I recently listened to episode 312 of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, in which he discusses the current political and social climate of the world with renowned science historian James Burke. This was an excellent show, and well worth a listen, and Mr Burke makes some fascinating predictions about the future of the world, particularly in the realms of democracy and human interaction.
However, one observation he made that Dan Carlin likewise picked up on, was his predictions of a future ruled by direct (or mechanically assisted) democracy. Mr Burke seemed to view democracy as a naturally positive force, and maintained a healthy reliance on an inherent goodness of the human character, but his arguments for a form of government in which majority will is always followed presented to me a nightmarish view of the future in which state policy would be decided upon whim and in which expert opinion or experience would be equated exactly as much say as someone with no interest in the subject at hand.
The Athenian model of direct democracy, to my knowledge the only time such a policy was actually attempted in global history, led to a fractious and indecisive foreign policy at a time of great uncertainty across the Hellespont. The disastrous invasion of Sicily resulted directly from military policy being decided in an open forum, in which powers of oration were of greater import than logistical experience.
It is the field of military and diplomatic affairs that should most deter any hopes for a fully direct system of democratic rule; the Athenian voters were all subject to military service, and yet their decision making process throughout their history of democracy was fraught by atrocious choices. In our modern world, in which military affairs receive comparatively little attention, the voting public could not be expected to enjoy any greater success in deciding a sensible policy than could the Athenians.
The powers of demagoguery, so rife in their effects in ancient Greece, would likewise hold influence. It appears a sad truth that many experts lack the powers of oratory so praised among famous statesmen like Churchill, and as such their more intelligent advice would likewise be lost in a public forum to those better endowed in the aspect of leading a crowd. The personal friendship between George Bush and Tony Blair provides a fine example of how inter-personal relationships can lead to disastrous military decisions. The powers of Yellow Journalism have also been known to provoke confrontation or even all-out war, most notably in the case of the Spanish-American War.
The fickleness of the crowd need not only be governed by would-be leaders or fear-mongers;the emotional response to a crisis could also lead to abrupt and ill-conceived action. One need only look to the emotive response to the attacks of September the 11th, 2001, to see how a population can be driven to arms against another state even without concrete evidence. The more recent response to the Migrant Crisis has also shown how public opinion, fueled by a media obsessed with human suffering, can lead to demands placed on political figures to be turned on their head overnight. This trend is playing out currently with public attitudes towards Syria; whilst the public and Parliament had been loudly and publicly opposing further intervention in the Middle East, pictures and stories from Aleppo have completely inverted this trend, and MPs such as Caroline Lucas who opposed the military budget have since called for military action.
When emotion is allowed to guide state policy, rationality can be seen to be discarded in short order – in matters of warfare it is vital that strategy, tactics, and all the minutiae that make up a modern military apparatus, be left to professionals. Direct democracy could only lead to disaster on the battlefield; political meddling in military affairs has led to countless defeats from Ancient Rome (the undermining of Fabiuss war-winning strategy), to the World Wars (virtually all nations suffered here) and this could only be exacerbated were decisions made without the mitigating separation of representatives.
Various catastrophic decisions occur around the world where politicians without military training are allowed to decide on doctrine, funding, or even upon whom war should be declared, and one could only expect the short-sighted cuts or see-sawing on policy to increase were every decision open to the public forum.
The model Mr Burke envisioned for his democratic future does have its merits; the democratic processes of the West have been under pressure in recent years, but I do not believe he presents the answer. The complex nature of issues faced by nations on the global stage renders them, to my mind, far beyond the reach of a simple popularity vote, whilst the existential dangers inherent in military decision making are too great to be left to inexpert choice.
An article detailing the dangers of ill-informed military decision making: https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/chilcot-and-a-very-british-history-of-dubious-military-decisions/