There are living citizens of Britain who were born before mass representative democracy. Not all women had the vote until 1929; not all men until 1918, and it took the atrocity exhibition of the Great War to shame the state into their enfranchisement.
This, I stress, is Britain, centuries-steeped in political enlightenment. In other countries, representative democracy has even wispier roots. The norm we have grown up with, of the greater share of the population being free to choose its rulers, has been around for the historical equivalent of the time it takes to cough. During its most severe test, the second world war, it was suspended. During another great trial, the inter-war depression, it surrendered to strongmen in cultures as sophisticated as Germany and Italy.
It is innately difficult to imagine the end of the one political system we have ever known. When we try – and many far-from-hysterical commentators have been moved to since the rise of Donald Trump as US president, the moderate conservative David Frum among them – the dread is always an authoritarian dictatorship. In a typical dystopia, Trump is in the third term of his two-term presidency, Britain is ruled by (depending on your fevered nightmare of choice) Tories hostile to foreigners or socialists hostile to property rights, and France finally consummates its flirtation with the National Front.
This assumption that autocracy is the alternative to what we have is understandable. When representative democracy fell before, it fell in that direction. It also fits the trend of events in places such as Russia and Turkey.
But there are other dark futures to which our system can succumb. This month, the Pew Research Center published a global survey of attitudes to democracy. In the West, 80% of people said representative democracy was a good thing. Just 13% said the same about a strong leader ruling without parliament or courts. Anyone who assumes a strict choice between the two models would, at this point, relax.
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The trouble is that 43% approved of a system in which “experts, not elected officials, make decisions” (Britain and America were in line with that average) and fully 70% wanted one where “citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law”. Britain, despite or perhaps because of its referendum experience, was comparatively low on that count, but still approved by 56% versus 38%.
The plausible menace to representative democracy is not dictatorship. It is Platonic rule-by-genius or, likeliest of all, direct democracy.
The public has not lost its vigilance to despots. The 20th century threw up too many examples in too many countries to too bad an effect. As a crude rule, the more a culture worries about strongmen, the less susceptible it is to one, and the West worries as a full-time job. It is there in the dystopic commentary and the fretful re-reading of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (a novel whose greatness, like that of 1984, lies in everything but its predictive power).
Much more insidious are the unprecedented and thus undiscussed threats. There is no folk memory of a nation losing its mind to endless referendums, so we discount the prospect. But look at the Pew findings – and at the trends of economics and technology.
Business used to reinforce representative democracy. The great corporations (think Ford, McDonald’s, Sony) were like governments in themselves. They employed droves, did tangible things and had executives who varied little from the political class. Google and Facebook are more like rolling referendums. These companies employ few people (relative to their market capitalisation) but allow billions a directness of say, an immediacy of gratification, that is new to the human experience. They sometimes betray a view of the world in which earthly government is peripheral. Perhaps none of this will re-wire our civic culture over time. Perhaps.
The best case against a second referendum on EU exit (there are some fine ones in favour) has nothing to do with Europe. It is the normalisation of direct democracy. Imagine mass direct votes on tax rates or migrant numbers. Or, to save you some sleep, do not.
What Karl Marx said of capitalism’s inherent instabilities is truer of democracy. The poor will always outnumber the rich. Technocracy can protect the rich from the poor. Direct democracy gives the poor maximal power over the rich. Representative democracy is not optimal for either. If it falls again, the culprit need not have the specific human face of a dictator. It might have the seething faces of all of us.
(c) 2017 The Financial Times Limited