For all the good things about Americans, a sense of humor is not their strength. Irony is unknown and sarcasm is mistaken for an insult on their intelligence. “Computers will understand sarcasm before Americans do,” has said Geoffrey Hinton, an artificial intelligence scientist.
And that’s why we clarify here that this title is intended to be entirely sarcastic. We are making fun here of Time magazine’s habit of naming the person of the year. It is a cheap journalistic title that has neither the prestige prizes confer nor any of their rewards. Late writer Gore Vidal, whose passing notably impoverished the literary world of the United States, famously mocked Time founder Henry Luce for his conviction that China should be evangelized.
That Luce was born in China to a Presbyterian missionary and his wife was no excuse to justify the lunacy of his proposition, where so many other missionaries and prophets had failed. In his blind stubbornness, Luce fit the description that the H.L. Mencken had made of those good Samaritans that plagued the land at the time (and ours) during Prohibition, saying of those Americans that they came uninvited and forced their unsolicited ideas on others and expected gratitude afterwards.
Most people Time has picked are certainly well deserving personalities, but some are dreadful. In a darker and not so distant past, it was George W. Bush, who wreaked so much havoc on lots of innocent people and on his own country. As we know, Bush was a prime example of those characters Mencken described.
This year it was another one, soon to resume the disasters left unfinished by Bush, after eight years of brilliant intermission under Barack Obama, a once in a generation leader and probably among the most outstanding presidents in the history of the United States. Quite predictably, Time picked as its person of the year Donald Trump, a cause for much of the sense of malaise in the world. So mature is this 70-year-old president elect of the United States that he just tweeted: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” Person of the year indeed.
We much regret to talk about this individual so often and we will not delve in the traits that make him unfit to sit at the table of any decent person, let alone be the president of any country, even if it is the United States.
Yet the blame is not on him. For much of this year, citizens of democracies made choices that will weigh heavily on the future course of their nations. Some were made during elections –notoriously, the U.S. ones. Yet Austria, too, flirted with a neo-Nazi candidate, and only at the last moment, in a second round, sanity prevailed. Poland and Hungary have also gone over to populists of the right. It can be put down to a delayed backlash to lessons unlearned during their long Communist dictatorships.
Still, these choices of leaders say a lot about the anxieties related to an economy that appears to have run amok, with robots taking over and with many uncertainties ahead.
That can be understandable. The mechanics of democracy that have been fine-tuned over millennia since the times of its inception in the Athenian polis and through so many catastrophes should withstand all of this. They are not, however, unbreakable. In fact, over the last century and the first two decades of this one, democracy has suffered blows. And the worst are inflicted by the very people that should benefit and dictate the terms of democratic politics: citizens.
One of the secrets of well-functioning democracies are the layers of mediation and indirect representation. In some cases they may result in catastrophes —both George W. Bush the first time (and with a little help from the Supreme Court) and Donald Trump won by a majority of electoral votes, even if they lost the popular vote by millions of ballots. Yet the intervention of several agencies in the democratic process guarantees a subtle yet powerful system of checks and balances. That’s why even the worst dimwit cannot do lasting damage to democracy in America.
So yes, citizens made some appalling choices at the ballot box in 2016. Yet perhaps the biggest harm to democracies this year did not come from poor choices of leaders. It came from referendums. The United Kingdom, to the shock of many Britons who voted for leaving the European Union as a “protest vote,” were shocked to find out that their individual ballot indeed counted towards that goal. Panicked, many of them tried to have their own vote recalled but it was too late. We have already discussed how a petty calculation —then prime minister David Cameron wanted to placate the “Eurosceptics” within his Conservative Party— caused the biggest disaster in British history since at least the Second World War.
This was done by the hand of perfectly free, uncoerced British citizens and their legitimately elected representatives. In vastly less consequential referendums, Italians voted in a referendum against constitutional reforms advocated by prime minister Matteo Renzi, who then quit in defeat. Unlike nostalgic Britons (especially those over 50 who voted for the so-called Brexit) who still cannot come to terms with the loss of empire, Italians chose for the safety of the status quo. And in Colombia, voters rejected by thin margin a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, denying – rightly, we believe – the rewards of reconciliation to terrorists.
Nonetheless, the problem here is one and the same. Referendums, or “direct democracy” is the worst kind of it. So much so, that it comes to undermine it. It is not a coincidence that referendums were the tool of choice of Mussolini and other dictators. This form of direct balloting lacks the instances of intermediation of lawmakers, the courts and all other government agencies that managing complex societies requires.
There is nothing easier for a demagogue or a populist than to whip up the emotions of the public – especially in times of economic turmoil – and turn it into a political force to crush rivals by way of referendums or other mechanisms of “direct democracy.” For referendums are the direct application of raw mob power. Back in 1930 Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned in The Revolt of the Masses against the dangers of collective whims exploited by demagogues. And the results are before us. That in all cases we named above citizens cast their ballots against the will of their national leaders only speaks to the little appeal these figures had: Cameron, Renzi and president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos are rather dull politicians.
So we contend that the person of this disastrous year was the citizen. Moreover, we declare the citizen the “no person” of the year. The crowd is too anonymous to be singled out as a person. And the choices this year were dismal, so they should be preceded by the most eloquent negative: No. We believe politicians are not solely to blame for the disasters that befall the world. History should also hold accountable those citizens in democracies that cast votes that they and future generations may pay dearly.