As the Athens tourist board seldom mentions, their fair city was not just the cradle but also the mausoleum of democracy. The ancients defined “rule by the people” with a literalism that has mostly not endured: direct votes in mass gatherings, issue-by-issue, eyeball-to-eyeball. When the US founders balked at the D-word (it is not in the constitution) it was because the meaning was still the Greek one. The indirect vote that now governs their republic and much of the world is as far from that as modern architecture is from the Doric order.
That democracy comes in degrees, that less of it can be more: the west rose on these principles. To survive, it might have to heed them again.
No global trend is better documented than the crisis of democracy. It has a case study in US president Donald Trump, who suggests that he might not recognise a defeat in the November election. To go by the vast trove of data sifted by scholars at Cambridge university, he is not so unusual. Public qualms about democracy are growing worldwide. An absolute majority of Americans are dissatisfied with it. In what has become a literary genre, cheering titles include The Road to Unfreedom and How Democracy Ends.
Visions of an autocratic future are plausible. But they sometimes read as though no system exists between democracy as we know it and the sinister opposite. A crisis for the one must spell a breakthrough for the other.
This breathless dualism does not allow for a middle course. It does not allow for a bit less democracy. As it has before, a wider distance between governments and the governed could improve the quality of the first while keeping the second in ultimate charge.
Count the ways. Longer terms between elections would incentivise far-sighted governance and reduce the frequency with which voters fall out with each other. More power for technocrats would depoliticise, as far as possible, areas of policy. If that sentiment reeks of hauteur, remember that central banks exert a vast distributional impact, enriching some citizens over others. And still, across the rich world, the clamour to democratise monetary policy is less than deafening. Allowing the technocratic hand on one or two other levers would not set a sudden precedent.
As for curbs on direct democracy, British public life would now be less poisoned had it had them. The US is not so given to plebiscites at a national level, but they make for misrule in its largest state, California, a place that should be impossible to ruin.
In The Wake Up Call, a new book on the pandemic, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge parse the most successful virus-fighting nations for clues. It is not big government that works, they conclude, so much as competence and trust. Their treatise might avert a lot of aimless state spending in the future. What the authors skirt, though, is that many of these governments also operate at some remove from their electorates. Singapore, with its “guided democracy”, is the obvious case, but there are subtler ones. Except for brief interludes, Japan has one-party rule. Taiwan has had a comparable model for most of its history. Even Germany has a constitutional limit on referendums and just its third chancellor since 1982.
Any reform in that direction will strike populists as a snob’s charter. But there is no linear relationship between the extent of democracy and the happiness of the demos. Nor is it clear that what gave rise to the anti-politics of recent years was insufficient people power. The least trusted big institution in America is Congress, whose lower house, with its two-year terms, is less a legislature than a sort of pooled campaign headquarters. The unelected Supreme Court commands more confidence than the elected presidency, and the military, with which most citizens have no contact, outranks both.
This is even truer in the UK. David Cameron, the prime minister that voters defied to leave the EU, held three big referendums in five years. Throw in House of Lords reform and devolution, and the pre-Brexit decades were the most democratic in the nation’s modern history. After all this forced intimacy with voters, the state incurred their contempt, not their trust. It follows that a step back need not incite a revolution. In the end, the public’s exasperation with democracy is an implied self-criticism.
How much of a step? The economist Garett Jones calls for “10 per cent less democracy”, but these things defy measurement. For now, it is enough to float the principle. We are not obliged to either defend the status quo or salute the strongmen. If democracy contracts to survive, it would not be the first time.