Simon Schama: who speaks for the people?
In 1815, the Swiss-French writer Benjamin Constant, who had lived through the best and worst of the French Revolution, and gone from an admirer to a fierce critic of Napoleon, published a synthesis on liberal politics confidently titled Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments.
Constant’s life to date had been a pan-European project, nourished by the Enlightenment’s faith in reasoned toleration. Words, of which he was a master (his solitary novel, Adolphe, is the great account of what happens when a relationship between a young man and an older woman moves from lust to love), he held to be the great creative force of liberty. But if words were the vessels of reasoning politics, they could also degenerate into dangerous delirium. A kind of fevered romance, he recognised, was always there to be awakened. “Men are inclined to enthusiasm,” he wrote in the Principles, “or to get drunk on certain words. Provided they repeat these words, the reality matters little to them.”
Were he here right now Constant would, I think, immediately recognise that on both sides of the Atlantic, the anglophone democracies are living through just such a moment of inebriation. In living memory (mine at any rate), the UK and the US have never been more disunited. Fifty per cent of those recently polled in the US approve of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, while an almost equal number disapprove.
Though the numbers fluctuate a little more, opinion in Britain on whether to leave or remain in the European Union is similarly split down the middle, so that whatever the outcome, one side or the other is bound to feel dissatisfied or even betrayed. As both countries lurch towards existential crises of national identity, the rhetoric of disagreement has deteriorated into bitter recrimination over what constitutes legitimate political conduct and what violates it; and, even more alarmingly, which positions can be held to be patriotic and which treacherous.
The demonising howl of “traitor” feels like the overture to a move from verbal to physical violence, and it is shockingly winked at by demagogic speech from those who seem not to mind playing with fire if it gets them applause from the believers. Boris Johnson knows what he’s doing when he characterises as “surrender” the statute requiring him to ask for an extension should a deal not be reached with the EU, and talks about MPs committed to stopping no-deal as engaged in acts of “collaboration”.
The treason tweet is coming to be habitual with a beleaguered Trump. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, he tweeted, has committed an act of treason; the whistleblower who reported official concerns that Trump used diplomatic conversations with the president of Ukraine to promote his personal political advantage ought to be considered “close to a spy”, adding, ominously, that in times past spies were “dealt with differently”. Where the defence of his presidency is concerned, there is no ante Trump will not up (“I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president”). Should the impeachment go ahead, he quoted an evangelical ally warning, civil war could well break out.
Let us hope not. But casting political argument, as promised in the next British general election, as “people versus parliament”, the “will of the people” versus “the elite” or, in the US, the fiat of the president against “Washington” (meaning not just the old target of government bureaucrats but Congress and the non-Trump-worshipping media) is bad enough. Populism’s animus, pushed with aggressive energy by the likes of Dominic Cummings, who professed he was “enjoying” the deadlock between parliament and prime minister; or Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller, who invents ever more extreme anti-immigrant measures for his boss, is directed against the traditional restraining institutions they unapologetically hold in contempt. Their undisguised aim is to shift the locus of popular sovereignty from representative institutions to an instinctive communion between charismatic leader and masses of citizens, orchestrated in rallies of the infuriated, brought together in the shouty echo-chambers of social media, and rehearsed in adulatory talk shows on radio and television.
Quite aside from specific policies — even those as fateful as Brexit — the choice facing voters in the coming months and year is whether to put their trust in one or other version of democracy: the direct, populist version in which the leader’s version of the popular will is paramount, or representative constitutionalism in which the executive is restrained by legislative vigilance, critically scrutinised by free media and held accountable by an independent judiciary charged with upholding the universally applicable rule of law.
The anxiety that the second version of democracy, greyer, more prosaic and pragmatic, might be consumed by the more pulse-pumpingly performance-charged first version — that, paradoxically, democracy could breed its own style of despot — has a history as long as the existence of popular government. Aristotle and Thucydides wrote damningly of the Athenian demagogue Cleon, who, though wealthy by the time he entered politics, claimed to be the son of a tanner, and who posed as the scourge of the establishment of which he was in fact a part. Cleon’s political trademark was comedic boorishness (oh, it’s just Cleon being Cleon); exciting the mob by violating the conventional decorum of the Athenian assembly, shouting histrionically, hitching up his robe and generally treating his appearances as audience-friendly vulgar spectacle. Among other projects, Cleon (whose pretensions were satirised by Aristophanes in The Knights) boasted of his strengthening of the cross wall around Athens and rode his reputation for brutality, proposing (according to Thucydides) that the male inhabitants of conquered Mytilene should all be mercilessly slaughtered and their women and children sold into slavery.
Polybius in the second century BC is thought to have coined the term “ochlocracy”, meaning mob rule encouraged and mobilised by demagogues, but the dangers of an unholy alliance between adventurist Caesarism and majoritarian despotism were most keenly felt by the generations of philosopher-politicians who were first-hand witnesses, and participants, in the advent of modern democracy. In the very first Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, who knew something about the subject (not least from his own darker instincts), warned that often “dangerous ambition . . . lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people” and that “History will teach us . . . that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing as demagogues, and ending as tyrants.”
But it was French politics, swinging between revolution and reaction, which drew the most sustained reflections on the possibility of democratic self-destruction. Constant had initially been an enthusiast of Napoleon’s promise of bringing order to revolutionary anarchy without compromising its legal achievements. But when the consul turned imperial despot and confirmed his liquidation of republican liberties with two plebiscites in 1802 and 1804, Constant — who saw 69 free journals and newspapers reduced to four by imperial censorship and the legislature turned into a dumb servant of the imperial will — became Napoleon’s enemy. Relentless war, a pocket-lining triumphalism, he knew to be the plague of liberty.
But Constant located the enabling of majoritarian despotism well before the rise of Napoleon: to the fatal moment when the Revolution rejected the “checks and balances” of American politics, in particular a bicameral legislature, because it was held to compromise the indivisibility of popular sovereignty, enshrined in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will”. For the ecstatic utopians of the revolutionary dawn, any kind of division of authority smacked too much of the old regime’s separation of social and legal orders. Its opposite, an ostensibly undivided will of the people, allowed those claiming to be its embodiment to do “what no tyrant would dare to do in his own name . . . They seek the enlargement of the powers they need, from the very owner of political authority, that is, the people, whose omnipotence is there only to justify their encroachments.”
Observing Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon, elected president of the Second Republic in 1848, turn into Emperor Napoleon III three years later and then rubber-stamp his coup with a plebiscite, Alexis de Tocqueville, in many respects Constant’s disciple, likewise saw the possibility of Caesarism along with its colonisation of a subservient judiciary, a neutered or abolished elected legislature and a state-controlled press, as an almost perennial danger for democracies, easily seduced by unscrupulous adventurers. But the imposition of “majoritarian omnipotence”, as Tocqueville called it, could happen even without the usurpation of a dictator wearing the mask of Friend of the People/Scourge of the Elite.
In Victorian Britain, John Stuart Mill was at pains to point out in the plangent opening pages of On Liberty, published in 1859, that “the will of the people . . . practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.”
The case for a second, confirmatory referendum on Brexit, now that we know more about what it would entail, rests very much on the fact that a 52-48 per cent victory was treated as a licence to ignore or override the interests of a substantial minority in the most important alteration in the country’s destiny for half a century. “Brexit means Brexit” was the uncompromising triumphalist mantra. Even now, when polls suggest a shift towards second thoughts, it remains standard practice for Brexiters and the government to refer to the “will of the people” as though it were monolithic.
These pioneering codifiers of working liberal democracy — from James Madison to Mill — were all agreed on the three fundamental pillars standing in the way of either Caesarist domination or majoritarian tyranny. The first was the inviolable sovereign authority of an elected legislature, without whose consent no laws could be enacted or executed. The second was an independent judiciary committed to upholding the rule of law, from which no one including (and especially) the chief executive would be exempt. The third was the sanctity of freedom of the press and all forms of expressed opinion; a principle most majestically articulated in John Milton’s Areopagitica.
That liberty was dear to the heart of all these godchildren of the Enlightenment, not only for its duty to make distinctions between truth and falsehood but also because the expansion of knowledge was assumed to be the precondition of active citizenship in a responsible democracy. It was no accident, then, that in 1796 George Washington proposed a national university; that Jefferson took special pride in founding the University of Virginia; and that in 1822, supporting a “Plan of Education embracing every class of citizens” in Kentucky, James Madison wrote that “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both”. All of them would have been horrified by populism’s standard caricature of higher education as the resort of a remote and arrogant “elite”; by Trump’s jubilant campaign exclamation that “I love the poorly educated”; or the sometime minister of education Michael Gove’s assertion that the “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Most of all, they would have judged the discounting of science in favour of the certainty of belief a sinister omen for the fate of freedom.
But were they to reappear in our midst, Constant, Tocqueville, Madison and Mill would, I think, find reasons to counsel against despair. They would notice that for all the boast of the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban that representative democracy has had its day and is being inexorably replaced by “illiberal democracy”, in which a free press and an independent judiciary counts for less than the adrenalin rush of militant nationalism, his obituary for liberalism has proved naively premature. In fact, whatever the course of Brexit and the fate of Trump, the populist nationalist moment may already be ebbing. The far-right Freedom party was crushed in the Austrian election last week; Matteo Salvini no longer calls the shots in Italian governance; and though the president of the US can dismiss all the evidence of global warming as mere “weather”, an audience of millions around the world has been moved by the impassioned insistence of a 16-year-old girl that if the Earth is to be saved from calamity, we must heed and act on the findings of science.
Most salutary of all, those three pillars still stand. The New York Times is not, as the president habitually tweets, “failing”; on the contrary, the forthrightness that it and The Washington Post have shown in calling him out for outlandish falsehoods has enhanced rather than compromised their authority. Though Brexit-supporting politicians have deemed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the unlawfulness of parliamentary prorogation a “coup”, its judgment has been unflinching and, faced with unmistakable evidence of a gross abuse of presidential authority in making military aid conditional on investigating his political opponents, the House of Representatives has found its ethical backbone.
Constant, at any rate, would have been cheered by evidence of the fortitude of liberal democracy. He quotes, approvingly, Jeremy Bentham’s belief that “the leaders of ignorant people have always finished by being victims of their narrow and cowardly policies”. And in a more generous vein, he was convinced that “if election by the people sometimes entails culpable seduction, most often it demands honourable and useful means, kindness, benevolence, justice, and protection.” We can but hope he was right.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor