ATHENS, Greece — I have a profound respect for the intelligence of the voter. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, but more important is what he actually said in the House of Commons on Oct. 31, 1944: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly palliate the overwhelming importance of that point.”
Nobody, looking back at the first 16 years of this century, can suggest that the political and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and (at least until last year in the United States) middle-class income stagnation have not made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity.
No wonder experts are increasingly viewed as being in the business of bamboozling for their own ends. Ordinary folk reckon the system is rigged, that elites are not in it for the people but for money. This is the Age of Distrust. No two presidential candidates have ever been as distrusted as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The mistakes that I mentioned occurred in the midst of a technological whirlwind that moved factories offshore and migrants onshore, and offered huge opportunity for the initiated at the hubs of globalization’s churn while stripping many outlying places and outcast people of their raison d’être.
Technology is a wonderful thing if you are putting it to use, less so if it is putting an end to your usefulness.
Many people in liberal democracies feel they are being tossed hither and thither by forces beyond their control — nowhere more so than in Greece, where national elections in recent years — and there have been a lot of them — have revealed an almost complete disconnect between the vote itself and any tangible effect.
What then is democracy, a mere game?
The unease has been compounded by the sense of insecurity instilled by jihadist terrorism and other violence. Bombings in New York and New Jersey and a stabbing attack at a Minnesota mall are still under investigation, but fear often begets intolerance and the quest for a ruthless leader.
All this is the backdrop to Trump, to Marine Le Pen in France, to Brexit, to the nationalist governments dominating Central Europe, to the rise in Germany of the rightist Alternative fur Deutschland, to the vogue for authoritarian models — in short, to the challenges facing liberal democracies.
Marx noted that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The British decision to exit the European Union was the exception — simultaneous tragedy and farce, a disaster abetted by lies, energized by a buffoon and consummated in mayhem.
This was the moment when it became irrefutable that some of the very foundations of the postwar world and the spread of liberal democracy — free trade, free markets, more open borders, fact-based debate, ever greater integration — had collapsed.
I am pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long term.
The problems cannot be righted in short order. Politicians are going to have to work very hard to earn back the trust of the people. A serious issue exists with what Stephen Walt of Harvard University has called the “ruling elites in many liberal societies and especially the United States, where money and special interests have created a corrupt political class that is out of touch with ordinary people, interested mostly in enriching themselves, and immune to accountability.” This has to end.
Democracy has to deliver — not just to the rich but also to the most vulnerable. When democracy creates wealth on a broad scale there is no tension between it and capitalism. But when that is not the case, the value of democracy becomes less clear to some. There are tensions between national sovereignty, open global markets and mass migration.
The answer is not to build walls. Western societies need to build education and innovation and opportunity. I believe in the resilience of liberal democracy, in the little woman in the little booth. Greece knows that the democratic idea is stubborn.
Technology has prized the world open. Nobody — not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Trump — can shatter that interconnectedness. Nor can anybody quash forever the human desire to be free and to live under the only form of government consistent with that desire — representative government installed with the consent of the people.
Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions. Dictatorships fear broad challenge because it may cause them to buckle. But challenge in democracies is also rebirth.
Respect the intelligence of voters. Sooner or later they come to their senses. Churchill was kicked out of office in an election in 1945, just months after defeating Hitler. Talk about gratitude. He was re-elected in 1951.