Although we can criticize ‘elites,’ they were instrumental in the development of modern Democracy

While the masses protest and “elites” by calling them to intellectuals, to liberals, to neoliberals, cosmopolitans, or whatever else, candidates like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen infuse themselves with authority and declare themselves to be the representatives of the 99%.

Modern Democracy has always been linked to the interests and power of these elites. In his 1989 book Inventing the People, the American historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote: “Sober thinking may tell us that governments are all of the people. They all claim to be for the citizens, but none can be literally by the citizens.”

Who are people?

Germanic tribes in their forests and Greeks in the city-states could have voted on public policy collectively. They could solve their problems collectively because they were few enough to fit in a public space.

Today, such plebiscites would be impossible. Our problems are too complicated, and there are just too many people.

Referendum in Glarus, Switzerland 2006. Adrian Sulc/Wikimedia

It is because of this that representative Democracy, where citizens elect individuals whose task it is to manage diverse interests, is the most effective government form. It is not because but rather because of the restrictions, such as the separation of powers and checks and balances.

Since the Enlightenment, elites have contributed to the development of the system that many voters today seem to accept as a given. They have done this for a variety of reasons: pragmatic, political, ideological, or self-interested. They want to promote, implement, defend, and reform democratic practices and ideas or represent citizens in Parliaments.

Around 1800, the class began to gain influence in Europe and the US, realizing how crucial it was to convince citizens to support the state.

After an 1813 electoral turnout rate of 5%, French clerks assumed no one would object to the abolition of the right to vote. Political parties in the young United States lured citizens unwilling to vote with money, alcohol, or threats.

Reformers in Prussia and elsewhere had already launched a top-down campaign to promote voting as a right to ” ignite the public spirit” by the early 19th Century. In flyers and journals, educated people debated intensely the ideas of participation and equality, encouraging people to vote and warning them against demagogues.

The presidential campaign of 1848 in France. Two boys fight, one for Cavaignac and the other for Louis Napoleon. Kjetil r/WikimediaCC BY

They also called for the expansion of the right to vote and for free voting. In the early 19th Century, Prussian municipal ordinances gave the right to vote to nearly 3% of its population.

Universal suffrage

In the 19th Century, elections were also used to govern. Each vote was a miniature census. Over the years, voters were registered, lands valued, and tax burdens defined. By voting, men became accomplices in the state apparatus.

The educated elites who read newspapers then may have debated the parliament and the right to co-determination, but the majority of people were still struggling with hunger and scarcity.

They were unable to cultivate participatory ideals, so they protested, leading to the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.

Napoleon III was the emperor of France between 1852 and 1870. He was an expert at public relations. He knew that a gem of approval from his subjects would be a great addition to his imperial crown. He then set up the elections as a show and forced his subjects to vote.

Hermann Luders’ 1883 drawing of German elections from a popular magazine. German Journal, Author provided

Around 1870, several countries, including the US, Germany, and others, introduced universal male suffrage. This was again largely driven by elites interested in advancing democratic practices.

It was not popular everywhere. In 1867, the US government had just ended a bloody Civil War when it extended voting rights to all male citizens. The majority of white people were against this decision, and they expressed their opposition at a referendum, even in the North.

A small group of elite Republicans pushed for the use of military force to protect the voting rights of blacks in the South.

Like other elite-driven enfranchisement campaigns, the motivations were mixed. One of the Republicans’ goals was undoubtedly to be reelected. Their efforts did, however, help to usher in a brief period of relative black empowerment from 1865-1877, known as Reconstruction.

The German elites were also responsible for the vote being granted in 1867. Otto von Bismarck and other politicians of his time saw universal male suffrage (as a cornerstone) as an important part of nation-building. He also believed that a centralized, strong state would enable him to apply German egalitarian ideals to all citizens.

Voting was more appealing to citizens because it helped define their nation-state and established them as equals. The foundational pride in their nation motivated them to vote, pay taxes, and even die as soldiers.

The problem with elites

Many upper-class citizens in Germany and the US did not support these changes.

Race has always been an issue for Americans, regardless of their class. In the 1890s, when racist voting restrictions disenfranchised African Americans, they were introduced by elites who had adopted new racist thoughts with vigor.

These were probably the same educated liberals who introduced secret ballots and polling booths in order to achieve the ideal of free and fair elections. The process of deepening Democracy has been and continues to be a contradictory, meandering one.

Harper’s Weekly portrays an illusion. Black and white people are united to achieve universal suffrage. Alfred R. Waud/Wikimedia

In 1900, worldwide, women were demanding the right to voteWestern Democracy was becoming an important subject for the masses.

The people were more educated, and in general better off, than 50 years ago. This gave them the time to read newspapers and participate in politics. It’s all part of the complex history of Democracy: Without education and relative wealth, it is difficult to vote effectively.

Recent events, such as the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump in the US, have shown the appeal of a populist and foreshortened understanding of Democracy. This notion of Democracy as unchecked power by the people is a myth, according to history. In the modern, sprawling world, it’s impossible.

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