“It’s so easy!” Trump constantly said during his 2016 election campaign. And, indeed, his particular idea of democracy may sound simple: the people rule. But that populist cry from both the left and the right has driven some of the more unsettling elections of our times.
As the masses protest against “elites”, calling them too intellectual, too liberal, too neoliberal, too cosmopolitan, too whatever, candidates such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen imbue themselves with the authority of the people and declare themselves the representatives of the 99%.
But modern democracy has always been connected to the interests of these so-called elites. As the American historian Edmund S. Morgan writes in his book Inventing the People (1989), “Sober thought may tell us that all governments are of the people, that all profess to be for the people, and that none can literally be by the people.”
Who are the people?
Germanic tribes in their forests and the Greeks in their city-states may have voted collectively on public policy. Being few enough to fit into a public square, they could communally process their problems.
Such plebiscites are not possible today. There are too many people, and our problems are too complex.
That makes representative democracy, in which citizens elect people whose job is to manage diverse interests, the most effective form of government. It works not in spite of but because of restrictions such as the separation of powers and checks and balances.
Since the Enlightenment, elites have helped develop the system many voters seem to take for granted today. They’ve done so for pragmatic, political, idealistic or self-interested reasons, seeking to promote, install, defend and reform democratic ideas and practices or represent citizens in parliaments.
Around 1800, this class of people began to gain more influence in the US and in Europe, as they realised how important it was for the state to win over citizens.
After an electoral turnout of 5% in 1813, French clerks assumed that no one would object to abolishing the right to vote. In a young United States, political parties lured unwilling citizens to the polls with threats, money or alcohol.
By the early 19th century, though, reformers in Prussia and elsewhere were already launching a top-down effort to herald voting as a privilege to “spark the public spirit”. In journals and flyers, educated people intensely debated the ideas of equality and participation, urging people to vote and warning against demagogues.
These elites also called for expanding the right to vote and for protecting free polling. Over the course of the early 19th century, municipal ordinances introduced across Prussia ultimately gave suffrage to almost 3% of the population (this was quite a lot back then, on par with America’s 4% enfranchisement).
In the 19th century, elections also served as a governance tool. Each vote was as a census in miniature. Over decades, those who went to the polls were registered, their lands valued, their tax burden defined. Men became accomplices of the state apparatus through the simple act of voting.
Educated, newspaper-reading elites may have been abstractly debating the parliament and the right of co-determination back then, but most people still struggled with problems such as hunger and scarcity.
Lacking the resources for cultivating participatory ideals, they expressed their needs through protest, leading to Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
Napoleon III, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, who was quite an expert in public relations, realised that the gem of popular approval would look great in his imperial crown. So he set up elections as a spectacle, handpicking candidates and forcing his subjects to vote for them.
Around 1870, the US, Germany and several other countries enacted universal male suffrage. Again, this was mostly driven by elites interested in deepening democratic practice.
But it was not universally popular. The US had just finished a bloody civil war in 1867 when its government extended the right to vote to all male citizens. Most white people fiercely opposed this move, and they said so at referendum, even in the supposedly more enlightened North.
It was an elite bloc inside the Republican Party that pushed for military enforcement to defend the right to vote for black citizens in the south.
As in other elite-driven enfranchisement efforts, motivations here were mixed: one of the Republicans’ goal surely was to be reelected. Still, their efforts helped usher in the short period of relative black empowerment known as Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877.
Likewise, Germans have their elites to thank for getting the right to vote in 1867. Otto von Bismarck, like other statesman of his era, saw universal (male) suffrage as a cornerstone of nation-building and believed that a strong centralised state would help him apply German egalitarian aspirations to all citizens.
Citizens, for their part, found voting more attractive because it would help define their nation-state and establish them as equals. Foundational national pride motivated men to go to the polls, to pay taxes, even to die as soldiers.
The thing about elites
Obviously, elites did not act as a unified bloc in expanding voting rights in the US and Germany, and many upper class citizens resisted these changes.
For Americans, race has always been a cleavage among white people, regardless of class. When malicious voting restrictions quickly disenfranchised African Americans in the 1890s, their introduction was thanks in no small part to elites who had embraced new racist thought with vigour.
Some of these were likely the same educated liberals who helped introduce polling booths and secret ballots to contribute to the ideal of a free and fair election. Deepening democracy was – and remains – a meandering, contradictory process.
People were also more educated and generally better off than they had been 50 years earlier, giving them time and the wherewithal to read newspapers and engage in politics. This, too, is part of democracy’s complex history: without education and relative prosperity, it’s hard to effectively exercise the vote.
Recent events such as the Brexit vote and US President Donald Trump’s win have demonstrated the appeal of a foreshortened, populist understanding of democracy. History tells us that this notion – democracy as unchecked people power – is a myth. And in the sprawling modern world, it is now an impossibility.
Democracy, when it works, has always been in part an elite project.