Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Brexit and Trump brought back an old debate that marked the origins of democracy – should the right to vote be a universal right or be limited to some classes?
In the beginning the major concern centred on the possibility that the destitute would vote to expropriate the rich, and therefore the right to vote was restricted to those with property. This concern was progressively abandoned and, if anything, Trump’s victory promising huge tax cuts for the rich shows that the risk of voting to take from the poor to give to the rich also exists.
Another concern was in relation to socially marginalized persons.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Karl Marx named them as the lumpenproletariat, including: “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème”.
This year, in a regretted declaration, Hilary Clinton coined her modern-day equivalent of “deplorables”, by saying: “to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that”. Her definition enlarges the concept of marginal to those that do not share the values of western democracies.
A third category includes the so-called welfare bums, that is people without work living on benefits. This group has grown significantly in advanced economies and is likely increase further as the pace of robotics increases. Indeed, in the future they may become the majority.
The concern about giving such people the right to vote is that they may be easily manipulated to vote for unscrupulous populist leaders like Trump or Chavez.
This is certainly true, but it is no reason to abandon voting as a universal right.
It is the essence of democracy that, in any highly contested election, the winner may win the majority with the votes of a small group of voters, no matter how outrageous their views are.
Democracy does not guarantee that the electorate always selects the best candidates. What it needs to safeguard is that people remain free to vote out the leaders.
Here resides the safety and supremacy of democracy, and it must be secured in four main domains: a) some decisions, like constitutional amendments, must be approved by a qualified majority; b) direct democracy (referendum or plebiscites) must be limited to local or moral issues; c) those in government must not use the resources of the state to promote themselves or to harass their opponents; and d) last, but not least, the constitution must enshrine the principles of the division of powers and the rule of law.
At the present, the USA applies these principles. So, the election of Trump must be seen as the normal working of democracy. All that his opponents must do is fight any attempts to pervert the principles listed above and to show that his policies are wrong.
If they do it right, he will not be re-elected and the electorate will have learned a lesson. This has nothing to do with restricting the fundamental principle of democracy - “one-person, one-vote”.