On the eve of 4 July, American Independence Day, Brexit has been a blow to comfortable western certainties: a significant trope of the post-Second World War Bretton Woods agreement and the related Washington consensus has been damaged. This is the dictum that democracy and ‘free and fair elections’ are self-evident universal goods, and that the western practice of these is the best, if not only, method. Now, not only are some people questioning direct democracy, but the very concept of democracy.
What is risible is that the biggest critics are ‘liberal’ ‘progressives’.
There has long been a school of thought that referenda may not be the right answer for complicated questions. This conjecture has also been the basis of suspicions that California’s culture of ‘Propositions’, ie initiatives that are put on the ballot, may well have made the state a difficult place to do business, and prone to relying on short-term tactical solutions to long-term strategic problems.
One example is 1978’s Proposition 2½ , which limited property taxes to one percent of the assessed value. This popular (among homeowners, who tend to vote as opposed to renters, who tend not to vote) proposition has been blamed for astronomical housing costs in California (San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the most expensive in the country) and also for a sharp reduction in public funds available for libraries, police forces, schools and so forth. And California has some of the highest income taxes in the country, thus driving business away to more industry-friendly states.
There are other examples. For instance, the direct elections of heads of state in many nations have not necessarily produced the best candidates. Even in America, which enshrines its direct election of a president as some kind of 'Manifest Destiny and Motherhood and Apple Pie', it is hard to say that the best leaders have consistently emerged from the fray (of course, the indirect parliamentary system is equally capable of failure, and I shall discreetly refrain from naming names).
Of course, that is jarring for those brought up to believe that democracy is the best system, with the obvious corollary that more democracy must therefore be even better. Maybe there are diminishing returns for democracy. There is, for instance, an old legend from the Buddha’s times about Magadha and Vaishali: The latter kingdom, being excessively democratic, was unable to stand up to the more top-down Magadha, and thus suffered a devastating military defeat.
Several people have in fact made a similar argument forcefully.
One, a Harvard University professor, Kenneth Rogoff, despaired at Britain’s ‘failure’
The Guardian’s David van Reybrouck went so far as to declare that “elections are bad for democracy”
Thus, the Brexit vote is a watershed, almost as big as the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was the smug quip some years ago from Winston Churchill to the effect that democracy is the very worst system of government, with the exception of every other system. That old racist, safe in the certainties of the early 20th Century, was doubtless of the opinion that democracy was invented by the Greeks, and that the British were their lineal descendant. But there is reason to believe that “government of the people, by the people, and of the people” was well-known and practised in India.
On the one hand, there are the Uttiramerur inscriptions from Tamil Nadu; on the other hand there were independent republics in Northern India as well, as described by Steve Muhlberger of Nipissing University in Canada.
Thus, the western vanity that they alone discovered democracy is demonstrably false. But more interesting is the antipathy of self-declared ‘progressive’ westerners towards democracy as soon as it produced a result that they didn’t like. Let us remember that the entire point of the Arab Spring had been that it would produce ‘genuine democracies’ by overthrowing dictators. But oddly enough, not a single Arab monarch was ever in trouble, as the West has had no qualms about being chummy with them.
In particular, it is remarkable that ‘liberals’ everywhere are quite happy with authoritarian regimes abroad. Note how Democrats in the US have always been friendly with Pakistan: Hillary Clinton, Robin Raphel et al are just the latest. Self-proclaimed ‘liberals’, despite their loud protestations, like the guys in uniform, and don’t like messy democracies. They believe someone has to ‘guide’ democracies, and who better than themselves? Some 240 years ago, a bunch of Americans decided they had had enough of being told to do by a king, but their descendants, in turn, now tell others what to do.
First Published On : Jul 4, 2016 08:02 IST