Rotten Boroughs Everywhere

The British people’s decision to leave the European Union reveals that Britain, like the EU itself, suffers from a “democracy deficit.”

Several commentators have noted that that reality suggests the problem is not so much a political one, but instead concerns a feeling that “globalization can and has run roughshod over the economic and social orders of old,” and “the extraordinary movement of populations in the world today.” Ramesh Ponnuru argues that it is not Britain but the EU that suffers from the problem; but he probably overcorrects.

Voters have little say in European lawmaking. Similarly, they have not had all that much say over the project of “ever closer union.” Recall that when the French and the Dutch rejected the European Constitution, the Euro-aristoi essentially went ahead with their plans, anyway. It’s worth noting that, with the Brexit, an overwhelming majority of the Members of Parliament opposed it even though 52 percent of the British people supported it.

The British disparity, on something so fundamental as national sovereignty and even national identity, reveals a serious problem: that purportedly representative institutions are not, in fact, representative. In Britain—and in the United States as well—an increasingly important dynamic in our politics is that of the “people” against “the establishment.” That is precisely the dynamic that a well-constructed constitution is supposed to manage.

Part of the problem might simply be the size of the British Parliament. It might be that, given the number and distribution of Britons today compared to a century ago, the representative units, or “constituencies,” are simply too large to expect to create a truly representative Parliament.

In the months leading up to American independence, John Adams published his “Thoughts on Government,” discussing how independent states might construct their governments. Of the lower house, Adams wrote:

“The principle difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this representative assembly. It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them. That it may be the interest of this assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.”

Brexit suggests that Parliament is not representative in that sense. Classically, Britain had the Lords to balance the Commons. That has long ceased to be the case in any significant way. The result is a de facto unicameral government, which might be part of what’s gone awry. The House of Commons itself now seems an elite or even aristocratic body serving the interests of the ruling class rather than the interests of the people.

That said, part of the reason for Brexit is that electoral politics made it necessary for David Cameron to promise to allow the vote in order to win re-election for his party. In that sense, the referendum represents the demos reasserting its place in a mixed regime. The job of the governing class, therefore, is to moderate and balance the real and legitimate interests and desires of the people, rather than to rule them by fiat.

The problem is slightly different with both the EU and the United States.

In the former to a great degree, and in the latter to a lesser, lawmaking is in fact not directly democratic. Given the amount of rulemaking that is done by people with jobs during good behavior (an unwanted return of the King’s civil list, one might say) the will of the people has no means of influencing what much of our government does.

To remedy that problem will not be easy. Even so, as the rise of Donald Trump demonstrates, the alternative to working with the people’s desires, however rational or irrational they may be, inside the regular political process is for populist movements to rise and threaten an end-run around the regular democratic (which is to say small “r” republican, or representative) process.

Near the start of his Defence of the Constitutions, Adams observes:

“It is become a kind of fashion among writers, to admit, as a maxim, that if you could be always sure of a wise, active, and virtuous prince, monarchy would be the best of governments. But this is so far from being admissible, that it will forever remain true, that a free government has a great advantage over a simple monarchy. The best and wisest prince, by means of a freer communication with his people, and the greater opportunities to collect the best advice from the best of his subjects, would have an immense advantage in a free state over a monarchy. A senate consisting of all that is most noble, wealthy, and able in the nation, with a right to counsel the crown at all times, is a check to ministers, and a security against abuses, such as a body of nobles who never meet, and have no such right, can never supply. Another assembly, composed of representatives chosen by the people in all parts, gives free access to the whole nation, and communicates all its wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes to government; it excites emulation among all classes, removes complaints, redresses grievances, affords opportunities of exertion to genius, though in obscurity, and gives full scope to all the faculties of man; it opens a passage for every speculation to the legislature, to administration, and to the public; it gives a universal energy to the human character, in every part of the state, such as never can be obtained in a monarchy.”

A well-balanced representation, if it does its job, keeps the people as a whole—the elite class and the demos–connected. It draws them together, amid some political chafing to be sure. Failing that, we are likely to see that ancient story of the people against the aristoi.

Today’s would-be elites sometimes seem to wish that they served other people than the ones who elected them. No one, after all, likes having a boss. And people with elite university degrees are very unlikely to accept that common citizens are, in fact, their masters. The kicker is, given the ideology prevailing among today’s elites, that they do so while claiming to represent “egalitarian values.”

Unless our representative institutions can be made more truly representative, and our lawmaking can be made to reflect the will of the people, the populist wave will crash harder than we are prepared to expect.