Let us suppose for the sake of argument that your father’s dotty old Aunt Hilda—whom you haven’t seen in forty years, and who recently died at 103—left you, as her only heir, the sum of twenty-five million dollars, all in cash, and twenty-five cats who shared her last abode.
And let us further suppose that, after placing the cats out for adoption and depositing one million of those dollars in your personal chequing account to cover immediate lifestyle changes, you now needed to decide how to properly invest and grow the remaining twenty-four million.
To whom would you turn for advice?
Would you enlist the help of reliable, established bankers, investment counsellors, financial gurus, and market analysts, perhaps? Learned and experienced people whose profession it is to help other people make money, even while being reimbursed for their efforts? Let us call this the elite option.
Or would you call on twenty-five of your closest friends who, in return for the chance to party with you and celebrate your great, good fortune, would come up with a plan as to how you should invest the rest? That plan could be approved by a majority vote of 13–12, swayed perhaps by the most persuasive of the group, rather than by the most knowledgable. Let us call this the populist option.
Another example: suppose you have been recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, out of the blue, and that you have very little time to decide on the best course of action from a number of medical options that might, possibly, save your life, although there are no guarantees.
To whom would you turn for advice?
Would you, in addition to talking with your loved ones, consult with your physician, specialists to whom (s)he refers you, and other experts in the field? Would you seek second, third, even fourth opinions from people who have studied their entire lives to deal with critical situations such as yours? Let us call this, again, the elite option.
Or would you gather together concerned family members and friends, all of whom love you and wish the best for you, to ask, by majority vote, what treatment plan you should follow—the established medical option, a naturopathic or homeopathic approach, or maybe the experimental route (which would require travel to a foreign country for procedures not recognized in your home and native land)? Let us call this, again, the populist option.
In these examples (deliberately simplistic, I know), there are dilemmas confronting you and decisions you would have to make. To whom would you turn in such critical situations, the elites or the populists?
Two major countries are currently dealing with such dilemmas. The United Kingdom recently voted, in a simple-majority referendum, to leave the European Union, of which it has been a member for the past forty-three years. The long-term ramifications of this decision have not yet been clearly enunciated, much less experienced by the people who voted. But ramifications there will be, socially, politically, and economically. For generations to come.
To whom did the UK turn to make such a momentous decision? To their elected members of Parliament, who might know a thing or two about the issues, presumably their ‘best and brightest’? Or, as they have been described, sometimes disparagingly, the elites.
Or did they opt to leave it to the people at large, the ‘great unwashed’, to use a phrase coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Or, as they are often referred to, usually reverently, the populists.
As we know, the populist approach was chosen, the people spoke (even though many of those who voted had no clear notion of what the EU is, how it has affected their country since 1973, and what its future benefits might have been), and a decision was irrevocably determined. And it is left now to the elites, the people’s duly-elected representatives, to deal with the aftermath.
The second major power, the United States of America, is currently in the throes of a presidential election, a grotesque carnival showcasing democracy as it has come to be practiced in the twenty-first century. Two candidates have been, or are about to be, nominated for the final run-off a few months from now.
One is disparaged by her opponents as being from among the elite—kow-towing to wealthy, influential financiers, interested only in lining her own pockets, favouring big-government policies and programs, and inherently untrustworthy.
The other is mocked and ridiculed by his opponents as self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, and catering to the populists—seeking to capitalize on the worst instincts and fears of those who consider themselves to be, perhaps with some justification, downtrodden, ignored, and oppressed by the wealthy and powerful.
It is, indeed, a dilemma that faces the American republic. Should the right to decide be restricted to citizens who are intelligent enough, sufficiently informed, and suitably engaged in the process to be trusted with such a critical matter? The elites?
Or should everyone have the inalienable right to vote, regardless that a sizable number may be ill-informed to the point of ignorance of the issues, isolationist to the point of xenophobia, and armed (many of them) to the point of absurdity? The populists?
In a faraway time when the world was comprised of isolated nation-states, interacting only minimally and infrequently with each other, a form of democracy that enfranchised every citizen might have seemed a good idea. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, to quote Abraham Lincoln. Few decisions made by such nations would have impacted severely on any others.
Today, however—when no nation is an island, when every nation is inextricably bound up with every other nation, when every hiccup and sneeze on the international stage has consequences—can the world afford to leave major decisions in the hands of those who know nothing of the potential aftermaths of their actions? To those who take no steps to learn, to become informed citizens, to engage with the issues facing their country?
I confess, I do not know.
To preserve and enhance your multi-million-dollar windfall, to whom would you turn, the elites or the populists?
To perhaps cure your illness and save your life, to whom would you turn?
To preserve a peaceful, live-and-let-live world for all of us, to whom would you turn?