Foreword: February 2017—Don't take democracy for granted

An elitist assault on people power is on the way. It must be resisted
January 19, 2017
A frail old lady walks into a church hall, marks a cross on a bit of paper, and a government falls. That is democracy’s promise—and, when you stop and think about it, what an improbable promise it seems. The ballot box has only ever been able to rule because it has been buttressed by all manner of supports: social, institutional, even ideological. As Barack Obama put it in his farewell address, the US constitution promises self-government, but it is “just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power.”

Obama very deliberately used his final oration to discuss democracy because the supports on which it rests have been slipping in many parts of the world. Illiberal populism is in the ascendant in many places, with Hungary—from where we report this month—being one instructive case. Indeed, although Obama was too graceful to mention it explicitly, democracy’s underpinnings also visibly slipped in the election that made Donald Trump his successor. Des King and Rogers Smith set out how Republican state governments used various tricks to discourage poorer and minority voters from casting their votes. The extra ID checks and reduced polling station access was, they say, on a scale which could have plausibly swung the result in some states. This is an almighty scandal, which will get worse if the Trump regime is disinclined to police federal voting rights. But it has not had the attention it should have had, as an even more eye-catching political assault arrived over the internet.

America’s combined intelligence agencies have baldly claimed that Vladimir Putin “ordered” a cyber-campaign to disrupt the world’s most important election. Luke Harding sets out how a Kremlin used to sculpting elections at home sought to penetrate institutions, campaigns, even state electoral committees—the official machinery of democracy itself. In 2016, the weak point proved to be the Democratic National Committee, with grave consequences for Hillary Clinton. Next time, some even fear that voting machines could be directly penetrated. And, make no mistake, there will be a next time. Moscow is taking a close interest in French and German elections this year, and other powers may soon be tempted to get in on this game. After all, if you can click for regime change, why bother with traditional hard or soft power?

Ultimately, the technical threat can be overcome if there is the political will to defend democracy. But is there? Here, I explain why an elitist assault on people power is on the way. With first Brexit, and then Trump, smart sorts find themselves in despair at the way that ugly gut political instincts nowadays seem to best cool heads at the polls. That’s understandable enough. But presuming some of us are more politically equal than others rapidly takes you down an ugly road. Besides, it’s not always so easy to outsmart the crowd. Cool heads can go awry, and there are—as John Kay argues—times when human irrationality is not so irrational after all.

Democracies always need reform and raging argument. They sometimes require rethinks, too. Above all, though, the democratic ideal needs to be defended.