The New York Times has taken a drubbing in the British press (not least here on Coffee House) for its downbeat assessment of Brexit Britain. However the full page opinion piece it ran last Thursday, by political researcher David Adler, will be music to the ears of many Brexiteers, both left and right. ‘Centrists are the most hostile to democracy,’ declares the New York Times, in the headline and standfirst for Adler’s article. ‘Research shows that it’s not the far right or the far left that is the least supportive of democracy and the most supportive of authoritarianism. It’s the centre.’
The basis of this assessment is a wealth of data from the World Values Survey, a worldwide network of social scientists, with a headquarters in Vienna, who study the impact of changing attitudes on political and social life. Since 1981 they’ve been surveying hundreds of thousands of people in around a hundred countries across the globe. Their results have been cited in articles in newspapers ranging from the Guardian to the Telegraph.
In his opinion piece Adler focuses on the United States and Europe, and his findings are remarkable. He claims, among other things, that centrists are most sceptical about democracy, least likely to support free and fair elections and least likely to support liberal institutions.
Is he right? Well, the figures certainly look pretty damning, for both Blairites and Tory Wets. In Britain, the percentage of supposed moderates who say democracy is a ‘very good’ system is well under 50 per cent. Among ‘far’ left and ‘far’ right supporters, it’s well over half. The average score for European moderates is virtually identical. Only 42 per cent think democracy is ‘very good.’
So what does this all prove? Well, for a start it refutes the notion that centrists are the main guardians of democracy, a crucial bulwark against the anti-democratic extremes of left and right. Adler’s assessment suggests that centrists aren’t so bothered about the finer details of the democratic process. And, as a bit of a centrist myself, I have to admit he’s absolutely right.
The main reason so many centrists were fearful of holding a referendum on the EU is because they feared they’d lose. Deceitful? Yes, in so far as so few of them were willing to admit it. Hypocritical? Not really. It’s the same reason centrists never clamoured for a referendum on capital punishment – a vote that liberals knew they’d win in parliament, but quite possibly lose beyond it. It was Michael Gove who (unwittingly) put his finger on it when he said that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts…’ Centrists aren’t passionate about democracy. They’re passionate about expertise.
Expertise is never democratic. It’s elitist by its very nature. Is this a good idea or a bad idea? Naturally, that all depends on the quality of the experts you end up with. Giving the Bank of England greater independence was popular, so long as people thought the bankers knew better than the politicians. That’s why the financial crash of 2008 was such a transformative event. On the left and on the right (though not the centre) it destroyed confidence in experts. Ten years later, on the left and right, that confidence has not yet returned.
‘The warning signs are flashing red,’ writes Adler. ‘Democracy is under threat.’ Yet it’s centrists who are most disillusioned with democracy, and the centre has rarely been weaker. In Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, people are getting what they voted for. Democracy has never been in better health. The only way that centrists will regain the upper hand is if ‘the people’ become dissatisfied with the outcomes of policies they voted for. The centrists’ only hope is crisis, and that’s never been a popular campaign strategy. Only when expertise is back in fashion will the centrists return to power.
We’ve been here several times before, not least around the time of the first EU referendum. Back in 1975, voters compared the democratic chaos of Great Britain with the bureaucratic Common Market, and decided the Continental experts and their centrist parties knew best. Conversely, populists succeed when experts fail us. The economic orthodoxy of the early Thirties produced the Great Depression. The populist reaction to this expertise produced success stories as well as horror stories, not only Fascism but also FDR. Democracy remains the Holy Grail of the British political process, but it’s easy to dream up a few thought experiments to test this case. What if a left wing government used a weak, unpopular king and a constitutional crisis to hold a referendum on abolishing the monarchy, and won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent?
Of course there are a few caveats. There’s no mention in Adler’s piece of how he defines ‘far left’ and ‘far right.’ Does he mean supporters of hard-left and hard-right parties, like Germany’s Die Linke or Austria’s Freedom Party? Or does he mean something even more extreme? In a way, it hardly matters. Even in isolation, without the comparisons of left and right, these figures show centrist enthusiasm for democracy is extraordinarily low.
However it’s the biggest deficiency in these results that’s actually the most revealing. The data that Adler uses is from 2008 to 2014 – ie, after the financial crisis, but before Trump and Brexit. If centrist confidence in democracy was tepid in 2014, goodness knows how lukewarm it’s become by now.