Posts Tagged ‘anti-democratic elites’

“Democracy, as I understand it, broadly refers to participation in political power by the governed. A state is democratic to the extent that the people have a say in its operations, a workplace is democratic to the extent that workers have some control over management decisions. (Almost no workplaces are democratic.) Democracy is also often held to be what is known as “a good thing,” on the theory that people probably deserve to be part of the decision-making processes that affect important aspects of their lives. When decisions are made by unaccountable forces, without popular input, and people are subjected to the will of the state without having any control over it, this is called “authoritarianism.” It is commonly considered to be worse than democracy, and has a somewhat dubious track record.

I hope you’ll excuse the patronizing civics lecture. I wouldn’t have thought it necessary. But, there are, surprisingly enough, a number of people who do not subscribe to the belief that democracy is good. In fact, they believe we may even have too much of it already, and should probably cut back. The populace just has too much of a say in things, and must have its influence curtailed. Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution condemn the “cult of democratization” that gives voice to the “ignorance and irrationalityof voters. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Kirchick concluded that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a “reminder of the perils of too much democracy,” and worries that about increasing use of the phrase “the people,” “that expression beloved of Third World tyrants and increasingly adopted by leaders in advanced industrial democracies” (also, we should note, beloved of James Madison). Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new conservative affirmative action hire, worried about the problem of “reckless voters” being seduced by dangerous populists. A libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan, has written an entire book called Against Democracy.

Obviously, ever since there has been democracy, there have been those who want to get rid of it. Plato saw in it the seeds of despotism, and as Noam Chomsky has often pointed out, there is a long antidemocratic tradition in American political thought. This runs from the Founders’ desire to check popular control to Walter Lippmann’s belief that “the public must be put in its place” and the “bewildered herd” ought to be kept “spectators” rather than participants, a sentiment reiterated in the Trilateral Commission’s conclusion that democracy needed moderating, because “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Wherever there is concentrated power and wealth, those who possess them will naturally wish to ensure a lack of interference from those who do not possess them.

But it’s somewhat extraordinary just how open some commentators are in their embrace of elitism and their disdain for the participation of ordinary people in the political process. Brennan’s Against Democracy advocates “epistocracy,” the rule of the knowledgeable, asking why a majority of the stupid “should be allowed to impose its incompetent governance” on a smart minority. Business Insider’s Josh Barro, who has proudly embraced elitism, says that “the public should be kept away from policymaking.” James Traub, in a Foreign Policy article entitled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” said that “mindlessly angry” voters of left and right are undermining those who believe in “reality”: “Did I say ‘ignorant’? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that ‘elitist’? Maybe it is. Daniel Bell comes to the extreme conclusion that “the uncomfortable truth is that the best (perhaps only) way to reduce the political influence of ignorant voters is to deprive them of the vote.”

Each of these writers insists that their position is driven by empirical evidence, showing that voters are “objectively” bad at making decisions. Their preferences are incoherent (the classic “lower taxes with more government services” demand) and their knowledge of policy is, on average, negligible. There’s a lot of the well-worn Jay Leno-type “X% of voters can’t find the U.S. on a map” type material. Then there’s a lot of use of the word “populism” as a pejorative, as if anything that appeals to large numbers of people is inherently suspect.

But, and this should hardly need to be said, the fact that you don’t like something does not make it “objectively” bad. James Kirchick, for example, bases his case that there is “too much democracy” on the fact that Jeremy Corbyn did well in the British election. But he doesn’t actually make an argument for why voters shouldn’t be allowed to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. He just says that he doesn’t like Corbyn (for a series of bizarre reasons including Corbyn’s alleged enthusiasm for Argentine fascism), and therefore Corbyn shouldn’t have been one of the available options. The people have made the wrong decision, thus they shouldn’t have been allowed to decide at all. (Luke Savage has previously written about how the elite hatred of democracy often occurs when democracy seems to be tending toward left-wing policies like single-payer health care.)

Of course, this logic, if accepted, doesn’t just justify curtailing democracy slightly. It’s a call to eliminate it altogether. After all, if people are only given choices when they make the choices you want them to make, this isn’t some kind of “partial” democracy. It just leads to fraudulent plebiscites of the kind run by dictators, where you accept the vote if you agree with it and discard it if you don’t. Actual democracy means—and again, I can’t believe I have to say this—that people have the freedom to make decisions that you think are bad. “This was a bad choice” is only a case for taking away the freedom to choose if we don’t believe in the freedom to choose to begin with.

Many of the arguments against democracy depend on carefully fudging important distinctions, or attacking irrelevant positions. “Professional and specialist decision-making is essential, and those who demonize it as elitist or anti-democratic can offer no plausible alternative to it,” say Wittes and Rauch. Since nobody actually advocates that there should be no “specialist decision-making” in any part of the government, the point is misleading and irrelevant. Likewise, Lee Drutman says we must give up “on the deeply held belief that American democracy can be solved by giving citizens more opportunities to participate by emailing Congress or voting, and an end to thinking all would be better if more people would just ‘get informed on the issues.’” But this isn’t a deeply held belief at all; hardly anyone holds it. Who honestly thinks that “emailing Congress” would “solve democracy” or that “all would be better” if people were a little more informed? Nobody. Those who advance these positions are dishonestly caricaturing the democratic position, yet still arguing that “epistocrats” like themselves should be entrusted with unaccountable power. That’s one of the contradictions with the pro-“elitist” position: such people argue that they know what people want better than the people know it themselves, but they’re unwilling to actually try to fair-mindedly understand what people say they want.

This is a serious problem with the defense of elites: it assumes that there are no rational reasons why people dislike being ruled by a small political class, and that there is no legitimate critique to be made of the policy consensus adopted by that class. Yet a huge explanation for the rise of populism is precisely that people do not like the world the elites have made: a world in which they live precarious economic existences under a grossly unequal system. To believe that being angry about this is “mindless” is to assume the conclusion one is supposed to prove: being dissatisfied must be irrational, because elites must make good choices, because the choices made by elites are good by definition. Never do they wonder whether, instead of “expertise” and “merit” being the criteria by which people come to inhabit the halls of power, it might be something else (say, social class).

In their paper, Wittes and Rauch offer an extremely telling look at what leaving more things to elites would look like. Wittes and Rauch openly advocate the return of corruption and smoke-filled rooms, saying that “the curtailment of backroom horse-trading and pork-barrel spending stripped legislators of important tools to make deals and build coalitions.” They believe that voters should have less of a role in party primaries, since the current system “empower[s] disruptive and extreme outsiders at the expense of more compromise-minded party regulars.” (Democratic Party regulars, of course, have long had an extraordinary disproportionate amount of nominating power through the superdelegate system, but apparently Wittes and Rauch think even this is not exclusive enough.) They lament that, even though Donald Trump was manifestly unqualified to be president, the Electoral College could “never seriously conside[r] performing its original failsafe function” to prevent him from taking office, since this would be seen as some kind of impingement on voter sovereignty.

As an example of a government institution that functions without popular oversight, Wittes and Rauch cite the intelligence agencies. They believe that the history of the CIA and NSA, whose policies are made without any substantive input from the public, shows that many parts of government are best left to experts. Of course, they couldn’t really have chosen a worse example. The story of these two agencies is a story of everything that goes wrong when parts of the government are released from the constraints of transparency and popular oversight. As Tim Weiner documents in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, the agency’s track record is an appalling litany of international crime and financial mismanagement. The agency has squandered billions of dollars on projects of dubious worth, and has engaged repeatedly in illegal subversion of foreign governments, often without authorization from the president or Congress (whom they have lied to). The CIA has given arms to terrorists, tried to assassinate foreign heads of state, collaborated with Nazi war criminals, tortured people at black sites (sometimes to death), and fabricated intelligence. What’s more, precisely because oversight is left to “experts” instead of the public, there has been almost no accountability as the CIA has violated law after law (both international and domestic, including spying on American citizens in direct violation of its charter). Likewise with the NSA: Wittes and Rauch cite the NSA’s reforms after Edward Snowden’s revelations as evidence that it adapts to public opinion. But the Snowden story actually illustrates the core of the problem: because nothing the NSA does is ever subject to public scrutiny, a single individual had to take illegal action in order to bring the agency’s behavior to light. Relying on individuals to break the law is not a workable way of ensuring accountability. Wittes and Rauch think the “success” of the intelligence establishment shows that insular, invisible government works. In fact, the intelligence establishment is a case study in the failures and atrocities that result when small groups of people are christened “elites,” handed large sums of cash and total legal impunity, and allowed to go forth and do as they please.”

– Nathan J. Robinson, “Democracy: Probably A Good Thing,Current Affairs. June 27, 2017.

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