In this social media age, when every minutia of our lives can be voted thumbs up or down, the notion of there being “too much democracy” offends modern sensibilities. So conditioned are we to exalt individual choice that anyone who suggests certain policy decisions are best left to elected representatives (or — gasp — experts) risks the accusation of being a dread “elitist.”
But Britain’s election last week reminds us that there is, in fact, such a thing as too much democracy.
That some things should not be put up to popular vote — membership in the European Union, for instance — is a lesson you’d think they’d have learned in Britain. The tussle over Brexit has led to political and economic instability for months. And it will now be prolonged by the surprising results of Thursday’s snap general election, which wiped out Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party majority and resulted in a hung Parliament.
In 2013, when May’s predecessor, David Cameron, announced a national referendum on Britain’s EU membership, he hoped to settle a long-running intra-party feud over Europe. But the decision to put it up to a plebiscite was completely arbitrary. Of all issues, surely a country’s involvement in a multinational institution — a 40-year relationship comprising many complex arrangements that affect everything from fisheries to security cooperation — should not be determined by something so reductionist as a stay-or-go popular vote. Economists, trade experts, and security officials — not to mention parliamentarians (whose job it is to understand such matters more deeply than those who elect them) — all agreed that leaving the EU carried few discernible benefits, yet entailed great risks.
No matter. “This country has had enough of experts,” one pro-Leave politician infamously said on the eve of Brexit’s success.
“The people” — that expression beloved of Third World tyrants and increasingly adopted by leaders in advanced industrial democracies — got their say. The vote was purely advisory; Parliament could have ignored the result. When Britain’s High Court ruled that the government required parliamentary assent for a measure initiating Brexit, the tabloid Daily Mail excoriated the judges with a front-page headline screaming, “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.”
It’s not just the nationalist right that has a fetish for the masses. Until 2015, the Labor Party had chosen its leaders through an electoral college that gave equal weight to the votes of elected MPs, union members, and dues-paying party members. All that changed when the party decided to let anyone register and vote online for a one-time, 3-pound fee. In swarmed over 100,000 leftist activists, many of them members of fringe parties historically opposed to Labor. They in turn propelled the hard-left backbencher Jeremy Corbyn to power.
Beneath Corbyn’s avuncular exterior lies an extremist, one who, from the very beginning of his political career, has expressed alarming sympathy for his country’s enemies, from the fascist Argentinian junta to the Irish Republican Army to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That this man today has even a chance of becoming prime minister of the world’s fifth largest military power is clearly traceable to two instances of democratic overzealousness: the opening of the Labor leadership race to every Tom, Dick and Harry, as well as May’s unnecessary and opportunistic decision to call a snap election. Like Cameron’s Brexit referendum, which was disguised as serving the national interest even though its origins lay in partisan politics, May’s desire for a “mandate” from “the people” will have chaotic consequences.
The United States, and California especially, is no stranger to this plebiscitary obsession. Golden Staters waste a great deal of time and money voting on everything from plastic bags to requiring condoms on porn sets. Such democratic mania creates democratic exhaustion, discouraging citizens from participating in the elections that truly matter. In the recent special congressional election to replace Xavier Becerra, for instance, just over 10% of registered voters turned out.
This is a shame, because we live in a representative democracy, not a pure one. In that vein, it’s worth revisiting the words of Edmund Burke, the British MP whose elegantly brief “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” in 1774 remains the finest elucidation of republican government ever written. While it “ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents,” Burke ultimately believed that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Amidst the global populist insurgency, our duly elected representatives should depend more upon their own judgment and worry less about the uninformed opinion of the masses.
James Kirchick is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.” He is filling in for Doyle McManus.