Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. ― Isaac Asimov
I suppose that there is much to be said for a referendum as being highly representative of the democratic process. After all, it entails a direct decision of the majority of the electorate without the overt constraint or influence of the party whip, notional or otherwise, and usually on a matter of their governance. But, as Captain Hutt’s famous dictum concerning the woman in the bikini, while that which the process reveals may be interesting, what it conceals is vital!
This comment is owed to the outcome of Thursday’s referendum on the continuation of European Union (EU) membership by Britain, a result that ended in victory for those who clamoured for Britain’s departure from the grouping under the rubric of “Brexit” –or British exit. This development has prompted the resignation of the British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, itself a denouement that is as logical as it is surprising.
Logical, because Mr Cameron was in the vanguard of those who championed the vote that Britain should remain as part of the EU and as he put it, “ the country requires fresh leadership to take it in its new direction…” Admittedly, in spite of the inherent chameleon-like adaptation of the political view seemingly to suit any circumstance, it does appear patently incongruous for the newly exited jurisdiction to be led by someone who had expressly staked his political future on the country taking a different path.
Surprising, nevertheless, because it was just over one year ago that Mr Cameron assumed the Prime Ministership of the UK with a handy parliamentary majority. Could an electorate be so fickle as to change its collective mind as to the direction in which the nation should go? The recent referendum might suggest a “yes” answer to that query; in other words, an assertion that while we would want you to lead the country, we do not necessarily agree with your every measure. There should be a cautionary tale or in modern-speak, a teachable moment, in this hypothesis for all political leaders.
It may also be part of a larger contemporary theme, what I have chosen to call the quirk of democracy. Sir Winston Churchill is usually credited with the dictum “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others…” This aphorism would resonate with the populist who perceives the project of governance as a straight contest between an endowed political class and a powerless people who struggle mightily against the odds to eke out an existence.
Nevertheless, it masks the fact that too much democracy may itself mutate into tyranny and political anomie. For example, a report in yesterday’s Washington Post informs us that many British people were on Thursday evening frantically “googling” what the EU is, mere hours after voting to leave it. This caricature is symptomatic of many modern democratic choices where the popular lemming-like instinct to follow some herd rather than to undertake the essential civic discipline of seeking knowledge and thinking for oneself on an issue appears to predominate.
It is scarcely surprising therefore that Mr Donald Trump, the controversial presumptive Republican nominee for the upcoming presidential election in the US, confessed to loving the “poorly educated”. It would have been erroneous to read this simply as having to do entirely with academic ability or the lack thereof. Indeed, he was speaking of those who, like him, base their knowledge on what they have heard only- mostly on television- and whose reading is limited to tattler magazines such as the National Enquirer or the World News Daily Report, where it is boasted that all articles are “entirely fictional” and that any resemblance to the truth is “purely a miracle”.
Yet, the modern notion of democracy would accord as much value to such views as to any others. Isaac Asimov disputes this as “false” in the epigraph, but the constitutional reality states otherwise.
In a brilliant essay for the New York Times Magazine in May, Andrew Sullivan advanced the argument, borrowed from Plato’s Republic, that democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction and that democracies end when they become too democratic. According to this provocative thesis, “democracy is a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”
It is this apocalyptic scenario, Sullivan argues, that might account for the stunning early popularity of Trumpism. He continues the nightmare; “as the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise”.
When we consider that one of the major casualties of this “end-time” is the establishment politician, the ascendancy of Trumpism in the US and the success of the Brexit campaign in the UK are scarcely cause for surprise. They may in fact be the obverse and inverse of the same coin.
Are there any lessons in this context for Barbados and the rest of the region? Certainly, we are not currently contemplating a Bar-exit from CARICOM, although I do not sense that in such an event there would be much difference in a local result from that on Thursday in Britain.
In any case, CARICOM’s relative weakness as a regulatory entity may be its greatest strength. One of the “Brexiters” beefs was that the European Parliament and Court were seen as intrusively over-regulating local practices. Here, contrastingly, CARICOM is not legislatively competent and the jurisdiction of the regional court, at least in its appellate division, has been ignored so far by more than half of the member states.