Is democracy the enemy of the people?
Passionate polemic is thought-provoking and entertaining if not entirely convincing
polity should function. People need to know if they are living in a presidential system, a parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy, a plebiscitary democracy or whatever. If they don’t, there isn’t pure democracy, there is pure chaos.
Hume claims to be a Marxist, but he doesn’t seem to be interested either in Lenin’s ideas on democratic centralism or soviet worker democracy. Nor does he consider whether single party democracies, like the People’s Republic of China, are in any sense democratic. I assume he doesn’t, but you can’t be sure with the “editor at large” of the contrarian website, Spiked!.
He seems to reserve particular scorn for representative democracy in the UK, which is why he was so outraged at the judges of the Supreme Court upholding parliamentary authority. He says those who argued that parliament is the source of democratic legitimacy were trying “justify their attempt to overturn a [referendum] result they did not like”. Needless to say, Hume voted for Brexit.
He also celebrates Donald Trump’s victory as a revolt of the democratic masses against the wicked elites. But here he contradicts his constitutionphobia by giving the thumbs up to the American system under which presidents are chosen, not by popular majority, but by electoral college. You might have expected this radical democrat to be arguing that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Presidential election because she received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. But no.
You might also have thought that a radical democrat would favour proportional representation, rather than the undemocratic first-past-the-postsystem in which the number of MPs in the House of Commons bears no relationship to the actual number of votes cast. But again, no. PR is another distraction, apparently, by “policy wonks and academics”.
He rails also against those who seek to limit the franchise in elections. Some people, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, have apparently been calling for unintelligent people to be deprived of the vote until they wise up. I don’t know who he has in mind here because I’ve never heard of anyone seriously arguing that we should restrict democracy to certain categories of voters.
But then it turns out that Hume is against extending the democratic franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, on the grounds that this “infantilises” politics. The Scottish referendum surely demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that people who are old enough to marry and join the army are also mature enough to vote. He doesn’t even advocate abolishing the monarchy on the grounds that “elected politicians are held in such low esteem that many people would vote for the monarch anyway”.
So what kind of democracy does match up to Hume’s exacting standards? Well, throughout the first 200 pages of ranting against the left, liberals, the European Union, BBC, student radicals, philosophers from Plato to Noam Chomsky (all enemies of democracy), he repeatedly writes approvingly of the “red in tooth and claw” democracy of ancient Athens. Pericles had the right idea. “Let’s revive the spirit of Athens,” he proclaims, “minus the slavery and misogyny”. Well, quite.
Everyone was equal in the Athenian citizen’s assembly he says, where “people’s juries made most laws; jurors were selected by lottery and left to legislate without the guiding hand of any autocratic judge”.
We’ll set aside whether this is a reliable account of democratic practice in ancient Athens and take it that he supports direct democracy through