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Society, World 24/01/2017

Trump, Brexit and the mob

The ancient Greeks had a word for the new political mood

“Contempt for Brexit voters!” exclaimed the Daily Mail headline as the Supreme Court ruled Theresa May cannot trigger article 50 without a vote from the sovereign parliament.

The argument goes that the people have voted, and standing in the way of the implementation of their will, can’t be anything but undemocratic. “Enemies of the people” is the cry against those unelected officials obstruction of an unelected Prime Minister.

And yet, not a word is to be found in the piece on the contempt the Daily Mail and Brexit supporting politicians reserve for the more than 16 million people that voted to Remain a part of the EU and are perhaps unwilling to further sign-up to the bypassing of democratic institutions. In fact it has bizarrely become acceptable to expect that the loser of a vote loses their right to an opinion.

Thousands witnessed Michael Gove saying so on Twitter. Debating the issues, or pointing out problems looming like icebergs in the horizon is verboten – the mob demands action, unaware that what they are demanding is the downgrading of democracy to ochlocracy.

There is a very good reason why ancient Greeks had two separate terms for these systems. In fact the very conception of democracy was in opposition to ochlocracy (from the Greek meaning rule by an unruly crowd which can turn violent, the word arrived in English via Latin as mob-rule) and which becomes the foundation for tyranny. The system in which a majority votes for something (or demands it in protest) and an executive body of ministers/lords executes that decision without any regard as to the rights of the minority is in fact an ochlocracy (not to be confused with democratic majoritarianism).

“The mob demands action, unaware that they are demanding the downgrading of democracy”

And this is exactly what May tried to do with Article 50, what the supposed defenders of British sovereignty are demanding and what President Trump is doing across the pond, as he unravels Barack Obama’s legacy while neither holding the majority of votes, nor consulting the legislature.

It might seem common sense that the result of the referendum should be acted upon immediately.

But what the Brexiteers are arguing for, and what people who think that “that’s democracy, the people have spoken” is a debate-winning point are saying, is the de-facto dissolution of democratic institutions and their replacement with a system in which “the people” speak only to the executive branch of government, which in turn answers to absolutely no one. While it stems from a different source, this seems to be a consistent demand in the opposing ends of the spectrum: why discuss and debate when the executive can give you what you want NOW? Both in the hard right and its left equivalent, the loudest get to shut up their opponents and arguments be damned.

Whinging Remainer Abraham Lincoln once warned against “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country — the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice.”

He was talking about lynchings and the dangers of substituting the court of law and the division of powers with loose interpretations of what a majority wants.

“Trump doesn't represent the majority of the people, just the loudest”

Ochlocracy further differs from majoritarianism and departs entirely from democracy in the sense that often, much like Trump – and I suspect Brexit – it doesn't actually represent the absolute majority of the people, just the loudest, most visible constituency.

This threat of violence and unrest underpins ochlocracy. Democratic majoritarianism doesn't necessarily entail disregard for the rights of others, but ochlocracy does. It depends on it. And this is what we're seeing now. That’s what we saw when Nigel Farage said “Believe you me, if the people in this country think they're going to be cheated, they're going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country” last November.

If you want to test the assumption that we are witnessing an undemocratic strain unravelling, there’s a very simple way to go about it: every Democratic decision should be in some way reversible if the voters or a branch of government decide to do so. This is the basis of much of the legal opposition to the death penalty.

If we instead follow the rationale of certain Brexiteers, the Salem witch trials were a shining example of direct democracy: a majority decided those women had to die, and how could the majority possibly be wrong?

Ancient Athens wasn’t impervious to mistakes that led to irreversible situations. In fact one of the events that inspired Plato’s contempt for democracy stemmed from such an incident (outside the execution of his teacher, Socrates) during the Peloponnesian war, in which nine of the ten treasurers of the Delian League were executed after charged of embezzling funds, only to be found innocent when only one of them remained alive.

Could a new majority be raised to reverse the June 2016 referendum? Or are we to be figuratively executed without a chance to repeal the sentence later in light of new evidence?

It seems that no, a one time vague vote, which is now demanded to be arbitrarily interpreted against the interests of millions, is somehow irreversible and there can be no compromise. The opposition in the British parliament is not exempt from taking a fatalistic approach to the results of the referendum, with Jeremy Corbyn immediately declaring Labour will vote to trigger article 50, turning what is by now evidently his personal position to party policy against 66 per cent of Labour supporters who voted to remain.

What underpins democracy is the willingness to compromise and not throw the loser of an election under the bus. This was, until recently at least, understood by the entire political spectrum. It was Edmund Burke who remarked “all government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter”. Parties used to be broad churches, especially in the UK, where the first-past-the-post system necessitated this.

By denying such compromise and furthermore shutting down those making valid arguments against what they perceive to be a wrong course, it cannot be rationally argued that what is happening around Brexit is democratic. Call it what you will, but there is no such thing as democracy without a vague consensus in the entirety of the demos.

Modern Greece might not be following exactly in the glorious footsteps of its ancestors, but its constitution has inbuilt tools to deal with an issue like Brexit. It would go down like this: after the referendum, the parliament would approve article 50. But elections would have to follow and the next parliament could actually trigger it (or not). That is to make sure people haven't changed their mind. It is also impossible for a Prime Minister to quit without triggering elections, so Theresa May would not be where she is. We’d need to make sure there was consensus among the people before we proceeded, because the opposite is dangerous and withdrawal of consent in these polarised times can lead to very perilous situations.

By telling half the electorate that you care not to represent their rights, politicians ran the risk of alienating them from the voting process and surrendering it to ever more extreme elements. There can’t be democracy like that. Then ochlocracy becomes the standard, and Tyranny is only just down the road (look at Turkey for an example).

The next step, as has been witnessed in the past, is the abandonment of civic institutions. And one must be fairly delusional to think that anything good can follow.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist whose work has appeared in Politico, the LRB, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, the New Statesman and others. He has spent too long covering the Greek crisis.