Democracy has one essential, perennial problem: a thousand idiots agree to do something stupid against the advice of ten learned men who know better. And yes, the learned tend to be men. Traditional Athenian democracy solved this problem by having an ‘aristocracy’ of scholars, and citizens voted on who was on the council of aristocrats rather than on what specific actions the council endorsed. This is an oversimplification of how the council worked, as the Greeks were sophisticated about the democratic process almost from the beginning, but essentially, citizens elected leaders, who consulted with experts to determine how to best solve particular problems; problems that were typically more complex and nuanced than any one citizen could be expected to comprehend, much less analyze and solve.
The people decide whether the people are going to war, and against whom, for example. The military generals determine the strategic course of action. Or economists and bankers, in the event of a trade war. In the case of the American Revolution, both generals and bankers had to work together, unified by a shared belief in the right to self-determination.
This tends to work quite well when the population is manageably small and not particularly diverse. The United States has never been as homogeneous or single-minded as revisionist historians would like modern citizens to believe. Sure, the American citizens of 1850 may have been predominantly white and Christian, but ask an Italian Catholic and a German Protestant how to build a house, make love to your wife or enjoy a day off, and you will get wildly different answers that reflect often diametrically opposed views of hedonism, theology and basic principles of physics and engineering. The Germans and Italians are unified by a fundamental belief in freedom, but part ways when discussing how to best make use of that freedom.
The Founding Fathers recognized this problem of what they called ‘factions’, and designed the Constitution to manage the problem of ‘idiots agreeing to do something stupid’. James Madison in particular spoke eloquently against the bullying tactics and tendencies of factions, and the need to control them. Madison believed that factions were necessary to the functioning of a representative democracy in a republic, but that the power of the factions must be controlled. Not that factions themselves must be controlled or suppressed, but that their collective power be curtailed, lest it override the will of the whole people.
The Electoral College is one such mechanism. If the heavily populated wingnut state of California, for example, wants to make avocado and almond smoothies a mandatory breakfast item for all the children in the nation, that’s awesome for kids in California where avocados and almonds grow. It’s not so great for kids in Maine, who are stuck with blueberry pancakes, and it totally sucks for kids who are allergic to almonds. The Electoral College balances the collective power the heavily populated California faction can wield over the less populated Maine faction. The nation can agree that a nutritious breakfast is important for children, but whether that is turned into a rule and how that rule is enforced is a matter for experts in childhood nutrition and state agriculture to solve, not do-gooder hippies in California.
The Electoral College is great for solving the problem of factionalism at the geographic level. Once the geographically specific sentiments spill over state boundaries, though, there is a new problem to deal with, and it gets a new name: populism.
Defined in the most basic terms, populism is politics driven by the concerns of ordinary people, or at the very least, politics driven to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people, and therein lies the potential problem.
What if the ordinary people are assholes*?
Here is a little parlour trick I like to trundle out for people who play fast and loose with historical ‘facts’. I, personally, have calculated, beyond all shadow of possible doubt, how many witches were burned during the Salem witch trials. I can account for all economically driven burnings, all burnings of gay men, all burnings of people who were simply weird and old, all children. I know exactly the number of witches who burned. The reason I bring this up is that the witch trials are a great example of what can go wrong with populism.
That an opinion is popular and shared widely is of no particular consequence: think of all the fools who believe in human-driven climate change. The course of corrective action is what should concern us. If you genuinely believe your aerosol hairspray caused a hole in the ozone layer, feel free to alter your grooming habits or switch to plastic pumps. Knock yourself out. The problem arises when you want everyone to believe what you believe and take the corrective actions you think best.
What if I think Jews are the problem and Zyklon B is the best corrective action?
A problem, indeed.
But this does not make populism a problem. What populism does, and does very well, is bring to the attention of often insulated and economically cloistered elites the concerns of ordinary people. Populism screams from the rooftops x is a problem, and typically, if a lot of people see x as a problem, it’s a problem. The ideals of democracy require that the concerns and problems of ordinary people drive the leadership selected by the people. Neither populism nor democracy require that the people who have noted the problem of x come up with the best solution to x. Proposing, implementing, evaluating and refining solutions is what leaders and legislators are paid to do. That is their job.
Sneering at the entire concept of x, and hence the people concerned about x is not democracy: it’s demagoguery. Hillary Clinton may consider herself akin to a god, but the people most certainly do not. Clinton lost the election long before she called the American people ‘deplorable’, but that moment sealed her destiny. Democracy means you listen to what is troubling the people and take those concerns seriously. It doesn’t matter whether x is ‘no taxation without representation’ or ‘religious freedom does not cover political Islam’ – if a majority of the people are indicating it’s a problem, then it’s a problem.
But how do you know what the majority of the people are thinking and feeling? What do they consider the pressing problems governments must handle?
Enter Milo Yiannopoulos. Popular YouTuber Thunderf00t calls Milo an ‘idiot magnet’ and even tips his hat at Yiannopoulos’ extraordinary talent in this regard: if there is an idiot within 100 miles of Milo, you can be certain the idiot will show up at his event to be subsequently eviscerated and scorched into ash, like a moth to a flame. Milo’s talent is twofold: he articulates the problems ordinary people have identified as being a problem, and he draws out the corrective course of action proposed by an unlearned, out of touch, contemptuous liberal elite.
Problem: Education is failing men
Liberal solution: Smear blood! Scream! Leave mess for others to clean up!
On the eve of a life-changing election in Europe, you will hear populism bandied about in the media as if it’s akin to Nazism and the rise of the Fourth Reich. It is no such thing. National Socialism may have taken advantage of the essential function of populism, which is to direct the attention of leadership to the problems of ordinary people, but there is nothing in and of populism itself that requires the people to determine the corrective course of action. Populist leaders can be experts, too.
What populism needs, above all else, are lenses that collect and magnify the collective concerns of the majority. In order for leadership to respond to the concerns of the people, they need to know what those concerns are. In an age of fractured, splintered, highly individualized social media, those lenses become more important than ever. Milo and his new media venture promise to turn bright light on the American political and cultural stage, which are now unified. Donald Trump has almost single-handedly engaged the average American citizen with politics, turning his campaign and leadership into a reality TV show – the best kind of reality TV – one based in reality! Now he needs people like Milo to bring to him artefacts in the form of memes and tweets and videos and chalked indignation that represent the real concerns of the people who have chosen Trump to govern.
It is only when Trump understands the concerns of the people that he can fulfill the promise of populism and democracy and Madison’s wise reluctance to afford too much power to the factions of America. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Milo is going to win every war. The right is not going to triumph in every arena of political scrapping. What they can do is make their voices heard.
Milo is the megaphone.
Lots of love,
*I sometimes use the word ‘bullshit’ in the philosophical sense, as elucidated by the wonderful Harry G. Frankfurt. Here I am using ‘asshole’ in the philosophical sense vis-à-vis Aaron James, although I find his limited ability to conceive of women as assholes to be both tiresome and sexist. Caveat Emptor.