The Democratic Deficit

The problem of the day isn't too much democracy. It's the accumulation of power by elites.

As the dust settles following last month’s Brexit vote, elites seem to be coming to the same conclusion about what’s ailing the United Kingdom and the rest of the advanced capitalist world: an excess of democracy.

Appalled by the concurrent rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the ongoing success of European far right, and the continuing chaos in both of Britain’s major political parties, the pages of centrist opinion-making are chock full of pieces about democracy running amok.

Here are just a few examples, all published in the last several months: “Democracies end when they are too democratic” (Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine); “Britain’s democratic failure” (Kenneth Rogoff, the Boston Globe); “How American Politics Went Insane” (Jonathan Rauch, the Atlantic).

Now, in an article titled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses,” Foreign Policy’s James Traub has given us perhaps the most extreme example of the “too much democracy” genre we’ve yet seen.

Lamenting the success of Donald Trump, the results of the Brexit vote, and the rise of the European far right, Traub suggests that the real schism in politics today isn’t between the Left and the Right, but one pitting “the sane” against “the mindlessly angry.” Elite power, he argues, has been replaced by a politics of histrionic outrage that rejects reason and expertise:

One of the most brazen features of the Brexit vote was the utter repudiation of the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters against the dangers of a split with the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron thought that voters would defer to the near-universal opinion of experts; that only shows how utterly he misjudged his own people.

As an antidote, Traub hopes for a political realignment in which breakaway chunks of the Right and the Left join together in a new centrist project to defend “pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides.”

Yet beyond a few largely anecdotal comments about globalization, Traub offers no real analysis of the causes driving the polarization he so detests. In familiar tones, he conflates the populist right and the populist left, and characterizes anti-establishment sentiment as the product of sheer, mindless democratic stupidity:

Did I say “ignorant”? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”? Maybe it is; maybe we have become so inclined to celebrate the authenticity of all personal conviction that it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history. If so, the party of accepting reality must be prepared to take on the party of denying reality, and its enablers among those who know better. If that is the coming realignment, we should embrace it.

Traub’s essay, like others in the genre, simply refuses to consider the possibility that the political and economic consensus of the past thirty years has utterly failed people. Instead, we are told, it is the people who have failed it. “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry,” writes fellow traveler Jonathan Rauch, before concluding, “Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.”

Proponents of the “too much democracy” thesis therefore cast popular anger toward elites as a sudden, malignant growth within the body politic rather than a response induced by actual events.

The great irony, as Corey Robin has noted, is that the centrist technocracy that Traub and like-minded anti-democrats long for already largely exists — and has played a key role in creating the very problems he wants it to solve.

It was Traub’s beloved mainstream economists, after all, who failed to predict the 2008 financial meltdown, in which millions lost their homes while the floundering banking sector was bailed out at the public’s expense. Only greater openness and democratic oversight — not better elite management — could have prevented such a catastrophe.

Indeed, the underlying premise of Traub’s whole argument — that democracy is out of control and that, by implication, the public has wrested too much power from elites — is contradicted by virtually the entire political and economic landscape. On top of a deregulated global financial sector increasingly shaken loose of public control and unmoored from any function besides profit-making, democratic institutions are the most anemic they’ve been in decades.

In Washington, as in Westminster, power rests mainly with an incestuous cabal of political, economic, and media elites increasingly insular, solipsistic, and removed from the experiences of the public at large. Up against this self-replicating morass of think tanks, financial institutions, lobbyists, media giants, professionalized politicians — and the sprawling, often inscrutable networks of corporate money undergirding them all — ordinary people have next to no democratic say.

Elections are largely spectacles if the leaderships of the major political parties are united behind austerity and if the only candidates deemed admissible are those who have been vetted in advance by the professional political class and its corporate patrons.

Given these realities, what avenues are left for democracy at all? As Matt Taibbi writes:

Unions have been crushed. Nobody has any job security. Main Street institutions that once allowed people to walk down the road to sort things out with other human beings have been phased out. In their place now rest distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies.

Even when the public forms a clear preference or generates substantial democratic pressure, the political class is unresponsive, if not downright hostile, to its demands.

A strong majority of Americans want single-payer healthcare, but the organs of elite opinion casually dismiss it as unaffordable and unattainable; Bernie Sanders, despite being one of the most popular politicians in the United States, is deemed “unelectable”; Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies in the Parliamentary Labour Party, aided by a compliant UK media, would rather ignore the wishes of their own swelling membership than respect the single largest mandate for a leader in British history; a decision made in a national referendum may not carry any weight because a majority failed to follow the elite script.

More than anything, the proliferation of arguments like Traub’s has laid bare the real political schism of our time: not one between “the sane and the mindlessly angry,” but between democrats and technocratic elites.

Against those who want to weaken it further, it is the invigoration of democracy in political parties, in workplaces, in parliaments, in national economies, in multinational institutions — not its further retrenchment — for which we must fight.