Could pop­ulism ac­tu­ally be good for democ­racy?

The Guardian Australia - - The Long Read - James Miller

Ev­ery­one seems to agree that democ­racy is un­der at­tack. What is sur­pris­ing is how many of its usual friends have come to fear democ­racy it­self – or per­haps to fear that a coun­try’s peo­ple, too in­flamed by nar­row pas­sions, risk turn­ing pol­i­tics into a dis­taste­ful blood sport, pit­ting The Peo­ple vs Democ­racy, in the star­tling words of one re­cent book ti­tle.

Ob­servers have un­der­stand­able qualms about po­lit­i­cal pro­grammes that are alarm­ingly il­lib­eral, yet ob­vi­ously demo­cratic, in that most cit­i­zens sup­port them. In Poland and Hun­gary, demo­crat­i­cally elected rul­ing par­ties at­tack Mus­lim mi­grants for un­der­min­ing Chris­tian iden­tity. In the Philip­pines, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte rules with an iron fist, pledg­ing to put drug push­ers in fu­neral par­lours, not pris­ons.

Mod­ern democ­ra­cies all rest on a claim of pop­u­lar sovereignty – the propo­si­tion that all le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ments grow out of the power of a peo­ple, and in some way are sub­ject to its will. Yet when a large ma­jor­ity of a coun­try’s peo­ple ve­he­mently sup­ports poli­cies a critic finds ab­hor­rent, many lib­er­als, even avowed democrats, re­coil in hor­ror.

Thus arises the pos­si­bil­ity of a painful para­dox: that “democ­ra­cies end when they are too demo­cratic”. So con­cluded a 2016 piece by the US po­lit­i­cal ob­server An­drew Sul­li­van, res­ur­rect­ing an ar­gu­ment made two gen­er­a­tions ear­lier by Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton (in a 1975 re­port called The Cri­sis of Democ­racy, is­sued in the wake of the in­ter­na­tional stu­dent re­volts of the 1960s).

Even the left­wing scholar Chan­tal Mouffe, who has long cham­pi­oned raw pop­ulist con­flict as the essence of “rad­i­cal democ­racy”, seems dis­traught at cur­rent events. “Democ­racy that is in good work­ing or­der – with con­flict, but where peo­ple ac­cept the ex­is­tence of their ad­ver­saries – is not easy to re-es­tab­lish,” she re­cently told an in­ter­viewer, ges­tur­ing im­plic­itly to­ward tol­er­ance, one of the most jeop­ar­dised lib­eral norms in the cur­rent con­text: “I’m not that op­ti­mistic.”

Cur­rent af­fairs may seem es­pe­cially bleak, but fears about democ­racy are noth­ing new. At the zenith of di­rect democ­racy in an­cient Athens, in the fifth cen­tury BC, one critic called it a “patent ab­sur­dity” – and so it seemed to most po­lit­i­cal ex­perts from Aris­to­tle to Ed­mund Burke, who con­sid­ered democ­racy “the most shame­less thing in the world”. As the Amer­i­can found­ing fa­ther John Adams warned, “there never was a democ­racy yet that did not com­mit sui­cide”.

For al­most 2,000 years, most western po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists agreed with Aris­to­tle, Burke and Adams: no­body could imag­ine se­ri­ously ad­vo­cat­ing democ­racy as an ideal form of gov­ern­ment. It was only at the end of the 18th cen­tury that democ­racy reap­peared as a mod­ern po­lit­i­cal ideal, dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

Ever since, pop­u­lar in­sur­rec­tions and re­volts in the name of democ­racy have be­come a re­cur­rent fea­ture of global pol­i­tics. It needs to be stressed: these re­volts are not an un­for­tu­nate blem­ish on the peace­ful for­ward march to­ward a more just so­ci­ety; they form the heart and soul of mod­ern democ­racy as a liv­ing re­al­ity.

It is a fa­mil­iar story: out of the blue, it seems, a crowd pours into a city square or gath­ers at a barn­storm­ing rally held by a spell­bind­ing or­a­tor, to protest against hated in­sti­tu­tions, to ex­press rage at the be­tray­als of the rul­ing class, to seize con­trol of pub­lic spa­ces. To la­bel these fre­quently dis­qui­et­ing mo­ments of col­lec­tive free­dom “pop­ulist”, in a pe­jo­ra­tive sense, is to mis­un­der­stand a con­sti­tu­tive fea­ture of the mod­ern demo­cratic project.

Yet these episodes of col­lec­tive self­asser­tion are in­vari­ably fleet­ing, and of­ten pro­voke a po­lit­i­cal back­lash in turn. The po­lit­i­cal dis­or­der they cre­ate stands in ten­sion with the need for a more sta­ble, peace­ful form of col­lec­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion. That is one rea­son why many mod­ern democrats have tried to cre­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions that can – through lib­eral pro­tec­tions for the free­dom of re­li­gion, and of the press, and the civil rights of mi­nori­ties – both ex­press, and tame, the will of a sov­er­eign peo­ple.

Thus the great French philoso­pher Con­dorcet in 1793 pro­posed cre­at­ing a new, in­di­rect form of self-rule, link­ing lo­cal as­sem­blies to a na­tional gov­ern­ment. “By in­graft­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion upon democ­racy,” as Con­dorcet’s friend Tom Paine put it, the peo­ple could ex­er­cise their power both di­rectly, in lo­cal as­sem­blies, and in­di­rectly, by pro­vi­sion­ally en­trust­ing some of their pow­ers to elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Un­der the pres­sure of events, an­other ar­dent French demo­crat, Robe­spierre, went fur­ther and de­fended the need, amid a civil war, for a tem­po­rary dic­ta­tor­ship – pre­cisely to pre­serve the pos­si­bil­ity of build­ing a more en­dur­ing form of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, once its en­e­mies had been de­feated and law and or­der could be re­stored.

But there was a prob­lem with these ef­forts to es­tab­lish a mod­ern democ­racy at scale. Es­pe­cially in a large na­tion such as France or the US, rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions – and, even worse, dic­ta­to­rial regimes claim­ing a pop­u­lar man­date – in­evitably risk frus­trat­ing any­one hop­ing to play a more di­rect role in po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

This means that the demo­cratic project, both an­cient and mod­ern, is in­her­ently un­sta­ble. The mod­ern prom­ise of pop­u­lar sovereignty, re­peat­edly frus­trated, pro­duces re­cur­rent ef­forts at as­sert­ing the col­lec­tive power of a peo­ple. If ob­servers like the ap­par­ent re­sult of such an ef­fort, they may hail it as a re­nais­sance of the demo­cratic spirit; if they do not, they are li­able to dis­miss these episodes of col­lec­tive self-as­ser­tion as mob rule, or pop­ulism run amok.

No mat­ter. Even though the post­sec­ond world war con­sen­sus over the mean­ing and value of lib­eral demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions seems more frag­ile than ever – polls show that trust in elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives has rarely been lower – democ­racy as fu­ri­ous dis­sent flour­ishes, in vivid and ve­he­ment out­bursts of anger at re­mote elites and shad­owy en­e­mies.


It is im­por­tant to sharply dis­tin­guish democ­racy from lib­er­al­ism – two value-laden words that, in re­cent years, have be­come al­most hope­lessly con­flated and con­fused, es­pe­cially in the work of so­cial sci­en­tists and western po­lit­i­cal pun­dits who fret that western lib­eral democ­racy, once the “promised land”, has be­come “the en­emy” in places like Hun­gary.

Un­like democ­racy, “lib­er­al­ism” is a rel­a­tively late ad­di­tion to our po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con. In Europe, the word first came into wide us­age in the 19th cen­tury by var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists and states­men in France, Ger­many and Italy, united in their hor­ror at the blood­shed of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, but oth­er­wise var­ied in their pos­i­tive views.

Mod­ern democ­racy also has no nec­es­sary con­nec­tion to lib­er­al­ism. The Protes­tant cham­pi­ons of pop­u­lar sovereignty in the 16th cen­tury sum­moned it for the ex­press pur­pose of de­thron­ing rulers with whose re­li­gious views they dis­agreed: “It was not re­li­gious lib­erty they sought, but the elim­i­na­tion of wrong re­li­gions,” as the his­to­rian Ed­mund Mor­gan wrote in 1988.

What is clear to­day is that while democ­racy may be widely ad­mired, it is, in its lib­eral form, an em­bat­tled ide­ol­ogy. As the so­cial sci­en­tist Wil­liam Gal­ston has sharply ob­served: “Few lead­ers and move­ments in the west dare to chal­lenge the idea of democ­racy it­self. Not so for lib­er­al­ism, which has come un­der mount­ing at­tack.” One re­sult has been the rise of pop­u­lar move­ments in which a ma­jor­ity of or­di­nary cit­i­zens has em­braced a nar­row con­cep­tion of sol­i­dar­ity and ral­lied around a leader who claims to em­body the will of such a closed com­mu­nity.

An­other re­sult has been a resur­gence of tra­di­tional anx­i­eties, no­tably in the UK and the US, about democ­racy and its ob­vi­ous dan­gers. Af­ter all, why should we en­trust the fate of the Earth to large num­bers of or­di­nary cit­i­zens fool­ish enough to sup­port self-de­struc­tive poli­cies and man­i­festly un­fit lead­ers? Most an­cient au­thor­i­ties re­viled democ­racy in Athens. Plato, per­haps the most widely ad­mired writer in an­tiq­uity, and some­one who lived un­der demo­cratic rule in the fourth cen­tury, crit­i­cised the false be­liefs that pre­vailed in a city gov­erned by pub­lic opin­ion rather than true knowl­edge, and he de­plored the “in­so­lence, an­ar­chy, waste­ful­ness, and shame­less­ness” that those false be­liefs fa­cil­i­tated. The his­to­rian Thucy­dides, an­other cit­i­zen of demo­cratic Athens, who chron­i­cled the Pelo­pon­nesian War with Sparta that ended with the de­feat of Athens in 404, essen­tially blamed the power of the or­di­nary peo­ple of Athens, and their sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to ma­nip­u­la­tion by men­da­cious or­a­tors, for this cat­a­strophic out­come.

Thanks to such cri­tiques – as well as sub­se­quent po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, from the Mace­do­nian em­pire of Alexan­der the Great to mod­ern Euro­pean monar­chies claim­ing a divine right to rule – for a long time no­body much cared about the Athe­nian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, or about democ­racy as a form of gov­ern­ment.

The Athe­nian democ­racy cer­tainly doesn’t mea­sure up by mod­ern lib­eral stan­dards: at its zenith in the fifth and fourth cen­turies BC, it did not choose most of its gov­ern­ment by hold­ing elec­tions; nor did it pro­tect the hu­man rights of its cit­i­zens, as it lacked any no­tion of such rights; nor were the fun­da­men­tal pow­ers of the Athe­nian po­lis en­shrined in a com­pre­hen­sive writ­ten doc­u­ment.

What Athens did have is a com­mu­nity in which ev­ery cit­i­zen was ex­pected to par­tic­i­pate in the po­lit­i­cal life of the city – and far more ac­tively than in any mod­ern democ­racy. At the height of democ­racy in Athens, an assem­bly of cit­i­zens, open to all, met at least 40 times a year. All po­lit­i­cal of­fices were held by or­di­nary cit­i­zens, ran­domly se­lected, and all le­gal judg­ments in the city’s courts were reached by large ju­ries of or­di­nary cit­i­zens, sim­i­larly se­lected. And all this hap­pened in a com­par­a­tively large com­mer­cial city that dom­i­nated the east­ern Mediter­ranean world for nearly two cen­turies.

These in­sti­tu­tions were the re­sult of a pop­u­lar upris­ing in 508BC, against Spar­tan troops who had seized the Acrop­o­lis. In­stead of ac­qui­esc­ing in a for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion, the or­di­nary cit­i­zens of Athens spon­ta­neously con­verged on the Acrop­o­lis and sur­rounded the Spar­tan army. It took only three days to drive the Spar­tans from the city – which sug­gests the pop­u­lar upris­ing had num­bers and force on its side.

The re­sult was a sweep­ing trans­for­ma­tion of Athe­nian in­sti­tu­tions and the sub­se­quent ap­pear­ance, for the first time in his­tory, of “democ­racy”, as a word to de­scribe a regime where power (kratos) was in the hands of or­di­nary peo­ple (demos). Hence­forth all leg­is­la­tion in Athens had to be val­i­dated in the assem­bly, which was now open to all cit­i­zens, no mat­ter how poor. Even more im­por­tant was the use of a lot­tery to staff most city of­fices and ju­ries, which nul­li­fied the cor­rupt­ing ad­van­tages con­ferred in elec­tions by wealth and fam­ily promi­nence.

By em­pow­er­ing an im­pov­er­ished mul­ti­tude in this man­ner, crit­ics charged, the assem­bly and demo­cratic or­a­tors had in fact cre­ated a new kind of tyranny – a col­lec­tive tyranny of the ma­jor­ity, a de facto wel­fare state that doled out money and pa­tron­age to the or­di­nary cit­i­zens who manned the im­pe­rial fleet and staffed the city’s courts and of­fices.

For Plato, the key prob­lem was epis­te­mo­log­i­cal: most peo­ple – “the many” – had no knowl­edge of truth and no clear pat­tern of jus­tice in their minds. Democ­racy cor­rupted even in­tel­li­gent cit­i­zens by lead­ing them to dumb down their poli­cies in or­der to pan­der to ig­no­rant crowds. When they gath­ered “in as­sem­blies, courts, the­atres, army camps, or any other com­mon meet­ing of a mul­ti­tude,” the Athe­nian demos, Plato re­ports, would “blame some of the things said or done, and praise oth­ers, both in ex­cess, shout­ing and clap­ping; and be­sides, the rocks and the very place sur­round­ing them echo and re­dou­ble the uproar of praise and blame.”


Af­ter the eclipse of di­rect self-rule in the an­cient world, the idea of democ­racy sur­vived, barely. In the west, it was mainly used as a term of art, de­ployed by le­gal schol­ars, gen­er­ally in two con­tra­dic­tory us­ages. On the one hand, democ­racy be­came a vir­tual syn­onym for vi­o­lent an­ar­chy: the Ro­man his­to­rian Poly­bius said “the li­cense and law­less­ness” of democ­racy in­evitably “pro­duces mob rule”, to com­plete a cy­cle through which all gov­ern­ments had to pass, go­ing from best (monar­chy) to worst (democ­racy, and then mob rule).

On the other hand, Poly­bius also ar­gued that democ­racy had a po­ten­tially con­struc­tive role to play. He sug­gested that the most durable po­lit­i­cal regime would be a repub­lic that com­bined the three pure forms of gov­ern­ment (monar­chy, aris­toc­racy and democ­racy) into in­ter­linked branches that would check and bal­ance each other, en­abling a well-or­dered repub­lic to nav­i­gate the winds of time “like a well-trimmed boat”.

In the cen­turies that fol­lowed, a tra­di­tion of repub­li­can thought emerged, based on the ex­am­ple of an­cient Rome. Dur­ing the Re­nais­sance, some the­o­rists work­ing within the repub­li­can tra­di­tion cau­tiously sug­gested that or­di­nary peo­ple might have an es­pe­cially use­ful role to play, es­pe­cially as watch­dogs and soldiers. Be­cause they were jeal­ous of their free­dom, they would be vig­i­lant spec­ta­tors of ex­ec­u­tive and ad­min­is­tra­tive con­duct, on guard against malfea­sance. The very pas­sions of the peo­ple, which could gen­er­ate a cer­tain esprit de corps, could also be

har­nessed for the en­hance­ment of a repub­lic’s mil­i­tary might. Machi­avelli, dreaming of a resur­gence of Ital­ian glory in the Re­nais­sance, was eager to ex­ploit pop­u­lar ar­dour: “The best armies are those of armed peo­ples,” rather than paid mer­ce­nar­ies.

At the same time, repub­li­can writ­ers tended to agree that the chief dan­ger to a mixed con­sti­tu­tion came from the demo­cratic el­e­ment, be­cause of its ten­dency to de­gen­er­ate into vi­o­lence and an­ar­chy. Machi­avelli warned that the peo­ple, left to their own de­vices, were “pro­mot­ers of li­cense”. Al­ger­non Sid­ney, an English repub­li­can be­headed for ex­press­ing trea­sonous views in 1683, de­nied be­ing a pro­po­nent of pure democ­racy. So did the En­light­en­ment philoso­pher Mon­tesquieu, who point­edly wor­ried about the “spirit of ex­treme equal­ity” he as­sumed was typ­i­cal of democ­ra­cies. Even in the US, in the wake of a war against colo­nial rule by a dis­tant monarch and amid ex­pan­sive new as­ser­tions of the power of the peo­ple, po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists han­dled the idea of democ­racy gin­gerly, if they ac­knowl­edged it at all.

In this con­text, the po­lit­i­cal writ­ings of Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau came as a shock. The key was the au­da­cious way he re­de­fined sovereignty in terms of democ­racy. Be­fore Rousseau, “sovereignty” had im­plied brute force, em­pire and the abil­ity to com­mand. Af­ter him, it de­fined not the do­min­ion of monar­chs, but the le­git­i­mate power of a peo­ple. In the wake of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, he came to be seen as a prophet, for writ­ings such as this, from Emile, first pub­lished in 1763: “The great be­come small, the rich be­come poor, the monarch be­comes sub­ject; are the blows of fate so rare that you can count on be­ing ex­empted from them? We are ap­proach­ing the state of cri­sis and the cen­tury of rev­o­lu­tions.”

By the sum­mer of 1792, mil­i­tants in­spired by Rousseau were ar­gu­ing that po­lit­i­cal power, prop­erly un­der­stood, be­longed nei­ther to a king, nor to a dis­tant body of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, but rather to the peo­ple as­sem­bled in their lo­cal neigh­bour­hoods, where they could dis­cuss their shared fate face to face. Events came to a head on 10 Au­gust 1792, when a ma­jor­ity of these lo­cal as­sem­blies re­solved that only an armed re­volt would as­sure that the French peo­ple were truly sov­er­eign. At mid­night, they seized the town hall; in the morn­ing they as­saulted the king’s quar­ters at the Tui­leries Palace, al­though by then he and his fam­ily had fled for their lives.

As one wit­ness to the vi­o­lence that day later re­called: “I re­mained ... un­til four o’clock in the af­ter­noon, hav­ing be­fore my eyes a view of all the hor­rors that were be­ing per­pe­trated. Some of the men were still con­tin­u­ing the slaugh­ter; oth­ers were cut­ting off the heads of those al­ready slain; the women, lost to all sense of shame, were com­mit­ting the most in­de­cent mu­ti­la­tions on the dead bod­ies from which they tore pieces of flesh and car­ried them off in tri­umph ... To­ward evening I took the road to Ver­sailles ... [and] crossed the Pont Louis Seize, which was cov­ered with the naked car­casses of men al­ready in a state of pu­tre­fac­tion from the in­tense heat of the weather.”

The most rad­i­cally demo­cratic phase of the French Rev­o­lu­tion thus be­gan with a car­ni­val of atroc­i­ties. But the vi­o­lence cracked open a new world of po­lit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. For the first time since an­cient Athens, di­rect democ­racy had be­come a con­crete, col­lec­tive goal – at least in the minds of the Parisian com­mon­ers stream­ing through the streets with their mus­kets and pikes.

This upris­ing led to the dis­so­lu­tion of the French Na­tional Assem­bly, the con­ven­ing of a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion and the pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion of the king af­ter a show trial. The con­ven­tion en­abled Con­dorcet to draft the world’s first demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion. But it was never im­ple­mented – a Ja­cobin coup forced Con­dorcet into hid­ing, and led to a reign of ter­ror, which the Ja­cobin leader, Robe­spierre, ar­gued was nec­es­sary to de­fend the nascent democ­racy from its many foes, both for­eign and French.

In the au­tumn of 1793, the new repub­lic’s con­scripts, on or­ders from Paris, em­barked on a mur­der­ous ram­page in the Vendée that killed some 250,000 peo­ple, most of them in­no­cent men, women and chil­dren. The French Rev­o­lu­tion had res­ur­rected the idea of democ­racy – and pro­duced a hecatomb on a grand scale.

“Of this I am cer­tain,” Burke de­clared, “that in a democ­racy, the ma­jor­ity of the cit­i­zens is ca­pa­ble of ex­er­cis­ing the most cruel op­pres­sions upon the mi­nor­ity.” In the af­ter­math of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, his fears were widely shared by con­ser­va­tives and self-de­scribed “lib­er­als”.


Fear­ful of armed crowds and the pos­si­bil­ity of mob rule, the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion had been ex­plic­itly de­signed to em­power not or­di­nary cit­i­zens, but a “nat­u­ral aris­toc­racy”. As Ben­jamin Rush, a sig­na­tory of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, ex­plained: “All power is de­rived from the peo­ple” – but this power is not wielded by the peo­ple: “They pos­sess it only on the days of their elec­tions. Af­ter this, it is prop­erty of their rulers, nor can they ex­er­cise or re­sume it, un­less it is abused.”

To this day, the US re­mains a deeply flawed democ­racy. It still has an elec­toral col­lege de­signed to thwart ma­jori­ties. It still has a se­nate that guar­an­tees in­equal­ity of po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It still is the scene of pitched strug­gles over the right to vote.

Yet, this pri­mor­dial Amer­i­can prej­u­dice against democ­racy was al­most in­stantly trans­formed by an equally pas­sion­ate up­welling of Amer­i­can en­thu­si­asm for democ­racy, in the wake of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Among the en­thu­si­asts was Thomas Jef­fer­son, who, in 1800, brought his Demo­crat­icRepub­li­can party to power, and in this way also brought democ­racy – at least as a word – into the Amer­i­can lex­i­con.

A gen­er­a­tion later, An­drew Jack­son, the first great Amer­i­can demo­cratic leader – or, dem­a­gogue, to use the an­cient Greek term of art for such a leader – be­came the US’s first plebisc­i­tary pres­i­dent, im­bued with im­pe­rial pre­rog­a­tives in the eyes of his most ar­dent sup­port­ers. He was, af­ter all, the only rep­re­sen­ta­tive nom­i­nally elected by all the na­tion’s peo­ple (un­less, of course, they were women, slaves or Na­tive Amer­i­cans – democ­racy in Amer­ica in Jack­son’s day was only the white man’s busi­ness).

Jack­son tried, and failed, to elim­i­nate the elec­toral col­lege. Such en­dur­ing lim­its to democ­racy in the US were, para­dox­i­cally, one rea­son why it was the first coun­try to give birth to pop­ulism, both as a word and as a phe­nom­e­non. From 1892 till 1896, a Peo­ple’s Party played a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal role in some parts of the US.

At roughly the same time, Woodrow Wil­son, ar­guably the coun­try’s most ar­dent cham­pion of democ­racy, crit­i­cised the pop­ulist move­ment and of­fered, in­stead, a new vi­sion of the demo­cratic sys­tem. A pi­o­neer­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who would be­come the 28th pres­i­dent, Wil­son pon­dered deeply the mean­ing of democ­racy, not just in the US, but in world his­tory, where it marked in his view the high­est stage of hu­man evo­lu­tion. In his pri­vate pa­pers, af­ter re­ject­ing Euro­pean con­cep­tions of democ­racy as prim­i­tive, and cor­rupted by class con­flict, he de­fined mod­ern democ­racy “most briefly” as “gov­ern­ment by pop­u­lar opin­ion”.

As Wil­son con­cedes al­most in pass­ing, democ­racy in prac­tice will al­ways in­volve “the many led by the few: the minds of the few dis­ci­plined by per­suad­ing, and masses of men schooled and di­rected by be­ing per­suaded”. In other words, Wil­son’s vi­sion of sel­f­rule is closer to Adams’s “nat­u­ral aris­toc­racy” than the pop­u­lar sovereignty the French revo­lu­tion­ar­ies and Amer­i­can pop­ulists fought for.

We find here a core am­bi­gu­ity at the heart of mod­ern lib­eral democ­racy, as Wil­son un­der­stood it. All power in the­ory de­rives from the peo­ple – but in prac­tice, the truest ves­sel of a peo­ple’s hopes will be its high­est elected of­fi­cial when he en­joys the sup­port of “pub­lic opin­ion”.

There were, none­the­less, se­ri­ous prob­lems with Wil­son’s re­course to pub­lic opin­ion. Views could rapidly change, and even an or­a­tor as per­sua­sive as Wil­son could not be sure if he had per­suaded his fel­lows once and for all. Even worse – as Wal­ter Lipp­mann pointed out in his land­mark 1922 study, Pub­lic Opin­ion – in a com­plex po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, where only dis­con­nected bits of in­for­ma­tion are avail­able to the aver­age cit­i­zen, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble in prac­tice for the pub­lic’s opin­ion on any mat­ter of mo­ment to be ei­ther co­gent or co­her­ent.

Lipp­man used for his epi­graph Plato’s fa­mous im­age of the in­hab­i­tants of a cave be­witched by shad­ows and un­aware of the real world out­side. The ma­jor­ity of mod­ern men, Lipp­mann ar­gues, are pris­on­ers of shad­owy and un­ex­am­ined as­sump­tions, im­mersed in pri­vate lives in­volv­ing the pur­suit of per­sonal in­ter­ests, with limited time and even less at­ten­tion to give to pub­lic af­fairs.

Lipp­mann’s con­clu­sion is most bluntly stated in The Phan­tom Pub­lic: “The in­di­vid­ual man does not have opin­ions on all pub­lic af­fairs. He does not know how to di­rect pub­lic af­fairs. He does not know what is hap­pen­ing, why it is hap­pen­ing, what ought to hap­pen. I can­not imag­ine how he could know, and there is not the least rea­son for think­ing, as mys­ti­cal democrats have thought, that the com­pound­ing of in­di­vid­ual ig­no­rances in masses of peo­ple can pro­duce a con­tin­u­ous di­rect­ing force in pub­lic af­fairs.”

In 1942, Joseph Schum­peter, an econ­o­mist who had been born in Mo­ravia and raised in Vi­enna be­fore mov­ing to the US in 1932 to teach at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, ac­cu­rately summed up the strange re­sults of merg­ing a lib­eral demo­cratic faith in pub­lic opin­ion with mar­ket­ing meth­ods re­fined by be­havioural sci­en­tists. “What we are con­fronted with in the anal­y­sis of po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses,” he wrote, “is largely not a gen­uine but a man­u­fac­tured will.”

In his day, the pri­mary tools for the ma­nip­u­la­tion of opin­ion were ad­ver­tis­ing and pro­pa­ganda tai­lored to the re­sults of pub­lic opin­ion polling. In our day, the in­tegrity of pub­lic opin­ion is fur­ther threat­ened by the se­crecy of many as­pects of ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion­mak­ing, and the in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated con­trol of in­for­ma­tion by be­havioural sci­en­tists and at­ten­tion mer­chants, who are able to use new tech­nolo­gies to aim mes­sages with un­prece­dented pre­ci­sion at re­spon­sive au­di­ences.

Schum­peter ar­gued that the pri­mary role of the peo­ple in a lib­eral democ­racy was in any case strictly limited: it was “to pro­duce a gov­ern­ment, or else an in­ter­me­di­ate body which in turn will pro­duce a na­tional ex­ec­u­tive or gov­ern­ment … the demo­cratic method is that in­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ment for ar­riv­ing at po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions in which in­di­vid­u­als ac­quire the power to de­cide by means of a com­pet­i­tive strug­gle for the peo­ple’s vote.”

In other words, mod­ern democ­racy was not the rule of a sov­er­eign peo­ple – in­stead, “democ­racy is the rule of the politi­cian”, some­one skilled at com­mand­ing pub­lic opin­ion and win­ning elec­tions, whose power is chiefly bal­anced by his need for re­elec­tion, and the re­quire­ment that he leave of­fice peace­fully, should he lose the vote.

Schum­peter was writ­ing dur­ing the sec­ond world war, which had led to the to­tal mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion in all com­bat­ant states. World­wide, this un­prece­dented mo­bil­i­sa­tion led to the un­prece­dented slaugh­ter of 60 mil­lion souls, the ma­jor­ity of them civil­ians, and six mil­lion of them Jews. In the US, it en­tailed a dra­matic in­crease in the pow­ers of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state and of the state’s armed forces; it also trig­gered a rise in the per­ceived need to keep key po­lit­i­cal de­lib­er­a­tions and de­ci­sions con­cealed from the pub­lic.

Faced with such facts, no won­der Schum­peter was pes­simistic about fu­ture po­lit­i­cal prospects, fear­ing that a “so­cial­ist democ­racy may even­tu­ally turn out to be more of a sham than cap­i­tal­ist democ­racy ever was”.


And yet, as the sec­ond world war un­folded, just as had hap­pened dur­ing the first world war, there was a para­dox­i­cal resur­gence of demo­cratic ide­al­ism, in­spired by re­newed Al­lied claims that their vic­tory would help forge a world “made safe for democ­racy”, just as Wil­son had promised two gen­er­a­tions ear­lier.

Af­ter the hor­rors of two world wars, many hoped hu­man­ity would never again re­sort to vi­o­lence on this in­dus­trial scale. Af­ter some hes­i­ta­tion, and with com­pro­mis­ing caveats sim­i­lar to those that un­der­mined the League of Na­tions covenant – above all, a con­tin­u­ing ef­fort to pro­tect the im­pe­rial and racial pre­rog­a­tives of the great pow­ers – the vic­tors agreed to cre­ate a new in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion, the United Na­tions, and to rat­ify a new set of global prin­ci­ples, the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, adopted in 1948.

It is easy to min­imise the im­por­tance of a po­lit­i­cal doc­u­ment is­sued with no means of en­forc­ing the norms it pro­claimed. Yet the lan­guage of the dec­la­ra­tion helped to in­spire later hu­man rights move­ments, and ar­ti­cle 21 ex­plic­itly af­firms that “ev­ery­one has the right to take part in the gov­ern­ment of his coun­try, di­rectly or through freely cho­sen rep­re­sen­ta­tives”.

Here is a key irony of the mod­ern world: to this day, democ­racy, in most ex­ist­ing regimes, whether lib­eral or so­cial­ist or na­tion­al­ist, is more or less a sham, even ac­cord­ing to the cri­te­ria laid out in the UDHR, and just as Schum­peter said.

Still, this “sham” also rep­re­sents an epochal trans­for­ma­tion: in the early 21st cen­tury, very few regimes, un­like most in the early 18th cen­tury, can rule over a sub­ject pop­u­la­tion with im­punity. On the con­trary: the rulers of ev­ery con­tem­po­rary regime that pro­fesses demo­cratic val­ues, how­ever fee­bly re­alised, must pe­ri­od­i­cally face the mun­dane threat posed by or­di­nary cit­i­zens, how­ever un­in­formed, pe­ri­od­i­cally queu­ing at a polling sta­tion, to ex­er­cise their right to vote, and so to trans­fer power, if they choose, to an en­tirely new set of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

This is, as the Cam­bridge his­to­rian John Dunn puts it in the dys­pep­tic but ac­cu­rate con­clu­sion to his 2005 his­tory of democ­racy, “a world in which faith, def­er­ence and even loy­alty have largely passed away, and the keen­est of per­sonal ad­mi­ra­tion sel­dom lasts for long” – a wan de­scrip­tion of what the mod­ern demo­cratic spirit has wrought.

Yet this is also a world where the ideal of democ­racy is more uni­ver­sally hon­oured than ever be­fore, and some­times taken quite se­ri­ously, for bet­ter or worse.

For ex­am­ple, in the decades since the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the UDHR in 1948, most US pres­i­dents and diplo­mats have fol­lowed in Wil­son’s foot­steps by pro­mot­ing lib­eral demo­cratic ex­pec­ta­tions around the world – some­times at gun­point – just as com­mu­nist regimes were try­ing at the same time to ex­port their ri­val ver­sion of “demo­cratic cen­tral­ism”.

We have also seen the elec­tion of dem­a­gogues who can ap­peal to the vis­ceral im­pulses of or­di­nary cit­i­zens, and the emer­gence of po­lit­i­cal par­ties ve­he­mently hos­tile to re­mote elites – even as most of these elites re­tain their grip on power, and a su­per-rich mi­nor­ity keeps get­ting richer and more in­su­lated from the ac­ci­dents of fate that de­fine ev­ery­day life for the re­main­ing 99% of the globe’s pop­u­la­tion.

So it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that our world has also wit­nessed, in vir­tu­ally ev­ery coun­try, poor or de­vel­oped, so­cial­ist or com­mu­nist, au­to­cratic or lib­eral, a fit­ful, some­times fu­tile se­ries of pop­u­lar up­ris­ings and protests, when crowds of or­di­nary peo­ple unite to de­mand a fairer share of the com­mon wealth – and to claim for them­selves a larger share in more truly demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. These re­volts against re­mote elites are es­sen­tial to the vi­tal­ity, and vi­a­bil­ity, of mod­ern democ­racy – even as (and pre­cisely be­cause) they chal­lenge the sta­tus quo, de­struc­tive though that chal­lenge may be.

There are good rea­sons to be wary of what a peo­ple try­ing to ex­er­cise its sov­er­eign rights may pro­duce. Demo­cratic re­volts can cre­ate per­verse re­sults – and so can demo­cratic elec­tions. De­spite the ob­vi­ous risks, both Rousseau and Jef­fer­son in­voked a rel­e­vant maxim in de­fence of their own faith in or­di­nary cit­i­zens: Malo per­icu­losam, lib­er­tatem quam qui­etam servi­tutem – “I pre­fer a dan­ger­ous free­dom to peace­ful slav­ery.” It’s an apt motto for these dark times.

Adapted from Can Democ­racy Work? A Short His­tory of a Rad­i­cal Idea, from An­cient Athens to Our World, by James Miller, pub­lished by FSG in the US and Oneworld in the UK, and avail­able to buy at guardian­book­

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Christophe Gowans/Guardian De­sign Team

Il­lus­tra­tion: Alamy

The ex­e­cu­tion of King Louis XVI in 1793, dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

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