Brendan O’Neill

Britain’s liberals have fallen out of love with democracy

Britain’s liberals have fallen out of love with democracy
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Every now and then there is a political moment, some event or comment, that reveals just how much society has changed. This week contained one of those moments. On Tuesday it was reported that nine pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong had been found guilty of causing a public nuisance by taking to the streets five years ago to demand a greater democratic say in how their society is governed. And on the same day, the exact same day, the Guardian published an article with the headline ‘Democracy is overrated’. Most voters have ‘no idea’ about what’s going on in the world, the piece argued, and therefore it would be better if they just didn’t bother voting. 

What is striking about this is that a few years ago we might have expected the Guardian to be at the forefront of praising Chinese people who want more democracy. Indeed, the liberal intellectual classes more broadly often wrung their hands over the denial of democratic rights in China or Russia or Turkey and agitated for Western officials or UN agencies to put pressure on those regimes to grant their peoples the same democratic rights we enjoy. But there has been a curious silence among Western liberals following the sentencing of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, the name given to the 2014 street protests in which Hong Kongers demanded the right to choose their local leaders without interference from the Chinese Communist Party. And it isn’t hard to see why: Britain’s liberals have lately become as cagey about democracy as the CCP is.

Much has changed in the West between 2014, when Hong Kongers occupied public spaces in protest at mainland meddling in their electoral affairs, and today, when nine of those protesters have been found guilty of public nuisance. The key change has been Western liberals’ abandonment of the ideal of democracy. Following the victory of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, many intellectuals, commentators and activists have come to fear democracy, to dread public decision-making, to wonder out loud if it is wise to entrust serious matters to ‘low-information’ publics — the phrase used by Jason Brennan in his tellingly titled book, Against Democracy. Having spent more than two years raging at the consequences of democracy, and even campaigning for the overthrow of the democratic vote for Brexit, liberals have nothing to say to persecuted pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Except perhaps: ‘Guys, democracy is overrated, give it up.’

That Guardian piece dissing democracy was about Brexit, of course. It was written by Jan Fleischhauer, a columnist for Der Spiegel. It summed up how many Brexitphobic liberals feel about democracy today. ‘Democracy is overrated anyway’, Fleishchhauer says. He says commentators should stop worrying about ‘poor turnout’ because the only reason we have relatively stable societies is that ‘a not inconsiderable part of the electorate is incapable of getting out of bed on election day’. In short: thank God so many ill-informed little people can’t be arsed to vote. He wrote these words, and the Guardian published them, at precisely the moment when tens of thousands of little people who revolted in Hong Kong for the basic right to decide their region’s political destiny were discovering just how severely their leaders were going to be punished.

There’s something grotesque in this: Western liberals scoffing at the idea of democracy while so many people around the world still yearn for it. It speaks to one of the little-noted consequences of liberals’ extreme turn against democracy over the past two years — how it has devastated their ability to offer solidarity to pro-democracy movements in other countries. This could make life even more difficult for such movements. Who are Hong Kongers or North Koreans or Saudi Arabians meant to turn to now in search of support for their democratic struggles? Not to Western liberals, that’s for sure. ‘Democracy is overrated’, they’ll be told. People are dumb, voting is dangerous, experts are better. Maybe Hong Kongers should just trust in the wisdom of well-educated CCP officials?

Another event reported on Tuesday should give Brexit-bashing liberals pause for thought. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would seek a rerun of Istanbul’s recent mayoral election because he didn’t like the result. Sound familiar? Just two weeks ago, 350,000 people marched through London to demand the rerun of the 2016 EU referendum because they didn’t like the result. Many of them were precisely the kind of nice, middle-class people who might once have shaken their heads over the absence of democracy in other countries. Yet here they were calling for a democratic vote to be overridden. As Erdogan now does. When you find yourself echoing such an authoritarian figure as Erdogan, it’s time to have a serious word with yourself.

The Guardian’s report on Erdogan’s anti-democratic comments said they are proof that he is ‘unwilling to accept a [political] loss’. Buy a mirror, guys, and take a look in it — you might just see people who likewise are unwilling to accept any kind of loss at the ballot box and who share Erdogan’s and the CCP’s view that democracy must sometimes be curtailed in the name of a greater good.