In the post-Brexit chaos, The Guardian published a feature in June 2016 titled “Why elections are bad for democracy,” which argued how referendums can be detrimental to democracies. It was astonishing that 17 million British citizens voted to leave the European Union, putting their country at economic risk. While the Brexit vote concerned issues from immigration to sovereignty, the vote was an example of populism, a plebiscite over the influence and powers of political and economic elites.
The word “elite” became an insult in the prevote debates. Studies from the International Monetary Fund or the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development about the consequences of Brexit were disregarded. Leave campaigners painted such warnings as conspiracies devised by elites against ordinary people.
Looking at people’s trust in their government officials and politicians, 30 percent of Europeans trust their national parliament and only one in five Americans trust their government. But can we blame them? The contract between government and the people is based on a promise of security and economic prosperity, both now threatened by terrorism and economic crises. American wages flatlined from 1985 to 2010 while wealth inequality continues to soar.
This context gave rise to far -right parties all over the West. Their emphasis on protectionism, hard-line positions on Islam and immigration, as well as their strongman rhetoric helps their popularity. Marine LePen, Matteo Salvini, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump shun experience, professional or academic, as detrimental and pride themselves on being unassociated with normal politics, characterizing themselves as pure, even.
These leaders thrive on blunt rhetoric, appealing to a base frustrated with establishment politics and political correctness. Examples are hardly limited, be it Nigel Farage’s blatant lies on funding to Brussels or Trump having supporters raise their hands and pledge to vote for him. The electorate feels it needs a strong patriotic ruler to combat the incompetent and corrupt elite.
Centrist politicians struggle against the success of such extreme candidates. Their promises and experience count for nothing. Never before have elites witnessed such anger from working classes infuriated by false promises.
But just as this authoritarian temptation should be criticized, we need to recognize the aristocratic temptation of establishment politicians. A 2014 Princeton study showed that “economic elites … have substantial independent impacts on policy, while average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Still, citizens notice when a senator spends two-thirds of his time fundraising in the United States. The EU is an example of governance perceived as undemocratic and detrimental to nations as a whole. The Commission and the Council often trump the power of the Parliament and nominate career bureaucrats to handle obscure trade negotiations. With many viewing it as an affront to basic national sovereignty, the popularity of the EU is in danger of falling to populist tendencies and anger.
Younger individuals likewise fall prey to this undemocratic temptation. After the Brexit vote, angry Facebook posts ranted about how the older generation “screwed” the U.K. for others. Some proposed reduced voting rights for older people since they will not have to live with the consequences of their “wrong” votes.
Two million British citizens had similar disdain for the Brexit vote and called for a second, believing the elder Englander was given the same importance as the young professional who grew up only knowing the EU’s positives. The Guardian’s article concurs: The vote did not go young people’s way, so they challenged the idea of elections.
Aristotle described six forms of government: three perverted, three normal. Polity once corrupted becomes democracy, which Aristotle considered a faulty form of government. In our democracies, we see the increasing demand for a more authoritarian regime and, in response the political elites appear to try to short circuit Aristotle’s model, going straight to something akin to aristocracy. Democracy is dying. What should take its place?
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Fault Lines appears every other Friday.