I mostly hear the term “democratic deficit” used in relation to the situation in the European Union where the bureaucrats in Brussels are largely independent of any control by elected bodies; but the EU case, whose consequences have mostly been benign, is hardly anomalous. Worldwide, the will of the people only matters when it happens to coincide with the desires of some ruling group. Thus, most citizens of the United Kingdom didn’t support British participation in the Iraq invasion and want the troops brought home. Opinion in the United States has trended strongly in the same direction. That doesn’t seem to matter. Indeed, bringing up the disconnect between the wishes of the public and the government may be counterproductive since it is demonstrates to the operators of the system how little they have to fear from below. Every defeat of the people reinforces the arrogance of the elites. Having lost their inhibitions, the politicians and technocrats cheerfully fix elections, corrupt judicial systems, intimidate the press, and—if necessary—overturn the occasional inconvenient electoral result by simply murdering their opponents, Israeli style. I’m reminded of the Don Larson cartoon where the trained bears suddenly discover how easy it is to tear off their muzzles.
I’m not a proponent of universal populism. My political philosophy is banal indeed, a barely updated version of Aristotle’s theory of mixed government; and I believe that the will of the people is only one element in a happily constituted state. Private property and the economic inequality that goes with it require that society be maintained in a condition of perpetual tension; and science and many other cultural institutions are also anti-popular institutions that have to be maintained against the ignorance and superstition normal to our species. Nevertheless, when the level of exploitation of the many by the few becomes greater than the level at which it promotes a higher general level of welfare, it becomes morally problematic; and when it rises without moderation, it becomes practically unsustainable. Of course, it may be that advances in military technology and propaganda techniques will allow elites to maintain or increase their control; but I think it is more likely that the end of the era of economic and demographic expansion will eventually destroy the dynamic equilibrium as the haves fall out among themselves and the have-nots figure out how to get even. This set of contradictions has already resulted in at least one casualty: the word Democracy, which, like Lenin’s body, has been reeking of formaldehyde for some time now.