The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States may have signalled the death of the closest thing we have to a religion in politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy risks being knocked from the high altar as an unmitigated and unquestioned good.
The man’s obviously a fool and a nasty fool too. The contest should have been a walkover for Hillary Clinton. But it wasn’t. What happened? Can we be sure any longer that democracy works? Is it really the reliable bulwark against political madness that we always supposed?
Without hesitation I plead guilty to the obvious charge: Trump supporters could level it at me, enthusiasts for Brexit do. Spanish enthusiasts for the left-wing populist party of protest, Podemos, and French supporters of Marine Le Pen would tell me the same and they’d be right. The reason I am beginning to question democracy is that it is producing results I profoundly dislike.
So in that sense — yes — I’m a bad loser. All of us with a now faltering faith in the will of the people as the lodestar of a civilised nation’s political journey are bad losers. The lemming who halts before the cliff’s edge, defying the vote to jump, is a bad loser too.
But why now? When Richard Nixon was re-elected, did we who had preferred George McGovern despair of democracy? When British Conservative governments fell and socialist governments were elected, did Liberal or Tory democrats develop doubts about democracy itself? Why did we trust the people then, even though they had given the ‘wrong’ answer — but not now? What was it that people like me did believe, when we said we believed in democracy?
I believed in the wisdom of crowds but not mobs. Democracy was of course about inviting the considered view of the crowd but it was just as much about keeping the mob from the gates. I knew public sentiment sloshes around, sometimes quite violently, and I knew huge numbers of voters could be horribly if temporarily misled by false prospectuses, by lies, by unreasonable hopes and by sudden fears and hatreds. But against that I balanced a quiet faith that after consideration, in the light of experience and in the long run, most people as a collective would always see sense. That is what I meant by the ‘crowd’.
Socialism wouldn’t work so we’d give it a go, see as much, and vote the Conservatives back. In time we’d see through Gordon Brown. Nixon was an unsavoury character and in due course America would rumble him. An imposter like Trump would never get the Republican nomination, but, if per impossibile, he did, the election campaign would show him in his true colours and he’d fast implode.
Besides, it did occur to me that I’m sometimes wrong — in which case, thanks to the wisdom of the electorate, a better way than I recommended would be identified, tried and proved right. Thus, and falteringly, with many false starts and wrong turnings, after many decisions taken in haste and repented of at leisure, and infuriatingly slowly, a democratic nation would find its way through history as a half-blind bat, her radar squeaks bouncing off solid obstacles, finds her way through a winding cavern to the light.
The crowd — ‘true democracy’ — could be wise where a mob might be foolish, because we weren’t governed by the mob, real or virtual. There was no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter, no social media. The closest you got to the mob was radio phone-ins. Opinion polling was in its infancy, and the remark that election day offered ‘the only vote that counts’ dignified the act of voting and distinguished it from a pollster’s clipboard. The phrase ‘the privacy of the polling booth’ meant more than plywood and curtain: it meant quiet reflection, away from the noise of others’ opinions. ‘The crowd’ was a collective noun for millions of individuals, often conferring but finally thinking alone. That was what elections — general, presidential — were for.
But as I watched the American presidential election gather steam, and endured the vile time we called the European referendum campaign — as I recoiled from the mass media reaction to the judges’ ruling on Brexit last week — it has seemed that the crowd and the mob have begun to merge into each other. Now we can so easily discover what a ‘majority’ think they want at any one moment, and — worse — ignorant hooligans can discover with a click on a keyboard that there are millions like them out there — our faith in democracy, our faith in the ‘government by the people’ part of the trio, is being tested to its logical limit.
In this magazine’s edition of 19 January 1867 we quoted a letter from Tom Macaulay railing against the idea of universal suffrage. This would (Macaulay wrote) ‘in no long time reduce us to a depth of misery and degradation of which it is not easy to form an idea’ making ‘Great Britain in three generations as barbarous as Madagascar’.
The Spectator chided Macaulay for exaggeration. ‘All he meant to say was, we presume, that universal suffrage was unfavourable to civilisation, which is probably, though not certainly, true.’
As so often, The Spectator came early to Conservative doubt. But I am catching up. Unless we find a way to fold the popular will into many other and sometimes opposing considerations that make for good government, and unless we find procedures for distinguishing between the evanescent and the more considered manifestations of public opinion, the Trumps and Farages of our age will kill our faith in democracy.