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

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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

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