- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Our Elites’ Selective Support for Democracy

The ongoing parallel crises in the United Kingdom and the United States invite us to contemplate unwelcome truths about the nature of politics in the 21st century. In both countries, deep divisions have resulted in paralysis. In both, that paralysis represents something more profound: disagreement over the meaning and proper conduct of contemporary democracy. Yet there is little evidence that elites on either side of the Atlantic understand the actual problem at hand. Hence, the likelihood that it will fester.

In a nominal sense, their immediate problem centers on Brexit—how, or even whether, to honor the results of a 2016 national referendum in which a majority of voting Britons signaled their wish to leave the European Union. In a nominal sense, our immediate problem is a government shutdown. Yet overshadowing that shutdown is a persistent unwillingness to accept as legitimate the results of the 2016 presidential election in which Americans voted for Donald Trump in numbers sufficient to give him a majority in the Electoral College.

In both, the outcome of what was a manifestly democratic process confounded elite expectations. What happened wasn’t supposed to happen. In a few short months, the onward march towards a multicultural society and an integrated global order, with well-refined products of a carefully vetted and suitably diverse meritocracy pulling the strings, had been stopped in its tracks. 

Overnight, an alternative vision of greatness—certainly the political term of the season—had presented itself. For Brexiteers, greatness meant returning to the glory days when the United Kingdom had been a power to reckon with on the world stage. For pro-Trumpers, it meant going back to when we made stuff that others bought and when identifiable national interests shaped U.S. foreign policy. 

Whether the imagined utopia of a dominant Great Britain prior to 1914 or a dominant America after 1945 ever actually existed is beside the point. In 2016, large numbers of citizens in both countries concluded that the solution to their complaints was to be found in reasserting national independence, with Britain breaking free of the EU and the United States severing entanglements that have cost plenty without delivering discernible benefits.

When similar assertions of the popular will occurred in other countries—the protesters flooding Tiananmen Square in 1989, the crowds in Red Square that helped defeat the attempted putsch of August 1991, the 2011 uprising known as the Arab Spring—British and American elites cheered. At such moments, they are all-in for democracy. Yet when the exercise of democracy at home yields outcomes likely to affect their interests adversely, they sing a different tune.

Politics is always fraught with hypocrisy. Yet the hypocrisy on daily display in London and Washington of late has become difficult to stomach. This is especially so when it emanates from quarters that otherwise do not hesitate to chastise other governments for failing to honor democratic principles.

In a recent op-ed denouncing Brexit, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote, “A democracy that cannot change its mind is not a democracy.” Let’s unpack that. What Cohen really means is this: when a democracy comes to a decision of which I disapprove, there’s always room for a do-over, yet when decisions win my approval, they become permanent and irreversible. So just because Americans elected a president who promised to withdraw from NATO and overturn Roe v. Wade doesn’t mean that such possibilities qualify as worthy of consideration. NATO membership is forever. So, too, are abortion rights.

It is no doubt true that the United Kingdom and the United States are democracies, with the people allowed some say. But to be more precise, they are curated democracies, with members of an unelected elite policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion and excluding heretics. Members of this elite are, by their own estimation, guardians of truth and good sense. They know what is best.

But what if the elites get things wrong? What if the policies they promulgate produce grotesque inequality or lead to permanent war? Who then has the authority to disregard the guardians, if not the people themselves? How else will the elites come to recognize their folly and change course?

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

79 Comments (Open | Close)

79 Comments To "Our Elites’ Selective Support for Democracy"

#1 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On January 18, 2019 @ 8:26 am

I think that people have the sense that they no longer are in control of things, that everything is spinning out of control at an increasingly rapid pace. This is what leads to social instability and to such phenomena as Brexit and the Age of Trump.

As to the elites knowing “what is best”, well, we know from experience that a Yale Law degree doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. It’s a long way from being “well educated” to being “wise”–and wisdom is clearly in short supply these days

#2 Comment By muad’dib On January 18, 2019 @ 8:44 am

Trump lost the popular vote by over 3 million…

[1]

In yesterday’s vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, the 50 senators voting yes represent states covering just 44% of the U.S. population or 143 million Americans. That’s less than a majority, less than the 181 million Americans represented by the senators voting no (you might say the “Senate popular vote”). Yet the nomination was confirmed.

As the chart below shows, the total vote differential between the two parties for elections to the House in 2016 was 1.2 percent. But the difference in the number of seats is 10.8 percent, giving a total of 21 extra seats to Republicans.

Give me a call when we get one man one vote and the party that gets the plurality of the vote gets to govern.

#3 Comment By Dan Green On January 18, 2019 @ 9:34 am

Americans went to the polls and the electoral college system we deploy elected a non politician , questionable real estate mogul, as less of a concern, than the essence of the elite we bark about, HRC. The Brits had a referendum to get out of the German controlled EU, with 51.9 % of the Brits, voting to get out. Result are, we refuse to accept Donald Trump as President , and the Brits refuse to get out of the EU, while they babble about technicalities . Any wonder western Democracies have a rise of the new handle Populism. All while the French are burning things down every week end. Poland and Hungry have a belly full of Brussels , as does the Italians .Of course Poland and Hungry have no influence and you cannot take Italians serious.

#4 Comment By Brad F On January 18, 2019 @ 10:26 am

Dear Elites

We appreciate that you have built a successful career and/or business under the prevailing laws, and that changing these laws would cause the destruction and/or appropriation of much of your wealth (while costing us little). Nonetheless we’ve had a vote and decided that we will indeed go ahead and make these changes. Sorry about your luck.

What? You don’t agree! Don’t you believe in democracy? You hypocrite you!

#5 Comment By Charlieford On January 18, 2019 @ 10:27 am

“Yet overshadowing that shutdown is a persistent unwillingness to accept as legitimate the results of the 2016 presidential election in which Americans voted for Donald Trump in numbers sufficient to give him a majority in the Electoral College.”

That’s a fancy, somewhat evasive, way of saying that the president has no mandate. It’s not, however, the same as saying the election wasn’t legitimate. Under our system, he won the office, but he can’t claim to have the will of the people behind him, and subsequent polling and elections have confirmed that. President Trump isn’t facing anything different than what Barack Obama faced after 2010, or LBJ after 1966, or FDR after 1938. Our system has multiple checks and balances, and mid-terms are one of them. If he wants more compliance from Congress, everyone knows how that’s done: The president uses his bully pulpit, he makes his case, he persuades a majority of Americans to support him, and Congress takes notice. Simple, and the very definition of democracy. For Democrats to cave to a President who doesn’t have the people’s support would be the very antithesis of democracy.

#6 Comment By Kent On January 18, 2019 @ 11:30 am

“But what if the elites get things wrong? What if the policies they promulgate produce grotesque inequality or lead to permanent war? Who then has the authority to disregard the guardians, if not the people themselves? How else will the elites come to recognize their folly and change course?”

What if, on election day, you only have a choice between 2 candidates. Both favoring all the wrong choices, but one tends to talk up Christianity and family and the other talks up diversity. And both get their funding from the very wealthy and corporations. And any 3rd choices would be “throwing your vote away”. How would you ever get to vote for someone who might change course?

Democracy has little to actually do with choice or power.

#7 Comment By James Tallant On January 18, 2019 @ 11:48 am

What exactly is “manifestly democratic” about an electoral system that enhances some votes while discounting others based solely upon geography?

#8 Comment By Ed On January 18, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

Good article, though I’m not sure Trump promised to get the US out of NATO or overturn Roe v. Wade.

The thing about the Electoral College is that everyone goes into the election season knowing the rules. If you had direct popular election, you would have had different candidates, different issues and different campaign strategies. Given that everyone knew from the beginning what winning meant under the existing system one could make a case that the result was not only legitimate, but democratic, even if strict majority rule based on the popular vote didn’t prevail.

With the Electoral College, as with the Senate, I think one could make the case that politics, the parties, and the country were healthier when Democrats could win in South Dakota or Wyoming and Republicans could win in New Jersey or Connecticut, rather than the way things are today, when each party has a lock on its own states. It would be better for Democrats – and push them and the country back to the center – if they could win in some of the rural states, rather than complain about not winning there and focus solely on the more urban states and their wishes.

#9 Comment By Corwin On January 18, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

“Ed says:
January 18, 2019 at 2:16 pm

The thing about the Electoral College is that everyone goes into the election season knowing the rules. If you had direct popular election, you would have had different candidates, different issues and different campaign strategies. Given that everyone knew from the beginning what winning meant under the existing system one could make a case that the result was not only legitimate, but democratic, even if strict majority rule based on the popular vote didn’t prevail.”

Here’s the problem with your argument. Let’s say Major League Baseball had a rule stating that every season, the New York Yankees would start with 10 wins. Now that wouldn’t necessarily guarantee that they would make the playoffs or win the World Series, but it would give them a significant advantage during the season over other teams. Obviously, that would not be fair to the rest of the teams they were competing against. The players and fans of baseball could just decide to walk away, and in the grand scheme of things, while it might be disappointing, it would not have much impact on our lives.

With the electoral college on the other hand, it does have a huge impact on our lives. Yes, it is true that we all know the rules going in. The problem is that it does give a modest, but still measurable advantage to candidates in low population, mostly rural states. These states are mostly aligned with the republican party as of now, and that is likely to continue into the future. Because of this, the rules favor republican party ideology, and tend to disfavor the democratic party.

So what we have now is the republican party substantially over-represented based on overall votes, and the democrats substantially under-represented. And that means that playing to win by the current rules will continue to disadvantage people whose best interests lie with the democrats. That is simply not healthy for our country. One more win for the republicans with less than a plurality of the popular votes, especially if it is Trump, will likely be a tipping point that none of us should want. And most people don’t have the ability to just walk away from this as the baseball players and fans could.

#10 Comment By mlopez On January 18, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

GB may not have been any utopia in 1914, but it was certainly geo-politically dominant. It’s common people’s social, economic and cultural living standards most assuredly was vastly improved over Russian, or European peasants. There can be no serious comparison with third world countries and regions.

As for the US, there can be absolutely no debate about its own dominance, or material standard of living after 1945 as compared to any where else in the world. More importantly, even uneducated and very contemporary observers were capable of recognizing how our elites had sold out their interests in favor of the furtherance of their own.

If we are on about democratic government, then it’s been generations since either country and their peoples have had any real democracy. Democracy depends on information freely available and responsibility of the citizenry to make decisions based on that information. The political elites have made certain precious little of reliable, unclouded and relevant information ever gets broadcast even while popularizing, promoting and rewarding every form of misrepresentation, ignorance and irresponsibility.

That is how they maintain control and manipulate government to facilitate their own interests to the detriment of the rest of society. Bretix and President Trump have upset their apple cart, which they felt certain was invulnerable and immune to challenge.

#11 Comment By Harve On January 18, 2019 @ 7:55 pm

“In both, the outcome of what was a manifestly democratic process confounded elite expectations.”

The whole purpose of the Electoral College was to prevent a “manifestly democratic process.”

With Brexit and the 2016 election we had two of the core problems democracies currently face – media conventions that make it difficult for the average voter to acquire reliable information and the ability of hostile actors to game another nation’s elections.

Brexit occurred after years of the tabloids flat out lying about the EU and a campaign that was based on lies like the ones around immigration and the NHS.

Elite media coverage in the U.S. was about taking Hillary down a peg by focusing on the emails and other peripheral and often false non-stories while ignoring for the most part Trump’s actual criminality.

NATO and Roe were barely noted compared to “emails” and “Mexicans.”

The undemocratic nature of the EC coupled with demographic sorting and new media venues like Facebook make it possible for hostile foreign actors to target voters at the sub-precinct level in critical areas and that appears to be what happened.

If you want to discuss the Constitution how about the part where the House and Senate passes bills, the president has the option of vetoing the bill, signing it, or letting it sit for ten days with no action at which point it becomes law. If the law is vetoed the Congress can over ride that veto with a two-thirds vote in each House.

Nowhere in the Constitution is the Congress required to defer to the president before passing bills. Likewise I don’t see Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

#12 Comment By Cosmin Visan On January 18, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

I guess it’s too pedantic to point out that the United States is a republic, not a democracy; and that the founders expressly designed it not to be a democracy (which they knew was typified by ancient Athens).
But somehow in the 19th century it became popular to call yourself a democracy and they stole the word. Kinda like liberals stole it from JS Mill and use it to mean the opposite…
Eh, who cares, you will say? American conservatives should 😉 because conservatism means paying some attention to history…

#13 Comment By TR On January 18, 2019 @ 9:55 pm

FDR and LBJ both had huge “mandates” if electoral votes are any indication. And both had trouble almost from Day One in getting their programs through the Congress.

That’s the way the American system has worked for a long time.

Brexit is a far more complicated deal. It was the pro-Brexiters who defeated May in the House, after all.

#14 Comment By Who Votes On January 18, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

“What exactly is “manifestly democratic” about an electoral system that enhances some votes while discounting others based solely upon geography?”

We’re a republic, not a democracy. Our system is only “democratic” insofar as it lets some people vote. It is anti-democratic insofar as it privileges voters based on age, geography, criminal history, incarceration, mental competency, and immigration status.

Even if we eliminated the Electoral College, we would still be privileging the votes of so-called “American citizens” over those of non-citizens, and inhabitants of an arbitrarily defined geographical area over those who happen to live elsewhere.

We’re never going to be “manifestly democratic”. Nobody else will either, most likely.

#15 Comment By Sisera On January 18, 2019 @ 11:24 pm

Trade deals are renogiated all the time without criseses. Brexit is a disaster for two main reasons (for instance, they could titrate tariffs, grant special status for the Irish border, etc)
1. The EU is intent on punishing the UK- to both party’s short term detriment and to deter further revolts from Italy, Poland, eat al.
2. Firms in the developed world continue to be overlevaraged and hypersensitive to minor market shifts.
I’m an American but not sure what HM’s opposition is offering? Ignore the results because ‘Russians and racists oh my!’.
They’re a heartbeat away from openly declaring democracy is only for AdultsInTheRoomTM. If the Labour leader was a Blairite May would’ve been ousted long ago and article 50 revoked under said Blairite.

#16 Comment By Kafkaesque On January 19, 2019 @ 8:27 am

The electoral college is not democratic in that it expresses the will of the people.

Donald Trump is the elite. He gave himself and others in the upper eschelon huge tax breaks and other perks. The upper 10% of this country may decry him, but none of them would be willing to making meaningful economic reforms at their own behest.

Brexit is going to happen. It just turns out that doing something like Brexit is way more difficult and complex than putting yes/no in a ballot. Who could have thought based on the jubilant TAC columns way back when?

#17 Comment By Hello / Goodbye On January 19, 2019 @ 11:40 am

The elites aren’t interested in polls showing Americans want out of Syria and Afghanistan, are they? Can’t have mere citizens having influencing decisions like that.

#18 Comment By Tumbrel Time! On January 19, 2019 @ 11:52 am

@Kafkaesque : “Brexit is going to happen. It just turns out that doing something like Brexit is way more difficult and complex than putting yes/no in a ballot. Who could have thought based on the jubilant TAC columns way back when”

But it didn’t have to be as difficult and complex as May and Co made it.

There was an unconscionable amount of elite foot-dragging on all sides. Of course when they want something, like having their companies bailed out and Christmas bonuses paid by the taxpayers, then by God it gets done and pronto. When mere taxpayers need something done, well then, it’s all much, much more difficult and complex than anyone could have supposed, and you little people couldn’t possibly understand, and we can’t possibly move any more quickly than we can adjust our positions so as to maintain our wealth and status, can we? Or, better still, fizzle out in such a way as to necessitate, regrettable as it may be, a second referendum?

#19 Comment By Irish Citizen On January 19, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

Your take on Brexit is quite oversimplistic. At the heart of the issue is how to balance two different referendum results:
1. The vote to leave the European Union taken by UK citizens.
2. The vote to end the Northern Ireland Conflict via the Good Friday Agreement, taken by Irish people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

“The will of the people” is evoked in both cases, and that’s the problem.

#20 Comment By Kronos On January 19, 2019 @ 4:17 pm

Electing Trump was for a four-year term. A narrow margin in either direction was therefore not catastrophic.
The narrow margin for the very permanent Brexit was far more problematic. And please … can we at least admit that some in the “elites” are there because they actually know what needs to be done for the common good? Using the term as a perpetual insult isn’t helpful.

#21 Comment By Patzinak On January 19, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

What ineffable flummadiddle!

Prominent Brexiteers include Boris Johnson (dual UK/US citizenship, educated in Brussels and at Eton and Oxford, of mixed ancestry, including a link — by illegitimate descent — to the royal houses of Prussia and the UK); Jacob Rees-Mogg (son of a baron, educated at Eton and Oxford, amassed a solid fortune via hedge fund management); Arron Banks (millionaire, bankroller of UKIP, made to the Brexit campaign the largest ever political donation in UK politics).

So much for “the elite” being against Brexit!

But the main problem with Brexit is this. Having voted by a slim margin in favour of Brexit, the Great British Public then, in the general election, denied a majority to the government that had undertaken to implement it, and elected a Parliament of whom, by a rough estimate, two thirds oppose Brexit.

It ain’t that “the elite” got “things wrong”. It’s that bloody Joe Public can’t make his mind what to do — and go through with it.

#22 Comment By Antipropo On January 20, 2019 @ 4:31 am

There’s a much earlier refusal to accept the popular willvof the people as expressed in a democratic vote.
2006, in what was then the most intensely monitored election in history and accepted as free and fair-despite Israeli refusal to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate- Hamas win. Result: “the west” refuse to accept the result l, Israel imposes a blockade which has been in place now for 12 years.

#23 Comment By BobS On January 20, 2019 @ 9:23 am

“I guess it’s too pedantic to point out that the United States is a republic, not a democracy;”
Not pedantic, just wrong- the US is both a republic and a democracy. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive.

#24 Comment By Otherwise a fan On January 20, 2019 @ 10:06 am

Disappointing column from a writer I otherwise like very much. Democracy doesn’t mean one side gets to be the dictator and then the other side gets their turn. And a republic doesn’t mean that a minority can foist their unpopular, impractical plans (the wall) on the rest of the country. 2016 was a highly irregular election in which neither side ran a legitimate candidate. I would hope that a thinker of your stature would have that perspective. Apparently the military’s one-sided jingoism is still with you.

#25 Comment By Rossbach On January 20, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

“Whether the imagined utopia of a dominant Great Britain prior to 1914 or a dominant America after 1945 ever actually existed is beside the point.”

It wasn’t to restore any defunct utopia that led people to vote for Brexit or Donald Trump; it was to check the descent of the Anglosphere into the totalitarian dystopia of forced multi-cultural globalism that caused voters to reject the EU in Britain and Hillary Clinton in the US. It is because they believed that only with the preservation of their national independence was there any chance or hope for a restoration of individual liberty that our people voted as they did.

#26 Comment By peterc On January 21, 2019 @ 10:43 am

It might help to clarify that UK anti-Brexit “elites” = “financial elites”.
Our US “elites” = “globalist elites” + “war forever elites”.
The media are just paid servants.

#27 Comment By Frank Speeking On January 22, 2019 @ 6:10 am

“…the elites…”

our elected representatives are just that ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES—not elites.

Unless Mark Meadows and Rand Paul are elites.

#28 Comment By drain master On January 22, 2019 @ 10:51 am

@BobS “Not pedantic, just wrong- the US is both a republic and a democracy. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive.”

No sir they ain’t. In fact, you can even get you a “democratic people’s republic” if you want one. Course one of them “democratic people’s republics” ain’t democratic nor republics, and the people are more like robots.

#29 Comment By TG On January 22, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

Well, if the people vote the way that the elites want, then that’s OK.

But if the people don’t vote the way that the elites don’t want, well, then that’s racist and fascist and Literally Hitler and simply cannot be allowed because letting government policy be set by the will of the people against the interests of the elites would undermine our democracy.

So you see, we have a full 50% of a democracy! That’s not perfect, but better than 0%!