Democracy and populism

| February 13, 2017

We’re witnessing the rise of populist leaders around the globe. John Keane, Professor of Politics and co-founder and director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), explains why we need something more radically democratic to turn this around.

Populism is everywhere on the rise. Why is this happening? Why are the peddlers of populism proving so popular? Are there deep forces driving the spread of their style of politics, and what, if anything, has populism to do with democracy? Is populism democracy’s essence, as some maintain?

With great controversies surrounding the Donald Trump presidency, and with Filipino citizens now living with the practical fall-out of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist rhetoric, all these and other questions have become central to democratic politics. So is the new populism to be welcomed, harnessed and “mainstreamed” in support of more democracy? Or is populism on balance politically dangerous, a cultish recipe for damaging democracy by bringing to life what George Orwell termed the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ that feed demagogy, big business and bossy power?

When tackling these difficult questions, some wise guidance can come from the past. Ancient Greeks knew democracy could be snuffed out by rich and powerful aristoi backed by demagogues ruling the people in their own name. They even had a verb (now obsolete) for describing how people are ruled while seeming to rule. They called it dēmokrateo. It’s the word we need for making sense of a basic contradiction that cuts through contemporary populism.

Populism is indeed a democratic phenomenon. Mobilised through available democratic freedoms, it’s a public protest by millions of people (the demos) who feel annoyed, powerless, no longer ‘held’ in the arms of society.

The analyst D.W. Winnicott used the term to warn that people who feel dropped strike back. That’s the populist moment when humiliated people lash out in support of demagogues promising them dignity. They do so not because they “naturally” crave leaders, or yield to the inherited ‘fascism in us all’ (Foucault).

Populism attracts people because it raises their expectations of betterment. But there’s a price. In exchange for promises of popular sovereignty, populism easily mass produces figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And in contrast to the 19th-century populist politics of enfranchisement, today’s populism has exclusionary effects. The dēmokrateo of it all isn’t stoppable by anodyne calls for “dialogue”, or false hopes populism will somehow burn itself out. What’s needed is something more radically democratic: a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy.

Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.


One Comment

  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    February 18, 2017 at 1:33 am

    Whistling Matilda

    "Populism" has become a fashionable term; almost a popular reflection of itself. The obsolescence of the word "dēmokrateo" is regrettable but, to grievously misquote Sir Humphrey Appleby: 'it is not sufficient to cause epistemological problems, of sufficient magnitude as to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than it can reasonably be expected to bear'. Our version of that wonderful tongue will surely come up with a phrase or suffix that will achieve sufficient popularity to qualify for entry to the Oxford English Dictionary. The American entry "fuhgeddaboudit" for an unlikely or undesirable scenario was evidently redundant before it reached our shores. Likewise the "Westminster bubble" for an insular community of politicians, journalists, and civil servants, who appear to be out of touch with the experiences of the wider British public. The kind of populism so well explained here by Professor Keane is the natural consequence of 'manufacturing consent' as characterised by Chomsky. Howard's dog whistling, his corruption of 'mateship' and his appeal to the 'battlers' place him well ahead of Trump and Farage in the race to the bottom. If it is true that the pull of political gravity in Australia is towards the centre, as demonstrated by the most notable swings of 1969 and 1975, we might reasonably expect that complacent, inept or extreme conservatism or ill-conceived adventurism will eventually be punished by the electorate whose political mood can change with surprising rapidity. Who would have thought the DLP with 11% of the vote and whose preferences could make or break governments would all but disappear within a few years. The Australian Democrats once enjoyed influence well beyond their numerical presence in the Parliament. But as one comedian pointedly observed: their numbers dwindled through mating with other species. We are already seeing the sort of hybridisation of species in the Senate that ultimately produces neither fish nor fowl. I think the word I was looking for is 'mongrel'; Australians don't like mongrels.