Shorn of accretions, the philosophy undergirding democracy, besides according reason primacy, appears to be best elucidated by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the form of the “general will”. That is, the will of the people which decides the collective interest or even good. But, while there are obvious issues and problems with this formulation, it might be taken as a starting point of analysis. In modern democracies, the general will is aggregated through and by the electoral process and elections thereof.
Elections, however, especially in a mass democracy, can throw up any one or any party that purports to or even creates an illusion among the masses to represent its will. Cases galore in the contemporary political context can be cited in support of this assertion. But, the problem here is that if and when the masses or the “general will” throws up a person , party or group to power, how can this person or party govern? Elections or electability, in no way, reflect governing capacities or capabilities. How , the question, is this fundamental problem resolved?
The answer lies in technocracy and recourse to technocratic expertise. That is, those elected to office in a democracy pick or choose expertise in given areas and employ these for governance. This is but inevitable. An elected representative of the general will is unlikely to have the relevant expertise in a given area. Consider international politics and national security. Or, economics. In either instance, only those with deep expertise and experience can actually and really be “fit for the job” , so to speak; not the elected representatives. What happens or transpires then is that while power is aggregated through the general will and elections onto a person or a party, real power shifts to those with relevant expertise.
From the “ideal type” of democracy perspective and the philosophy that undergirds it, this constitutes its subversion. While there might, at times, be ideological matches and fits between the elected representatives and the technocratic elite who actually govern, but elected power is usually subservient to functional and technical expertise, which can lead them anywhere or in directions that the elected elite might have little or no understanding of.
All this appears to find a resonance in many parts of the West, especially the United States, where the gale of populism has and is redefining politics. In the United States, for example, the technocratic elite, or let’s say, in the rendition of C Wright Mills, the “power elite”, guided the country towards directions that might or might not have been in consonance with the general will. Whether the “superior” understanding of these power elites was right, wrong, ethical or moral or immoral is besides the point here. What is pertinent is that the general will aggregated power in the elected representatives who, by and large, bought into prescriptions and ideas of the power elite. But, the general will, ultimately rebelled and revolted against the elitist “usurpation” of power. The result was and is populism. Be it the second Gulf War instigated by a narrow elite and clique within the Republican party, or the United States’ led and inspired globalization, immigration policies of an open nature, debt fuelled , consumption oriented economic growth and so on, the power elite of the United States foisted its world views and policies onto the American public, who had no say or voice while all of this was happening.
However, ultimately and finally, the general will reasserted itself, but in an ungainly and insalubrious idiom namely populism.
The phenomenon of populism then might be the most organic and authentic form or expression of the general will. But, it has an obvious dark side, which overwhelms its authenticity. Democracy then has obvious problems and issues. Does this negate the idea and concept? Perhaps not. The antidote to the dark sides of democracy, the quest for power and legitimacy might lie in creating checks and balances between technocratic governance and the general will. Nations and societies cannot be run on political instincts , electoral power games and rhetoric or even the whims and wishes of the general will( which can , at times, correspond to the “madness of crowds”). Technocratic expertise is essential and a must but real power should not slide to unelected technocrats. There, to repeat, must be a balance. How this balance can be created and achieved is a million dollar question. Perhaps constitutions and the law might constitute one answer. But, given the contingency and uncertainty that defines humankinds affairs, any answer by humans can only be tentative.
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