What's the relationship between democracy and populism? It's complicated.

Protester holding sign "dictatorial democracy" Photo: The Prophet/flickr

Is "democracy" dying? I put democracy in "scare quotes" -- literally here -- since it implies that democracy has one, unambiguous meaning: a system in which "the people" vote every few years, then recede, leaving their interests in the control of elected representatives and parties.

The prime suspect in this death by murder is populism. Panic among the respectable classes hit a new high after last Sunday's Italian election, when populist parties routed the traditional ones on the left and right. The New York Times called the vote "a tidal turn of anti-immigrant, anti-European Union and anti-democratic fervour." I don't quite see why anti-democratic gets included in the list, since no party advocated eliminating elections.

Academic Yascha Mounk's new book is called The People vs. Democracy. He calls "the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt … From Great Britain to the U.S. and from Germany to Hungary," at the hands of populism.

What I fail to see is any inherent opposition between democracy and populism. Populism isn't the enemy of democracy; it springs from it and yearns for it. The "people" don't have to be bullied into "democracy" by bright journalists and academics. They're the ones who demanded and fought for it. Populism is democratic, that's why they call it populism.

In fact it's a kind of slander on the people to accuse them this way. They put up with an unconscionable amount of crap from our liberal forms of democracy. Take Greece, a good example of a battered populous.

For years it choked economically on measures imposed by unelected Eurocrats in Brussels. Then the people tossed out the old parties and elected a brand new one, Syriza. It had a tinge of populism. The EU got more vindictive.

So Syriza held a referendum asking the people, in effect: Are you serious? To everyone's surprise, they said they were -- but Syriza backed down anyway. So if you're the people, who you gonna turn to? There's despair there, disillusion, demoralizing emigration -- but, at least so far, no anti-democratic momentum.

Take Honduras, where the last election was blatantly stolen (with U.S. and Canadian approval). Or Mexico, where Manuel Lopez Obrador is running a third time, having had victory swiped last time and likely to happen again, despite a huge lead. He's a "fiery populist."

What stands out in these cases, isn't that the people occasionally grow weary with the frustrations of elections, but that they stick with them doggedly despite all the bad experience. Why? They know the alternatives may be even worse. They don't require lectures, thank you.

The U.S. of Trump may be the best example of anti-democratic populism. He has disdain for elections and alternatives. ("I alone can fix it.") But it wasn't their fault -- or at least those in the rust belt states that gave him his victory -- that he was the only candidate who voiced their hard-won insight that "free trade" deals were vast deceptions destroying lives and communities. Many, probably most, would've voted for Bernie Sanders, had he been on offer.

Some populist leaders are anti-democratic; some followers are racists and haters. But at populism's core is the common human need to speak out and be heard. Populism is more like the symptom of a disease in the heart of democracy, attempting to heal itself, with potentially lethal side effects.

OK, but what if the worst happens and liberal democracy as we know it does succumb? It would be mourned, but would it mean the end of democracy?

That depends on whether you take a Eurocentric view of democracy or a broader, anthropological one. Most of us grew up learning that democracy was "invented" or "discovered" in Greece -- a sort of political eureka moment. It stirred again with Magna Carta and the British parliamentary tradition; then was refined by the U.S. founding fathers. Hmm, that does sound a tad Eurocentric.

The late British anthropologist Jack Goody had a different view. Based on his field work, he felt democracy was a universal human impulse that expressed itself in various forms in different eras and locales. Where others saw "Asiatic despotism," he perceived alternate versions of democracy, as in Confucius', "Anyone who loses the people loses the state." That's almost populist.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: The Prophet/flickr

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story...

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all. But media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our only supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help.

If everyone who visits rabble and likes it chipped in a couple of dollars per month, our future would be much more secure and we could do much more: like the things our readers tell us they want to see more of: more staff reporters and more work to complete the upgrade of our website.

We’re asking if you could make a donation, right now, to set rabble on solid footing in 2017.

Make a donation.Become a monthly supporter.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.