In a thoughtful and provocative article in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, a highly regarded British financial journalist and commentator who seems troubled by the same things that worry me, reviews some of the problems facing liberal democracy today and, quotes Yascha Mounk of Harvard University who says that “both “undemocratic liberalism” and “illiberal democracy” threaten liberal democracy. Under the former, democracy is too weak: social bonds and economic security are sacrificed on the altar of individual freedom. Under the latter, liberalism is too weak: power is captured by demagogues ruling in the name of an angry majority or at least a sizeable minority, who are told they are the “real people”. Undemocratic liberalism ends in elite rule. Illiberal democracy ends in autocratic rule.” I have been worried, mostly, about illiberal democracy and the rise of equally illiberal populism, especially in the USA, as exemplified by the election and ongoing administration of President Donald Trump. But undemocratic liberalism does merit more thought and discussion.
Professor Sheri Berman, of Columbia University, says that “Democracy is all about empowering the people, but, according to this line of argument, the people can be moved by passions and self-interest, and their unchecked rule can lead to tyrannical majoritarianism. While illiberal democracy is certainly worrying, many of its critics fundamentally misunderstand how democracy has traditionally developed and what its historical relationship with liberalism has been. Rather than the norm, liberal democracy has been the exception … [and] … although democracy unchecked by liberalism can slide into tyrannical majoritarianism, liberalism unchecked by democracy can easily deteriorate into elitist oligarchy.“
So who are the “elitist oligarchs?” Is it, the “elitist oligarchy,” e.g. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Tim Cook or were e.g. President George HW Bush and John F Kennedy part of an older, better entrenched elitist oligarchy, as suggested in a 2014 study? One might argue that America’s (and Britain’s) elites “ruled” both countries (with a few notable exceptions like Andrew Jackson) pretty much since their inceptions … one cannot argue that Washington and Jefferson or William Pitt the Elder (the ‘Great commoner’) or even William Cecil were “men of the people.” They were all part of the landed gentry of their countries … even those without hereditary titles.
In fact, starting with, arguably, Walpole, in 1721, I would argue that the rise of liberalism occurred, mainly, as a way of “taming”the elites and I would also argue that real liberalism and liberal democracy, which is, as Professor Berman says, is exceptional in the world, was largely successful in subduing the traditional elites ~ the landed gentry and those who inherited their wealth, which would include, e.g. Franklin D Roosevelt, George W Bush, Donald Trump and both Pierre and Justin Trudeau ~ but liberalism is less able to restrain the newer elites, represented by e.g. Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and, indeed, by Professors Berman and Mounk because the modern elites are characterized by earned wealth and excellent educations, sometimes both. And some of the new elites, like Mr Bezos are rich, powerful, politically engaged and even own major media outlets, in Mr Bezos’ case the influential and respected Washington Post … something that seems to infuriate President Donald Trump.
Are the new elites dangerous? Mr Bezos, for example, has come out swinging against President Trump’s “demonizing” of the media. Is that liberal principle or is that just a media oligarch defending his turf? Are professors Berman and Mounk independent academics defending liberal democratic values or are they part of an academic oligarchy that wants to homogenize thought in America so that everyone comes out of colleges and universities mouthing the same, stale, progressive pabulum as Justin Trudeau does? Are the new elites entrenching their privilege (wealth and social position) just as the old ones did with land and money?
Karl Popper, for example, held that e.g. the Platonic ideal of the “philosopher-king,” which fascinated Canadians in and after the 1970s, justified the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Is that what the new elites want? Do they see themselves and their students and other acolytes as being the only ones fit to govern? Are they so ashamed of what the Lumpenproletariat did in electing Donald Trump that they will want to disenfranchise many, even most people so that only those with the elites’ stamps of approval can vote? No, they don’t want to go (quite) that far but, I suspect, many in the new “information elite” believe that they should be able to guide us in how to govern ourselves and they also believe that their, liberal to be sure, notions are so important that, in fact, the right of the individual to elect the leaders (s)he wants must be subordinated to them. That is the sort of “undemocratic liberalism” that many fear and have feared for generations: a society in which only one big idea prevails. It is, indeed, more dangerous than simple illiberal democracy which might, as Professor Berman suggests, morph into a real liberal democracy or, at worst, just stay in a sort of barely acceptable political purgatory.
I’m sorry to keep banging on and on and on about this but I think that modern liberalism, which has its roots in Victorian England and globalized capitalism, which is, in my opinion, a the modern face of “utilitarianism,” which is rooted in the same time and place (Victorian Britain) and, indeed, in the same people ~ John Stuart Mill ~ make the best sort of democratic societies for the Euro-American West, accepting, as I do, that there are other good models of democracy which might work better for others.
I don’t think that liberalism and globalism are defended only at the ballot box or in the classroom or in books and blogs, I believe that liberal democracy is under attack on more than just the populist front; I think that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping want illiberal and authoritarian (undemocratic) governments to prosper and while I don’t think trade wars are good tactics or strategy, I believe that we ~ the liberal, democratic, secular, globalist and capitalist West, which includes Canada ~ do need to face the tyrants, not just the Chinese and Russian ones, either, with properly staffed, trained and equipped armed forces which we are, demonstrably, ready, able and willing to use when needed. George Orwell didn’t say it, but it is no less true …
… and it needs to be understood by Canadians and all of our friends.
Martin Wolf, whose comments I quoted at the opening of this post, concludes by saying that: “Yet we cannot just ignore the pressures. It is impossible for democracies to ignore widespread public anger and anxiety. Elites must promote a little less liberalism, show a little more respect for the ties binding citizens to one another and pay more tax. The alternative of letting a large part of the population feel disinherited is too dangerous. Is such a rebalancing conceivable? That is the big question.” I disagree with him, in part, on taxes. In most democracies, the progressive tax system already ensures that the upper-middle class and the rich already pay a high, arguably even unfair share of income taxes. But the other points, especially showing “a little more respect for the ties binding citizens to one another,” by which I think (I hope) he means recognizing that people live and work and interact in fairly small, local groups, and it is within their little, cohesive groups (clans, almost) that they are most comfortable. This flies in the face of the globalized and multicultural model that is beloved by the elites.
Put simply, globalization works, and that genie cannot be put back in the bottle; but multiculturalism is a fraud, as I said, going on three years ago. Martin Wolf is right; the elites, both the traditional elites, like the Rockefellers and the Cecils and the new elites like Jonathan Ive and Fareed Zakaria must regain contact with both ‘ground’ and with the people who walk it, day-by-day.