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Think democracy means the people are always right? Wrong

Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP ‘Populist politicians simply promise to do what the will of the people commands, ignoring or denying the fact there are different, competing interests in society, not just those of the majority.’ Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Do you trust the people? Being able to answer “yes” has long been taken as a litmus test of the depth of your commitment to democracy. In a democracy, the people, like customers, may often be wrong, but must always be treated as though they are always right. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign gift to Donald Trump was her comment that half of his supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables”. “No one who has such a low opinion of the American people can ever be elected as their president,” Trump said.

In the UK, when David Cameron recently resigned as prime minister he was not ashamed for having called a referendum he lost but “proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions”. This was one Cameron line his successor Theresa May was all too happy to keep faith with. “We know there is no finer accolade than to say David Cameron put his trust in the British people,” she said. “And trust the people we will.”

But history suggests it is unwise to trust any politician’s claim to be trusting the people. In 1906 Winston Churchill even had the gall to assert “Trust the people” was his motto in a speech defending the hereditary monarchy and House of Lords. Of course there is a sense in which democracy is about trusting the people. The mistake, however, is to assume that this trust is in the majority’s ability to reach fair and wise decisions about specific policies. That kind of trust is not just unjustified, it’s borderline insane. No sensible person thinks majority opinion is a good guide to best practice in health, education, engineering, or pretty much everything else. So why would public policy be any exception?

Plato and Aristotle get a bad rap these days for their rejection of democracy. But the substance of their objections were spot-on, and not just because they saw that majority opinion is not the same as wisdom. For Aristotle, democracy’s fatal problem is that it divides society by pitting the majority – however slender – against the minority. We’re seeing this playing out in America, where the divide between Republican and Democrat has never been wider, but in elections the winner takes all. We’re also seeing this in Britain, where cosmopolitan liberal cities and conservative communitarian towns and villages view each other with incomprehension. 

Why then has democracy actually served us so well? Put simply because it is not democracy as conceived by its ancient Greek critics. What we call democracy is actually a system of representative government which leaves most big decisions to elected leaders. Crucially, it is also a system in which the rule of law is more important than the will of the majority at any given moment. That’s a safeguard Aristotle didn’t anticipate. Indeed, he argued that democracy was opposed to the rule of law because he thought it meant the will of the people transcended the law.

Read more https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/05/democracy-politicians-populism-institutions

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 October 2016 14:30

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