The ballot box is under pressure in many parts of the world, as two new books attest. After the electoral shocks of 2016, stand by for a new intellectual assaultby Tom Clark / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few days after 9/11, one of my more excitable friends said: “very soon, we’ll be discussing whether we can justify torture.” I put it down to one war film too many. But before long, it turned out he was right. The CIA asked George W Bush about “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and he replied “damn right.” Before long we had all heard about waterboarding, or tormento del agua—as the Spanish Inquisition had called it. A handful of suicidal fanatics on four aeroplanes had proved capable not only of felling two towers from the New York skyline, but also of uprooting one of the most basic ground rules of our civilisation.
The right shock can turn the unthinkable into the actual with frightening speed. In the wake of the stunning Brexit vote, and especially since Donald Trump’s unintelligible victory, respectable opinion is beginning to call into question the most fundamental of our political principles: democracy. Since the end of the Second World War, a shared deference to the collective will, as expressed in occasional elections, defined the political mainstream in the west—question it, and you consigned yourself to the crankish fringes. But I was on a plane recently with copies of two books on my knee—David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections and Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy—which caught the eye of the 50-something public-sector accountant beside me. She seemed like the embodiment of Middle England, not the sort to thrust opinions on strangers. Nonetheless she blurted out: “Against democracy? With the way things are going, I think that sounds like a very good idea.”
She is not alone. Intellectuals are beginning to discuss the right to vote as if it is something to be handled with wariness, if not disdain. Within hours of November’s election result, an emotional David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker, despaired that “the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness.” He reminded readers of George Orwell’s warning that “public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate.” In the UK, a publication on the opposite end of the political spectrum—the Spectator—ran a piece which commented that “one of the reasons many people are sceptical about democracy is because they’re right to be.” A worried Barack Obama was moved to dedicate his farewell presidential address to the dangers facing democracy as he sees them—inequality that depresses the poor and empowers the rich, racial division and complacency. These threats, he said in Chicago in January, “pose a danger… more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile.” He invoked George Washington who warned that self-government must always be guarded with “jealous anxiety.”