by PAUL COLLITS – ARE we witnessing the death of democracy? Actually, the question should, rather, be framed as, have we already seen the death of democracy?
The editor of the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, Allister Heath, writes of contemporary Britain: “Britain’s deranged war on cars, our looming ban on gas boilers, the debanking scandal, the failure to prosecute crime, the attempted cancellation of women, the sabotage of the Brexit agenda, the scale of migration: welcome to anti-democratic Britain, where the beleaguered majority is increasingly subject to the whims of an entitled, activist elite that often seems to despise the people over which it exercises so much power.”
Is any of this ringing any bells down under? If not, it should.
We not only have the era of the UniParty and of unelected bureaucrats – either here or supra-nationally – running the whole show, we have politicians taking absolutely no notice of what voters think and say, election campaigns no longer canvassing key issues and politicians routinely doing things they never even mentioned before.
Oh, and anyone who pushes back against all this is quickly labelled … a “populist”.
That dreadful word. Read anything even moderately Leftist or “progressive”, and before you can say “Scotty from Robodebt” you will find some sneering denunciation of populism.
Just search online for Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, Patrick Deneen or Sohrab Ahmari – the latter two emerging stars have important new books out or nearly out – as but one example of the new journalistic genre of attacking populism, real or imagined.
(Patrick Deneen, Regime Change: Toward a Post Liberal Future, June 2023; Sohrab Ahmari, Tyranny Inc: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty – And What to Do about It, August 2023).
Of course, it isn’t just Australia, either. Look at Canada, New Zealand, the United States, the whole Anglosphere and beyond.
The centres of true democratic governance these days turn out to be the old, ex-communist States of Eastern Europe. Half a century behind the iron curtain was, clearly, cathartic.
All the anti-populist sneering misses an important and frightful development in our Western democracies.
A classic example of progressive class’s smug contempt is British philosopher Peter Hacker: “Post-factual politics is the pursuit of goals in politics irrespective of the facts and of the available evidence.
“The judgements of experts, international and constitutional lawyers, climate scientists and conservationists, economists and political scientists, were brushed aside on the grounds that experts sometimes make mistakes – which is true.
“But how post-factual assertions by ill-informed and ignorant politicians and journalists can achieve immunity to error was never explained. Evidence was irrelevant.
“What replaced it were the blunt assertions of populist and charismatic politicians and of journalists for whom allegiance to opinionated, self-interested press-barons far outweighed any concern with truth or reason.
“The inevitable price for disregarding facts, brushing aside educated and scientific judgement, and for dismissing well-grounded, reasonable predictions is yet to be paid.
“But the bills are starting to come in. Two long term costs are patent – the damage done to the spirit of representative democracy, and the blurring of the distinction between democratic rule and demotic rule.”
Experts sometimes get it wrong? You think? Damage to democracy? This is clueless stuff from a man of letters, and missing the truth apparently so dear to his ilk by a neat one hundred and eighty degrees.
He doesn’t name names, like Trump, Orban, Tucker Carlson, Nigel Farage, the late Rush Limbaugh or our own Craig Kelly. Let alone those he would, no doubt, deem to be “conspiracy theorists”.
He doesn’t need to. He completely avoids, ignores or simply doesn’t get the fact that the real threat to our “majoritarian” democracy comes from elite minorities, not from us.
Hacker sees populism as the greatest threat going to the values of the enlightenment, conveniently forgetting that the latter was all about science and reason and that, in abandoning reason completely in favour of ideology and emoting, the current ruling “expert” class, with its woke demagoguery and faux public health obsessions, is the actual enlightenment-killer in the room.
Here is how the legendary Substack writer Eugyppius sees the ruling class: “I try to avoid pop culture themes here at the plague chronicle, but I’m making an exception for this story, because it illustrates like few others the needling, nagging, shrieking nature of the regime that oppresses us.
“The arc of liberal democracy is long, but it bends towards a legion of overweight box wine-drinking state media Gutmenschen with overmany housecats and intractable toenail fungus kicking at our shins with their smelly battered birkenstocks and shouting in our ears about the same three tiresome things over and over again, forever.
Ah, the arc of democracy. What the smart alec class misses, and is too dumb to get, is that the populism it so derides turns out to be at the heart of our democratic tradition, a tradition that, perhaps, the elites don’t understand. Or perhaps they do understand very well, and simply don’t at all mind jettisoning.
Here is Allister Heath again: “All the policies listed above share a devastating commonality: they are deeply unpopular, and would be crushed in a referendum after a fair campaign, were the politicians courageous enough to grant the public a say (in the case of Brexit, they did, of course, and continue to this day to resist implementing the revolutionary change implied by the vote).
“In a truly majoritarian society, one where the demos actually exercised kratos, no form of crime would be tolerated, and certainly not burglaries or muggings. Nobody would dare to indoctrinate school children with extreme trans ideology, and the green agenda would be centred around urgent technological innovation rather than seeking to prevent working people from flying to holidays in the sun.
“Yet we live in a very different political reality, one in which public opinion is flagrantly disregarded whenever it doesn’t align with the views of the ruling class. Westminster has become cartelised: the large Parties are committed to an unrealistic dash to net-zero, refuse to discuss the gargantuan cost involved, and omit to mention that Britain’s carbon emissions are about three per cent of China’s.
On the great subjects of our time – family policy, the size of the State, the NHS and even planning rules – there is little difference between Tory, Labour and Lib Dem MPs, disenfranchising millions.
“The intellectual conformity is stultifying, and has been reinforced by the emergence of an all-powerful Blob, the nexus of mandarins, policy advisers, quangocrats and other government agents, a class of ‘public servants’ who don’t really like the public and are increasingly convinced that they have a constitutional duty to constrain and contain elected politicians.
“They are experts at delay, prevarication and lawfare, and are cheered on by the Left-wing activists who have taken over the legal profession, our cultural institutions, academia, charities and even many big companies.”
No apology for quoting at length. Heath’s is an important contribution to the “how the hell did we get here” debate.
We are now looking at a fundamentally new and different form of governance in the West. Similar, as it happens, to the transformation of post-revolutionary ex-communist States from putative workers’ paradises to totalitarian dictatorships.
How do we put up with this? Well, about a third of the population doesn’t. That’s where the electoral system cum major Party protection racket comes in.
It is a foolproof way for Parties which now regularly score around one third of the primary vote still to waltz into office. And to manage to hold on to power.
Heath concludes: “The message to politicians is clear: start listening to the voters again, or else Britain will soon face a popular uprising orders of magnitude greater – and more unpredictable – than Brexit.”
Heath is being system-centric here, not people-centric. He worries about the longevity of “the system”.
A system which he acknowledges has failed. He almost fears what will replace it. Those with a genuine concern for the welfare of new, unprotected minorities – that is, us – need to focus on deplorables-centric end game.
To the extent that Viktor Orban of Hungary leans towards authoritarianism, it is an authoritarianism deployed (masterfully) in service of the until-now abandoned majority and of the common good, and against the freedom-hating elites.
In Hungary’s case, it is former communists who transformed themselves into corrupt oligarchs after the early 1990s counter-revolution.
As the American writer Christopher Rufo notes: “My deepest interest [in visiting Hungary] was to understand how Hungary, which emerged from Soviet communism just 30 years ago, is attempting to rebuild its culture and institutions, from schools to universities to media. They are not pursuing the path of maximum laissez-faire, but using muscular State policy to achieve conservative ends.
“Orban has been at the centre of this effort since the beginning. Even his enemies concede that he is shrewd and capable. In a way few others have managed to do, he has outmaneuvered his opponents and defied the Brussels consensus.
“Orbán made his first entry in politics in 1989, when, as an idealistic young leader of the newly founded Fidesz opposition Party, he delivered a daring speech calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
“Democracy and communism are incompatible,” Orban said. “If we believe in our own power, we will be able to finish the communist dictatorship.”
“But Orban’s idealism wasn’t meant to last. After Hungary’s democratic transition, he watched the ex-communist officials divide up the spoils of the State and smoothly transform themselves into the new oligarchs.
“They bought villas in the Buda hills, stage-managed the operations of civil society and sold out to the Germans, who snapped up factories, newspapers, radio and television stations – allowing most of the ex-communist publishers and editors to retain their positions.
“The Hungarians had democracy, but not freedom. The old regime no longer had direct control of the social apparatus but controlled it, all the same, through cutouts, intermediaries and outright corruption.”
As goes Hungary, so goes the West. In the case of the Anglosphere, it is the wokerati, the mee-tooing pronoun-botherers, the climateers, the Covidians, the curtain-twitchers, the new Leftists, who control the polity, who, as Eugyppius says, are constantly kicking the rest of us in the shins. Forever.
US academic Michael Lind, calling to mind the earlier work of such “elite” theorists of democracy like Mosca, Michels and Pareto, reminds us of a core tenet of modern political systems: “In the theory of democracy taught to American schoolchildren in civics classes, a popular majority instructs politicians what policies to carry out through the mechanism of free and fair elections.
“In reality, all societies are oligarchies, governed by an elite that is a numerical minority of the population; one-man rule is as much a myth as rule of the many.
“Liberal democracy in the real world is a system of competition among oligarchic factions organised as formal Party coalitions, unlike the informal elite factions that compete in nondemocratic one-Party regimes or military or clerical dictatorships or royal autocracies.
“The policy platforms in multi-Party oligarchies are typically determined by the donors and interest-group allies of politicians, and may not reflect the actual policy preferences of most citizens as reflected in polls.
“Having been adopted in advance of elections, policy platforms serving elite coalitions are then sold to the voters – if, that is, the politicians choose to campaign on the basis of policy programs.
“Increasingly in the United States, the Parties appeal to voters mostly on the basis of symbolic appeals to identity and values. But once in power, they enact the policies that their donors and elite constituents want—policies most of their voters may neither be aware of nor approve.”
Well might it be so. As Lind notes, Michels called all this “the iron law of oligarchy”. But it is beyond time to push back.
In the era of not just big but huge government with Inspector Gadget-like tentacles that simply reach everywhere – not just into our pockets but also into our bank accounts, our formerly free speech and even our thoughts – we face a breadth of dictatorship that Michels and co could never have imagined.
Allister Heath doesn’t go into details about likely counter-tactics or about how ugly it might get.
The answer, as always, is to find men and women of spine and moral compass to somehow tweak the rotten system back in our favour, and grab the levers of power. At least in theory.
Lind is a pessimist here: “The failure of anti-system demagogues like Trump, Boris Johnson and the late Silvio Berlusconi to dislodge the establishments in their countries shows that populist fantasies of salvation by a Caesarist president or prime minister are just that.
“Because no political messiah is likely to appear to help them, ordinary people must resort at times to the strike, the boycott, and civil disobedience, as alternatives both to free and fair elections that don’t lead to change and to violent revolutions that may wreck society and engender an even worse regime.”
Then there is Orban, seemingly far more canny and determined than those leaders referred to by Lind, and, admittedly, playing in a far smaller system. Orban’s approach has serious smarts.
Here is what he is attempting (as rendered by Rufo): “The second Orban Government immediately set about using its authority to disrupt the socialist Left’s soft-power hegemony.
“The Fidesz-led supermajority in Parliament voted in a new constitution, which, in the preamble, declared Hungary a Christian nation, and reformed the electoral system, reducing the number of parliamentary seats in a way that benefited his Party.
“Later, on domestic policy, Orban enacted a 16 per cent flat tax on personal income and a strict immigration policy that prohibited illegal immigrants from settling in the country.
“But the Orban Government’s most significant policy gambit, which is little understood outside Hungary, was to reshape the institutions in both public and private life to create an enduring conservative counter-hegemony.
“This agenda includes far-reaching reforms in schools, universities, nonprofits, media, and government. The goal is to strengthen Hungary’s cultural foundations—family life, Christian faith, and historical memory—and to create a conservative elite capable of maintaining them.” [Emphasis added]
It’s the culture, stupid. Upstream from politics and from the economy.
We have seen what bad actors do with liberal democratic polities. Perhaps an authoritarian tilt is called for, the other way.
After all, aren’t the elites in our societies endlessly banging on about how much they admire China? No wonder Tony Abbott likes this Hungarian model.
Until such a new political force emerges and finds ways around the rigged, anti-majoritarian electoral system, the best bet is forming and joining parallel societies, engaging in far cleverer forms of civil disobedience and avoiding all-but-necessary interactions with the corrupted official system.
Perhaps some Obama-style “community organising” is called for. It worked for the post 60s American radical Left, after all. Weapons of the weak, as Lind calls them.
These could be based on a new, twenty-first century version of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.
Rules for traditionalist, centrist and populist deplorables. It might best be called Rules for Outsiders. Still to be written.
Until such a blueprint is written, and put into practice, the idea of real democracy will remain buried deepish in the dustbin of history. As Allister Heath figures. And fears.PC