Have Our Elites Grown Tired of Traditional Democracy?

October 11, 2019 Updated: October 14, 2019

Writing from London last week I was reminded that British principles of governance have been a longstanding model for the development of free nations. Few other societies can look back on the continued progress toward liberal democratic institutions that Great Britain has shared with the world.

The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, was the first step toward limiting absolute power and widening participation in government beyond a royal family. Other medieval rulers may have chosen to ignore this compact but within the British sphere of influence the march of time led to the widest possible recognition of voting rights and political participation in human history.

By the latter half of the 20th century in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, the legislative and executive branches of governments at the national, regional, and local levels were elected according to the widest possible concept of universal suffrage. Over the last two centuries, voting restrictions with regard to race, religion, gender, age, or property ownership were generally eliminated and the choice of political leadership was truly placed in the hands of the people.

More recently, however, our political class appears to be growing tired of going to the common people for a mandate to govern. Concerned citizens are sensing what Polish philosopher and author Rysard Legutko has described as “the demon” in our democracy which, he contends, has incited “totalitarian temptations” among our ruling elites.

Such temptations began around the turn of the last century when part of the English-speaking intelligentsia, inspired by the ideas of Marx and the Marxists, appeared to have lost confidence in the British model of limited government, individual rights, and laissez-faire economics. Steeped in the literature of “social justice” they came to value “equality” over “liberty,” and since equality does not occur naturally in the human condition, they concluded that permanent state actors, like themselves, would be required to usher in a new utopia.

Over time, our political class enticed many common folk to give up on liberty and place their trust in the hands of a permanent state. When voters occasionally resisted this transition and elected leaders sought to restore limited government (like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Stephen Harper, Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson), extraordinary measures were taken to destroy their reputations and prevent them from creatively turning back the clock.

We continue to sense a troubling discomfort with traditional democracy among our ruling classes. For example, shortly after  Justin Trudeau, Canada’s current prime minister, was elected leader of the Liberal Party, he made a very candid confession to a women’s group. According to a CBC report, when Trudeau was asked which nation he admired most, he answered: “There is a level of admiration I actually have for China. Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime.”

Coincidentally, at about the same time that Trudeau was musing favourably about Chinese communism, back in Poland Legutko was developing the English version of his now widely acclaimed book, “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.” From the perspective of this former solidarity activist who once resided in the Soviet Bloc, this expressed enthusiasm for the Beijing model was oddly unsurprising. In his observations of the West from the 1970s onward, Legutko noted that communists and post-modern liberal-democrats were linked by some profound common principles and ideals.

Writing in the foreword to Legutko’s brilliantly argued thesis, National Review editor-at-large John O’Sullivan summarized the comparison drawn between communism and the hyphenated liberal-democracy that has developed over recent decades. Both, he said, were utopian and looked forward to a time when their system would prevail as a permanent status quo. Both required that all social institutions conform to their norms and values. Both employed social engineering to bring this about, and both were dedicated to an endless struggle against cultural and political enemies.

In short, we no longer have the traditional liberal democracy embraced by 19th- and 20th-century leaders like Gladstone, Disraeli, and Churchill. Theirs was a majoritarian democracy based on constitutional guarantees for religious freedom, free speech, free association, a free press, and all of the liberties required to ensure that debate was real and elections were fair. As such, common people made free choices as citizens and voters.

In comparison, O’Sullivan suggested, the new liberal-democracy has policies, prohibitions, and prejudices built into its ideological DNA. In the old liberal democracy, the values of ordinary citizens ultimately determined law and policy. In the new liberal-democracy there is a symbiosis between elected legislators and a wide range of unaccountable institutions. Courts remake, as opposed to interpret and apply settled law. An establishment media unconditionally supports the politically correct conventional wisdom while unelected domestic and international bodies like the United Nations, European Union, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund wield wide regulatory powers.

In this context, no one should be surprised to see the British people’s choice to exit the EU being obstructed by cosmopolitan politicians, tendentious opinion makers, and European bureaucrats. Neither should we be knocked for six while watching the entire left-liberal establishment in the United States attempting to overturn a presidential election and impeach Donald Trump before ordinary Americans have a chance to re-elect him. Ordinary people have come to understand that the new liberal-democracy is both less liberal and less democratic than the old British version.

Nevertheless, there are signs in Canada, the U.K., and the United States that voters are increasingly ready to push back against the new structures of power, and Legutko’s book is highly recommended as a useful starting point for anyone inclined to re-examine the merits of our “liberal-democratic” status quo.

William Brooks is a Montreal writer and educator. He currently serves as editor of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society and is an Epoch Times contributor.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.