In his recent book, Democracy Under Siege, Frank Furedi coins the term “demophobia” to describe the panic felt by the elite towards democracy that began long before the election of Donald Trump. Its origins can be traced back to the 18th century at least when the development of democracy was stalled by a fear of the populace as an untamed beast that could not be trusted to vote intelligently or responsibly.
Today that same nervousness is seen in fear of the populism epitomised by Trump. It is frequently cast in psychological terms, as a disease infecting the body politic.
When Carter and Harris bemoan the fragile state of US democracy, they actually want less of it. They want more responsibility to be assumed by the responsible elite, the anointed ones, blessed with a superior understanding of the world who can be trusted to do the right thing.
They possess a deep-seated conviction that most humans lack the moral and intellectual resources to determine the future direction of their society and are ripe for manipulation by populist demagogues. Critics of populism invariably conclude their alarmist accounts with the warning that unless populist movements are crushed, we will witness the rise of another Hitler, says Furedi.
The portrayal of populist politics as a symptom of psychological disorder has gained momentum, reaching its apotheosis with the candidacy of Trump in 2016. From that point on, the die was cast, in the view of the elite cast, whose unrestrained anger at Trump’s election went way beyond his obvious failings as a president and was blind to his surprising strengths.
The conviction that Trump would not have been elected were it not for his ability to cast something akin to a hypnotic spell over the populace culminated with the accusation Trump had incited thousands of his own supporters to overpower the inadequate security detail and seize control of the Capitol Hill Building. The incident is routinely described, without qualification, as an insurrection. …
Covid-19 is the excuse to bypass democratic responsibility the elites had been looking for. Political leaders around the world no longer see fit to justify policy decisions on the grounds that they are merely right. No message, statement or utterance could be made without the qualification that it was based on irrefutable expert advice. As things turned out, the combined expertise of the world’s technocratic class has been no match for the cunning virus, which has outwitted them at every turn. Yet the elite’s faith in the superior morality and omnipotence of experts remains undaunted.
The question left hanging by Furedi is what happens next, now the pandemic is in its waning phase and normal democratic business can be resumed. As the pandemic moves to an endemic phase, public health restrictions become redundant and responsibility can return to individuals to manage their own affairs. Decrees on vaccinations and masks should revert to the status of public health advice. There is precious little sign that is happening.
For instance, imagine if voting rules in the US returned to normal: