What FARC, Trump, Brexit, and Coles County have in Common
Last weekend, "the Columbian People" narrowly voted in a referendum against a peace treaty with FARC to end a 52 year civil war that has claimed... well, does it matter? It's a 52 year long war that has ravaged a modern nation, fueled by illegal drug trafficking.
Several weeks ago in primary elections, Republican voters largely selected Donald Trump for the top of the Republican ticket across the United States. Primary elections are basically referendums.
A few months ago, "the people of Great Britain" narrowly voted in a referendum in favor of Brexit.
I live in Coles County, a rural area in Illinois. Every few years, a referendum comes up to increase support of schools, usually with the promise of a large financial match from the state. And each year, Coles County is one of the only counties in Illinois to vote against supporting schools.
Some decisions just cannot be left in the hands of "the people." With the collective attention span of a gnat, "the people" don't know what the hell they are voting for and often don't understand the strategic consequences of their actions.
Popular Sovereignty is Dangerous
The idea that "the People" should get to vote on something is called Popular Sovereignty. In British and American history, the rise of popular sovereignty in the 16th and 17th Centuries led to cataclysmic changes in how nation states operated. Before the rise of popular sovereignty, people generally believed in the "divine right of kings," that some people were born to rule and should be trusted to lead the nation. These people were raised and trained (some might say coddled) with this end in mind. The rest of the people went along with this myth.
Over time, the British Empire supplanted the divine right of kings with popular sovereignty: the idea that the people and not the monarch was sovereign. This led to elections. The elite, therefore, had to get voted in by the masses. This was pretty easy to do for the rich: they just bought things for voters. George Washington, for instance, threw huge parties with loads of free beer the day the members of the House of Burgesses were elected. It worked too. The people loved getting drunk on Washington's beer and they voted for him every time. It wasn't just Washington, however. Everyone who wanted to get elected had to throw huge parties. Since only the rich and educated could pull this off, only the rich and educated were elected.
Popular Sovereignty was, therefore, kind of a joke. The elite recognized how dangerous the voters really were: they could be bought with the promise of free beer!
With the rise of popular sovereignty, the divine right of kings was supplanted by the "divine right of the People." One mythology was replaced by another. In Inventing the People, Edmund Morgan, Sterling Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale University, argued that America's Founding Fathers invented the idea of the American people and used it to impose a new government on the new nation, while keeping a sort of aristocracy (educated, wealthy elite) in place.
The most educated, wealthiest, and best trained minds should govern, while the ignorant rabble continued on with their lives, safely away from the reigns of power. Pure democracy, as in a referendum, is scary because no one knows how the uneducated rabble will vote. Leaders, the Founders reasoned, cannot fetter their decisions to the ignorant masses.
Doing so leads to such tragedies as Shay's Rebellion (image above).
In college (about 20 years ago), one of my liberal professors argued that every election should be a referendum. The technology would soon be available (and it certainly is now) and why not cut out the layers of leaders, and just let "The People" make decisions?
Such an idea would have shocked the Founding Fathers, and rightly so. The first government of the United States was founded on a similar principle of democracy, and the government was inept and powerless, beholden to "The People", leading to such tragedies as Shay's Rebellion.
So the educated elites scrapped it, and produced the Constitution of the United States. Coyly, the document began, 'We the People', but it put the power of government as far from the people as possible. Originally, the only body of government the voters actually selected was the House of Representatives, the weakest of the branches. The real power was placed in the Senate and the Presidency, and as far from the voters as possible.
The Founders knew that an ignorant, emotional mass of humanity cannot be trusted, especially if it's armed, a.k.a., Shay's Rebellion. The masses will follow demagogues rather than read white papers, they'll follow emotional hype rather than think critically about historical trends. Tweets and slogans can sway the masses to vote against ending a 52 year long war, or to leave a peaceful union of powerful nations, or into selecting Trump, ...or against free money to support rural schools.
Some decisions are too important to leave in the hands of "the people."
Democracy is dangerous. It has the power to liberate the oppressed and empower the trodden, but it's most dangerous when elites, born and bred to rule, ignore the masses with their policies, concentrate benefits for the few and trump objective notions of truth and justice. Eventually, the people will believe the mythology of their own power, revolt, and seek to overthrow the establishment and all they have worked to produce.
Like ending a 52-year long war with a flawed but effective peace, or leaving a decades long flawed but peaceful economic union, or rejecting qualified statesman for a demagogue, or allowing school funding to slip through the fingers of hungry, moldable students.
An uneducated and emotional electorate is the most dangerous weapon on earth. And if that uneducated and emotional electorate is armed to the teeth, then you get tragedies like Shay's Rebellion.