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Yes, democracy is under huge threat; not from Trump or Brexit voters, but liberals

On 19 November, 1863, at the height of American Civil War, US President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most influential statements of national purpose at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Address, as it later came to be known, was also one of the greatest treatises on representative democracy.

In just over two minutes, Lincoln laid down the principles of participatory democracy in an oration that would later emerge as one of the most important speeches in history. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. began his I Have a Dream speech by alluding to the Gettysburg Address.

 Yes, democracy is under huge threat; not from Trump or Brexit voters, but liberals

Caricatures of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Democracy is said to be under threat because both have received voters' backing. AP

The first and the last sentences of the speech carry two timeless, simple truths. The first is that "all men are created equal". The second lies in Lincoln's assertion that "…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Why evoke Lincoln today? Because now more than ever, a century and a half after the words were spoken, a turn in global events has triggered a blitzkrieg of liberal backlash against participatory democracy.

Though a confluence of factors lie behind this elitist disdain for people's power, the immediate triggers are the Brexit referendum — in which British citizens narrowly voted to exit the European Union — and the rise of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican US presidential nominee.

Because democracy as a form of governance did not deliver the results they were pitching for, the liberals, the elites and the liberal elites in the west are feeling betrayed and have started a shrill campaign against democracy. Their supremely arrogant, discriminatory and delusional stand stems from an overarching fear that elite hegemony over power is under threat.

And because the power elites everywhere control the dominant media narrative, in a spectacular perversion of ideals the liberals are presenting their illiberal idea of putting an end to participatory democracy by shouting from the rooftop that democracy needs to be saved from itself.

This is a remarkable subversion of democratic ideals. Consider how this is being suggested.

Harvard economics professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff, in his piece for Boston Globe titled 'Britain's democratic failure', argues that Brexit referendum "isn't democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances." He then suggests UK’s population probably didn't even know what they were voting on and rounds it off with a warning about perils of "allowing the rabble to make decisions."

In Foreign Policy, a US publication that calls itself a magazine of global politics, economics and ideas, contributing editor James Traub suggests that "Brexit has laid bare the political schism of our time. It’s not about the left vs the right; it’s about the sane vs the mindlessly angry", in an aptly titled article called 'It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses'. He calls 'Leave' and Trump voters "deluded", "ignorant" and espouses a theory that "the task of leadership is to un-delude them", admitting in disarming honesty that his view is an elitist one.

Newsweek carries an opinion piece by Neil H. Buchanan, an economist, legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. The writer in an article titled 'Brexit: is this the beginning of the end of liberal democracy?', calls the referendum "a wake-up call to those who have allowed themselves to believe that the emergence of fear-mongering, naked lies and appeals to people's worst nature are merely an unfortunate spasm of temporary insanity."

Britain's Guardian newspaper (not surprisingly) takes the lead in suggesting that democracy is in danger because voting is outdated and it is time we replace it with a draft of lots.

Not making this up.

"Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation… If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair," says David Van Reybrouck in 'Why elections are bad for democracy'.

The writer says western democracies have taken a dangerous route in "reducing democracy to voting" and claims that "Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure."

Instead of "blind faith in the ballot box", the writer suggests "drafting of lots, or 'sortition' method and says that if this procedure had been applied in the UK last week, "a similarly reckless decision" could have been avoided.

So the motive is clear. Because the voters have delivered a decision which is unpalatable, why not queer the pitch and suggest that all voters are mindless fools who need to be saved from themselves and who better than us liberal elites, we who know much better than the common ignoramuses, to do so?

Sounds like an exaggeration? This is precisely the argument British blogger Andrew Sullivan put forward in his 8,000-word op-ed against Donald Trump, "Democracies end when they are too democratic." Democracies, argued Sullivan, often drift into passionate excesses, and super smart people must come to their rescue. "Elites matter in a democracy..", because they are "the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself."

The liberal position is an open challenge to the century-old struggle that the world has emerged from in recognising people's power. It is quite often that the words 'freedom' and 'democracy' are interchanged. But there is a difference between the two. Democracy presents the architecture for freedom. Through a set of ideas, principles, set of practices and procedures that have been moulded through a long, arduous history, it institutionalises freedom. Voting is a precious right.

If Brexit and Trump and the rise of far right in Europe present a challenge, it will take much more agile thinking than merely putting forth cosmetic, superfluous and reckless arguments.

But fear not, dear readers. Let us have a government for the elites, by the elites, and of the elites which shall not perish from the earth. We have come a long way since the Gettysburg Address.

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Updated Date: Jun 30, 2016 12:46:25 IST