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One of the strangest aspects of life in a democracy is how the people in charge of it – the voters – are portrayed. “The Voice of the People” is invoked in almost mystical terms, a sacred thing that must never be doubted. The most recent example of this was last year – the vote that gave us Trump. (For the sake of sanity, let’s just leave Brexit out of it.) This was a seriously bad decision for reasons that ought to be obvious now, and will surely be even more obvious as the fallout gathers pace. But what was telling was how this was portrayed. Time and again, on social media, on TV and radio, the newspapers, the Web and in politics, the vote was accepted, almost unanimously, as beyond reproach. The “voice of the people” had to be honoured, regardless of the outcome.
2016, as said, was not a good year for democracy. This year could be worse. It may bring us a Le Pen French Presidency. It could grant power to malevolent far-right turnip Geert Wilders. Chancellor Merkel could be driven out of office as a thinly-veiled far right makes hay from the refugee crisis. All around us, the world roils. Far from putting a stop to Putin and his schemes, democracy has proven unable to resist his influence and his minions. Does this mean that democracy is dead? No, but as Frank Zappa might have said, right now it does smell funny. What it does instead is unveil a strange and unusual truth – that Democracy and Monarchy share the same problem. Put simply, both systems fall apart if the people in charge are idiots. In a Monarchy, of course, the person in charge is the Monarch. If they are competent, the system carries on and the country benefits. If, however, the Monarch is corrupt, incompetent or vile, the country suffers and the system fails. Often, the collapse is total. And yet, this is also the problem with democracies. The only difference is that instead of one person in charge, it is many – the electorate. If we have a wise, sane and well-informed electorate, the country does well. But if that electorate is corrupt, ignorant or vile, the country suffers and the system fails. Often, the collapse is total.
It may seem a stretch at this point to draw parallels between, say, Tsar Nicholas II or Louis XVI and the masses who put an idiot like Trump into power. But the comparison does in fact make a great deal of sense. The only difference is, voters have to be born at the right time and place in vast numbers, whereas a Monarch only needs to do this once. Kings also come to power through back-room manoeuvres and revolution. But electorates also regularly overthrow the old order, and, as gerrymandering and vote suppression show, the stitch-ups in a democracy are every bit as shameless as intrigue at court.
Sometimes it goes even further. The masses of angry mourners for Princess Diana in 1997 are a classic example. Not ones to grieve in a dignified manner, they took a very dim view of the Queen’s refusal to publicly mourn with them. After much arm twisting, she dutifully came out, gave the most inane eulogy ever and then came back in again. The public, having got its own way, shut up and all was well for the status quo. But far from threatening the concept of Monarchy, it strengthened it in the long run. After all, Diana was, by marriage, herself a royal. Her celebrity and mystique in the eyes of the public all stemmed directly from this. Monarchy was not threatened so much as made to remember that it had to follow the “popular” will. Nearly twenty years later, and the Queen is still on the throne, buoyed up by plenty of public support.
What this showed, of course, is that monarchy and democracy can go together very well. Indeed, the relationship is often symbiotic. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain, Britain itself… As far as monarchy goes, democracy does a great job of keeping it afloat. Regardless of rhetoric or dogma, you can learn a great deal about what a system really is by the company it keeps.
At the heart of both systems, of course, is a toxic mix of bull feathers and sentimentality. Kings and Queens are viewed in the most cloying and sycophantic ways, fawned over and seen as God’s appointed Monarch. If you don’t think this is the case nowadays, think of the 2011 marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Or, when it finally happens, the Queen’s funeral. The humbug and starry-eyed mass adulation is just a royal birth away.
Yet a similar giddy and cultish air hangs around democracy too. Despite the spot-it-from-orbit stupidity of voting for Trump, the whole notion of “the people have spoken” is still portrayed as sacrosanct, something that must be accepted. If voting proves anything, it is how autocratic democracy really is. “The Will of the People” has to be “respected” (and “respect” is the most passive aggressive word in the dictionary). Those who try to stand in its way are “enemies of the people”, latter day heretics, remoaners… To challenge a vote is to challenge the Gods.
Even in democracies where there is no Monarch, this bizarre cultish reverence can still be seen. The Office of President is spoken of in hushed tones. Constitutions, even as they are ignored or Tipp-Ex’d over, are seen as sacred texts. Even inaugurations and official handovers have strange ritualistic qualities to them, like religious rites anointing a Caesar in all but name… Democracy is not a threat to Monarchy. Indeed, it pines in its absence.
Complicating things further, of course, is the flow of human history. Autocracies of one sort or another always fail in the long run because the people much prefer to oppress themselves than be oppressed. A more successful system must, therefore, be far more insidious. And the ones that do this best are democracies and monarchies, or a mixture of both. History shows a successful monarchy can last a very long time. Modern democracy, though it has taken longer to develop, is also successful, in that only a blitzkrieg or a column of Russian tanks can bring it down.
Fittingly, then, the earliest fusion of quasi-democracy and monarchy, the Papacy, shows no sign of faltering. People like to be bossed about, but they also like to boss others about too. Monarchy, which is popular, and democracy, which is populist, both meet such squalid human needs. But they also do it in a way that keeps most people more or less happy.
And given the choice between being good or happy, most people choose to be happy. Which brings us to a rather dark and sinister place. If mankind will only be free when the last king is throttled with the entrails of the last priest (or is it the other way around?), perhaps a similar fate needs to befall the last elector too? In the end, tyrants come in many forms, and there is no difference between a cruel and wicked king and cruel and wicked voters. But the real point is this – we should not put any system or man on a pedestal. In the long run, they will always end up pissing on us. (Literally, in Trump’s case.) “The Will of the People” and “The Will of the King” should only ever have qualified privilege. Sometimes, people can be awful, and why be ruled by the awful? Of course, the voters can always prove me wrong – but only in the same way a good king can.