By William K. Black
July 5, 2016 Bloomington, MN
The sixth column that the New York Time published on the same date condemning the vote in favor of BREXIT can be dealt with briefly. It too attacked the legitimacy of democracy, which it presented as a threat to “representative government.”
Steven Erlanger – Part 6
Steven Erlanger quoted with apparent approval this revealing quotation in his column condemning BREXIT.
Bronwen Maddox, former editor of Prospect Magazine and the new director of the Institute for Government, a research institution, commented by email that “there is a growing intolerance for representative government, which is likely to have consequences for the ability of any government to run the country.”
It takes real chutzpah to condemn a freely democratic election favoring BREXIT on the grounds that it represents “a growing intolerance for representative government.” Erlanger is upset that a majority of the UK voters upset the EU leaders by showing through their BREXIT votes that most voters believed the EU leaders had been misrepresenting them for decades. Erlanger isn’t disturbed that most voters believed that they had been misrepresented. He’s upset that the voters did something about their belief and, in essence, fired the people who had so consistently misrepresented their interests. Erlanger rightly believes that democracy is the great threat to the EU leaders’ anti-democratic decisions and tendencies. Erlanger, of course, thinks that makes democracy a bad thing.
“It takes real chutzpah to condemn a freely democratic election favoring BREXIT on the grounds that it represents “a growing intolerance for representative government.”
It takes real chutzpah to misunderstand in such a way the fundamentals of democracy.
One can have a representative or direct democratic system (the Swiss is an intriguing in-between system) – See Benjamin Constant. But one cannot suddenly switch from one system to the other without previously establishing appropriate rules to prevent the dictatorship of the majority – a concern very much in the mind of the Founding Fathers. Nor can such rules be concocted ad hoc for an issue “deemed” worthy of consultation.
In Britain, the Parliament of the day is sovereign – period. To abdicate its constitutional responsibility in this way is a coup d’état that fundamentally undermines its legitimacy.
Whether, indeed, the representative or the direct-democratic system is better today, for what votes, and under what conditions, can be debated. The excesses of the Brexit campaign show that referenda tend to cleave a country, something which should be avoided as much as possible. Democracy is about surviving the (necessary) decisions, while keeping the society intact.
Did the government and Parliament abdicate their constitutional responsibilities or did they merely decide to consult the people whom they represent?
It’s been said before but it bears repeating. Representative government is under attack from both the Right and from the Left. Each position feels that if they just eliminated, or at least mitigated, the representational factor in government, that their side of the argument would win, while suppressing the other side’s elite and its advocates, in one swoop. Thus, the structural cry for more direct government, a thrust that has been around since the time of Hiram Johnson and the early 20th century populists, if not earlier. The march to the destruction of intermediary institutions is too long to enumerate here but I will suggest that I felt much more secure in my small “d” democratic government when Joe Martin and Bob Taft were around, even though I disagreed with them. We got our stability from Hamilton and Jefferson and their sense of restrained representative government. The inefficacy, even the arbitrariness, of our government, along with the decline of talent since Alexander, Thomas, Abraham, and Franklin could not be more obvious than in the current apparent presidential nominees of their descendant parties. The balloon structure may have worked in architecture but it does not work in politics.