a different type of risk at play here, too, which is the risk to democracy. A lot of people think that referendums are the highest and purest form of democracy, but that is deeply, importantly false. It confuses the how of democracy with the what.
In reality, referendums, in their various forms, are a betrayal of the highest goal of democracy, which is—to be clear—the best form of government yet devised. Government is not a sequence of yes/no decisions; rather, it’s an increasingly complex and difficult job done by millions of dedicated professionals around the world.
No stable government can ever be run by referendum, not even Switzerland. And when a government calls a referendum, that’s a clear abdication of its democratic responsibilities. When Martin Wolf said that the Brexit referendum was the most irresponsible act by a British government in his lifetime, he was right.
As Ken Rogoff says, modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances; most of them had them built in from the start. A liberal democracy protects the interests of minorities and avoids making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. That’s the essence of the Federalist Papers, and it’s even more true today than it was back then.
You’ve probably heard that Winston Churchill quote about how democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Well, I can tell you that he wasn’t talking about this kind of democracy. Churchill was a Hamiltonian democrat: a dyed-in-the-wool elitist who was pretty much the platonic ideal of a member of the ruling classes. His conception of democracy was very much tied up with noblesse oblige, and knowing best. (It's impossible to imagine him asking the people whether or not we should fight them on the beaches.)
I grew up in Britain’s parliamentary democracy, the oldest democracy in the world. When I was a kid, parliament would vote every year on a motion to reintroduce the death penalty. Every year, opinion polls would show that the public was strongly in favor of the idea, and every year, the motion would be defeated.
In fact, the death penalty was abolished before I was born. The year was 1965, and a good 80% of the country wanted to keep it, even if the question was posed along the lines of “would you support the death penalty even if it meant occasionally murdering an innocent man." But the House of Commons, the British parliament, voted, and the result wasn’t even close. There were 200 votes to abolish, and just 98 votes to retain it.
The fact that the House of Commons rebuked the majority of British citizens, over and over again, was not a failure of democracy. Rather, it was a triumph of a democratic system working miraculously well. Democracy doesn’t mean that the will of the majority simply gets imposed on the country. That’s the kind of tyranny we see in Turkey, not the kind of democracy which the people of western democracies have grown up admiring, participating in, and even giving their lives to defend.
Anybody who believes that black lives matter, or that love wins, understands that unless you protect the rights of the minority, you abrogate any right to claim democratic legitimacy.
Everything I grew up learning about British democracy—the oldest democracy in the world, the Mother of Parliaments—was that it was highly intermediated. Sure, we had elections, every four or five years. And those elections could have very significant consequences. But elections were always at heart a choice between parties.
In British democracy, and in U.S. democracy, too—at least until Trump came along—the parties represented different ways of running the country. The people had limited choices, and the parties themselves were very, very serious about the job of governing. Even when they were in opposition, they were still an important part of the democratic process. It was their job to run the country, and they approached that job as professionals, trying to do the best they could. To be sure, there was a certain amount of public input in terms of putting together the party platforms. But it was by no means the driving force, nor did it take place at any kind of ballot box. The kind of people who had input were exactly the kind of people who cared about the nitty-gritty of government.
After I moved to America in the late 1990s, I started paying a bit less attention to what was going on in the UK, until one day I saw that the prime minister, David Cameron, had allowed Scotland to decide in a referendum whether or not it could become an independent nation.
This made no sense to me at all. Cameron didn’t want Scotland to become independent. None of the main British parties wanted Scotland to become independent. If there was a free vote on Scottish independence in parliament, it would have overwhelmingly been against, and David Cameron would have led the vote for retaining the union. But even though he knew what was best for his country of 64 million people, and even though the rest of parliament agreed with him, Cameron decided that he would outsource the decision to about 3.5 million Scots.
Luckily, the Scottish vote broke the right way, although it was close. And everybody said “phew, I’m sure David Cameron learned his lesson there, you don’t call a referendum on something you don’t want to happen”. And so then, of course, David Cameron went and did exactly the same thing again.
He didn’t want Brexit. The opposition didn’t want Brexit. If you took the group of people who take government seriously, which includes MPs and the civil service and almost everybody who thought through the issues involved, they were overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit.
But the lesson that Cameron drew from the Scottish referendum was “hey, I’m lucky." And so he did an end run around all those people, all those experts, and went straight to the population.
In other words, once again, Cameron abandoned his job, which was to govern, and decided instead to just cross his fingers and hope that the people were going to get the right answer.
This hijacking of the technocrats by the people is by no means a purely British phenomenon. The people are calling the shots more and more, in a way that never used to happen.
Look at the American presidential primaries. They came down to Cruz vs. Trump for the Republicans, and Sanders vs. Clinton for the Democrats. Of the Final Four, three candidates were running on a platform of “we hate the ruling class and the people need to take back power”. Three of the final four were basically anti-technocrat, running against the ruling classes of both parties.
So here’s the problem. If you move from a democracy of the elites to a pure democracy of the will of the people, you will pay a very, very heavy price. Governing is a complicated and difficult job—it’s not something which can helpfully be outsourced to the masses, especially when the people often base their opinions on outright lies.
In the U.S., both parties have historically been quite good at governing. (Even George W. Bush appointed many super-smart technocrats who were qualified to carry out the requirements of their posts.) Fiorello LaGuardia, the Republican mayor of New York, once said that "there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage," and similarly, political appointees of both parties tend to work equally hard in the long-term best interests of the U.S. government.
There’s a reason for this. Namely, democracy doesn’t work unless you have a cadre of unelected technocrats running important institutions. At least, it doesn’t work in the way that created so much peace and prosperity over the past 70 years.
We don’t elect central bank governors, for instance, for very good reasons. We shouldn’t elect judges, or even appoint them on their political merits. Go to Europe, and you’ll find thousands of technocrats running all manner of obscure agencies, nearly all of whom are working in genuinely good faith to make the EU as successful as possible.
Now, we might be seeing the end of what you might call attenuated technocratic democracy. That flavor of democracy worked well in the second half of the 20th century, and it helped to build the countries which ended up winning the wars which dominated the first half. But if you look at how democracy is spreading around the world, you see countries like Brazil, or Greece, or Venezuela. Those countries have a much more direct, and much less successful, form of democracy. All of them were military dictatorships not so long ago, and that means their people have less faith in unelected institutions. And the less faith the people have in unelected technocrats, the less successful a democracy is going to be.
What we see happening in the UK and the U.S. is a rush of anti-elitism. It was the driving force behind the Scottish independence campaign, which basically boiled down to “we’re being run by a bunch of Londoners who don’t care about us”. (Which was true.) It was the driving force behind Britain’s Leave campaign, which was in large part “we’re being run by a bunch of Eurocrats who don’t care about us”. (Which was false.) Similarly, in the U.S., there are millions of Americans, both liberal and conservative, who are increasingly comfortable complaining about “crony capitalism.”
What we’re seeing is, basically, a post-crisis loss of faith in the ruling class. And it’s understandable. For the past 30 years or so, the ruling elite has managed to do much better for itself than for everybody else. And the result is that millions of people are voting for Jeremy Corbyn, or Nigel Farage, or Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump, none of whom are equipped to govern.
What happened in the UK can happen elsewhere, too. The UK has, after all, been one of the biggest winners from the European project. If this kind of referendum took place in France, tomorrow, or the Netherlands, or quite a few other countries, you could easily get the same result. Nationalist feelings have also been stirred not only in Scotland but also in Catalonia. The toothpaste is out of the tube, now, and I don’t think it can be pushed back in.
Then look more broadly still, at the way in which inequality is increasing in almost every country in the world, even if inequality between countries is coming down. That’s a really bad recipe, because politics is national, rather than global. In today’s world, in any given country, the majority has good reason to resent the governing elite.
That resentment is not misplaced. The elites have made grievous mistakes, and if as a result of those mistakes the people want them ousted, then they should be kicked out of government. That’s the essence of democracy, and it’s the reason why democracy is superior to an autocratic system where the government is unaccountable to the people. I am, however, saying that while kicking the bums out might be necessary, it is far from sufficient.
If you really believe in democracy, you don’t just kick out the elites. You take it upon yourself to put together a coherent alternative platform—one which will spread prosperity more evenly. All democracies need effective leadership, and plan beats no plan every time.
The largest generation in America, armed with new ideals, has the demographic power to seize the reins of government and implement a nobler, fairer society. President Obama has done his part. It is now up to the people to decide whether they will build on his constructive legacy, or whether, in their anger, they will be content to tear it down.