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July 22nd, 2010 Posted in Uncategorized by

Democracy is a term we use to dignify the mechanisms by which the few govern the many. The many generally bear this subjection with stoicism. Occasionally they rebel and seek to establish a genuinely populist movement. But soon the new populism falls into the hands of its own elite, self-serving, self-referential and indignant when challenged.

Jonathan Clark
Hall Distinguished Professor of British History
University of Kansas

3 Responses to “Democracy”

  1. Niklas Smith Says:

    Jonathan Clark is being a bit unhistorical here, perhaps surprisingly for a historian: after all, many concepts have been used to “dignify the mechanisms by which the few govern the many” from divine right to civic republicanism to racism.

    As a system of decision-making democracy is unique in the assumption that it is the majority that makes the decisions. Any liberal is not happy for this to be accepted without caveats (hence the concept of inalienable rights). Populism often slides into collectivism (i.e. the majority trampling individual rights) and/or nativism and xenophobia (the standard corruption of American populism in particular).

    A less elite-dominated political system is good, and is promised by the Coalition (let’s see how much real decentralisation they deliver). Populism is not good, at least from a liberal perspective. As we say in Sweden, Mr Clark “är ute och cyklar”.

  2. Niklas Smith Says:

    P.S. The Swedish expression literally translates as “is out on his bike”, and means that someone is arguing without foundation.

  3. Tom Papworth Says:


    To be fair to Prof. Clark, I did lift this paragraph out of a longer article. I would have linked to it, but History Today isn’t very easy to search and I couldn’t find it online.

    His point was that the recent passion for electoral reform needs to be seen in context: for example, the reviled first-past-the-post system was a late-Victorian (and early C20th, though Clark doesn’t acknowledge this) innovation that sought to improve democracy by doing away with multi-member constituencies.

    Multi-member constituencies are now in vogue with electoral reformers, incluidng Liberal Democrats, albeit with the aim of electing them by STV rather than the earlier system, which could have been called first-two-past-the-post. That system led to a lot of split constituencies and (Clark says) made it rare for administrations to be ejected by the electorate.

    He nonetheless suggests that elites quickly re-emerge after any revolution, leaving the masses disappointed in their hope for genuinely greater control over their lives. He certainly is not suggesting that other mechanisms (like those you have quoted) are not also ” mechanisms by which the few govern the many”, and I am sorry if my choice of quote gave you that impression.