Democracy and its discontents

We live in a much more democratic world than our great-grandparents. But democracy has always had its trenchant critics, often people of high educational attainment and income arguing that important social and political decisions cannot be left to the uneducated, manipulable masses, who could not be trusted to make decisions for the social good let alone for their own good. Ortega y Gasset, though a liberal and supporter of republican ideals, raised the alarm bells at the beginning of the 20th century, warning of the dangers of mass participation in politics in his The Revolt of the Masses. The American intellectual, Walter Lippmann, articulated this idea by writing in Public Opinion:

the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.

These voices have become even louder recently by those who contrast the speed with which authoritarian China has been able to deal with the global recession to the raucous wrangling in the US. So has democracy run its course?

We don’t think so. In fact, inclusive political institutions must be truly democratic, giving voice to every segment of society, regardless of education and income. Though democracies are sometimes captured by elites or special interests and often disorderly, non-democratic systems are much more likely to be captured and serve as the foundation of extractive political and economic institutions.

Of course, the decisions that democratic systems take will sometimes be misguided. But then again, so will the decisions taken by any other political system, any group, or any individual. Democratic politics will also lead to decisions and procedures that elites of all types dislike. Yet this is often not because the electorate’s ignorance or shortsightedness, but because their interests diverge from those of elites, and also because the educated elite doesn’t like giving up its monopoly on preaching what society should do.

The available evidence doesn’t indicate that the uneducated masses are ignorant and irrational. Recent research by Thomas Fujiwara provides one example from Brazil. Fujiwara exploits the effective enfranchisement of the less educated whose ballots were often spoiled because of an antiquated and difficult voting system. Simplifying and automating the voting system led to a massive reduction in spoiled ballots, mostly by the less educated and poor voters. Fujiwara shows that this did lead to the election of state legislatures advocating more widespread redistribution. But before you can lament just another instance of Latin American populism fueled by the ignorance of the uneducated masses, look at what this redistribution did. It led to the implementation of policies favoring the newly enfranchised, such as better health care delivery which led to significant improvements in infant health (as measured by body mass index at birth).

A new book on the American Revolutionary Ethan Allen by Willard Sterne Randall, Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, and its review in the New York Review of Books by T. H. Breen provide another example of how the masses could make balanced political decisions when given the right, even under fairly adverse circumstances. Ethan Allen rose to prominence as a defender of the rights of the people of Vermont against powerful businessmen from New York encroaching on their lands. Many settlers had purchased and set up farm in Vermont. But the colonial elite of New York claimed the right to all of this land because the crown had granted it to them during the late 17th century. King George III reaffirmed New York’s ownership of these lands, and the New York elite duly moved to claim it. It fell to Ethan Allen to defend the ordinary farmers of Vermont.

Ethan Allen himself was a flawed character, given to self-aggrandizement and not without his own financial interests in stopping New York’s claims on Vermont. His local militias, the Green Mountain Boys, not only defended ordinary Vermonters against eviction by sheriffs and surveyors from New York, but also delivered rough justice on anybody suspected of siding with New York.

He also fought for Vermont’s right to become the fourteenth state, something that became reality only after his death. The mobilization and uprising of Vermonters, during an age in which the rule of law was at best tenuous, might have led to lawlessness, or to continued conflicts with neighboring states. Ethan Allen’s brand of populism may have easily taken a turn towards a different type of authoritarianism. In the event, none of this happened, and the people of Vermont proved to be very adept at self-government. The Vermont Constitution went further than almost any other enshrining their liberty against elite control, declaring:

No male person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives at the age of twenty-one years, nor female in like manner, after she arrives at the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their consent after they arrive at such age.

The social movements that created Arab Spring are mobilized by the belief that, as in Brazil and Vermont, democracy can work, while the alternative, the rule of elites, has been disastrous for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly for the masses that it kept disenfranchised. Even if the road to creating democracy is a treacherous one, as even the most optimistic supporters of the arts bring have been finding out, the ultimate prize — both  for the men and women who have so far risked their lives to change the political systems in the region and for society  — is well worth fighting for.

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