Consider the following quotes:
I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes, but the populace has yet to be taught the true state of these things. A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens; therefore it must in self-defence withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.
Francis Galton, Memories of My Life, p 311
On the practicability or desirability of political and industrial democracy… If the bulk of the people were to remain poor and uneducated, was it desirable, was it even safe, to entrust them with the weapon of trade unionism, and, through the ballot box, with making and controlling the government of Great Britain with its enormous wealth and its far-flung dominions?
Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship, p 173
No scientifically ordered state, it is obvious, could be democratic; it would be aristocratic: the most intelligent would be the rulers. But we have universal suffrage: the vote of the half-wit is as good as that of the one-and-a-half wit.
Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Vol II, p 75
Under a democratic form of government no legislation much ahead of public opinion can be carried; and this is the chief danger arising when a democratic form of government is evolved in advance of the education of the democracy. In such circumstances the combination of an imperfectly informed electorate with a paid professional legislature is only too apt to conduce to the establishment of a vicious circle in which true social science is prostituted by the promulgation of so-called reforms which are a pandering to the present, rather than part of a definite system designed to further the real development and progress of the nation.
Arthur Tredgold, Eugenics Education Society, cited in GR Searle, Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914, p 68
Democracy was never intended for degenerates
Margaret Gunn, President, United Farm Women of Alberta, cited in R Cairney ‘Democracy was never intended for degenerates’: Alberta’s fliration with eugenics comes back to haunt it. Canadian Medical Association Journal 155 (1996)
Now, consider the following:
There are stupid, ignorant people in every country but their blameless stupidity mostly doesn’t matter because they are not asked to take historically momentous and irrevocable decisions of state… It is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication.
Richard Dawkins, ‘David Cameron’s Reckless Folly’, Prospect, 6 July 2016
Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions…
Perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do… better. In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge.
Jason Brennan, ‘Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy’, Princeton University Press blog, 24 June 2016
Like all fundamentalisms, democratic extremism takes a noble idea, that everyone’s political views should count equally, too far. But if democracy is to endure, voters must inform themselves of the facts, avoid being swayed by prejudice and emotion, and to base judgements on evidence. The romantic invocation of popular sovereignty is no substitute for calm deliberation.
Garvan Walshe, ‘Will too much democracy bring the United Kingdom to an end?’ Conservative Home, 30 June 2016
Elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself…. It seems shocking to argue that we need elites in this democratic age — especially with vast inequalities of wealth and elite failures all around us. But we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.
Andrew Sullivan, ‘Democracies end when they are too democratic’, New York Magazine, May 2016
‘Direct democracy is the last Leftist myth’, Zizek tells me… He says referendums are impractical for resolving transnational challenges, and would prefer ‘the appearance of a free decision, discretely guided’ by a discerning elite.
Slavoj Zizek interviewed by Benjamin Ramm, Open Democracy, 1 July 2016
The first set of quotes came from intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the moment when democracies were becoming realities in the West. They express the fears of the elite at the idea of the masses having a say in governance. All subscribed to eugenics as a way of improving society, and many saw themselves as progressives and on the left.
The second set of quotes come from this year, in response in particular to the Brexit vote in Britain and to the rise of Donald Trump in America. The echoes of the old fears are unmistakable. Even the language often echoes that of the past – Richard Dawkins’ blast against ‘unqualified simpletons’ brings to mind, with a shudder, the old talk of the ‘feebleminded’ ‘morons’ and ‘imbeciles’. I am not suggesting that Dawkins or anyone else in the second list is a eugenicist, or gives any credence to eugenic views about genetic betterment or racial improvement. Such ideas have now been relegated very much to the darkest of margins. But eugenics also reflected a fear and contempt of the masses, and a desire for a more aristocratic society, where aristocracy was defined, in Aldous Huxley’s words as ‘the aristocracy of the mind’. It is these themes that are coming much more into mainstream discourse – the idea that the masses cannot be trusted with important decisions, that they take decisions on impulse or prejudice rather than reason, that they do not know what is best for them, that the elite is necessary to keep the regressive ideas of the masses in check, that the problem of democracy is that there is too much democracy. This is not a left vs right debate – today, as a century ago, the anti-democratic impulse comes from both left and right, from both reactionaries and self-defined progressives.
I will write more fully on this soon. There may even be a book in there somewhere…
The image is Anthony Gormley’s ‘Fields’