Friday, September 16, 2016

Populism, or the Collective Blindness that Leads Nations to the Abyss.

This is an English language version of an essay previously published in Spanish.

Abdicating Governance: The Failure of Institutions

Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as the worst of all systems of government except for all the others is famous. Democracy, it has been argued, carries within itself the seeds of its eventual destruction by allowing within it by definition voices and factions that oppose it. In democracy it happens that the universal right to vote is considered the desideratum-and yes it is; but, doubtless, universal suffrage is occasionally captured by leaders who hear voices from a dissatisfied populace within the system. Voices echoed by those who will use the liberties of the democratic system to exploit emotions arising from heterogeneous, and sometimes contradictory, dissatisfactions and coalesce a political movement against the cold pragmatic reasoning offered by traditional leaders. A popular movement with the intention of rewriting existing political and social institutions outside the trite formulas and solutions spread by the elite and the intelligentsia of the status quo. A movement that is usually described as populism.

The average citizen has many things top of mind: family, job, garden... The common citizen has many occupations and prefers to devote more time to them than to government. The ordinary citizen wants to have the confidence and satisfaction that his or her government is led by capable people who protect the common interest to the best possible extent. Those are the terms of the political contract that the citizen, the people demand from their government and institutions. When public officials break that contract, that confidence, dissatisfaction arises and the populist seed is sown.

As a further condition, populism flourishes not only when dissatisfaction is widespread, but when existing-political, economic, social and the media institutions ignore this dissatisfaction or do not offer a clear message about how to respond to it—that is, fail in their role. Symptoms of institutional failure include:
  • Media with credibility gaps,
  • Partisan and ideological polarization driven by self-interest or perceived as such and,
  • Low voter engagement with an institutional discourse seen as sterile and irrelevant.

Under these conditions a growing group of people becomes a diminishing group of voters so, and as a result of such low participation, traditional representatives are perceived with scant legitimacy. “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for…” is the bumper sticker capturing that sense of illegitimacy.

The citizen body has many needs and demands. When political representatives address these needs before letting them escalate into a general grievance, democracy works. By ignoring these needs and allowing them to become widespread anger against what is then perceived as a detached elite, fertile ground for a populist movement is created.

It is at that moment that the disenchanted, cynical, disenfranchised, marginalized, poor—the forgotten—are easily seduced by a snake charmer who gets from the fervor awakened in the popular mind an adrenaline rush feeding his/her own narcissism while inflaming the masses. The populist dynamic thus enters into a cycle of increasingly toxic feedback between the leader and the mass—as in any overdose of any drug.

Deceit: The Anti-democratic Nature of Populism 

The populist discourse is sectarian by nature. The populist seeks to establish a simple reason why people are dissatisfied with their status and targets the blame on an easily identifiable group and the institutions, politicians and intellectuals affiliated to that group. Common base emotions exploited in sectarian speech are resentment, envy, xenophobia, racism and revenge.

For these reasons (sectarian, anti-institutional and emotional discourse) populism is one of those bad words in politics that few allow as a valid alternative. Recent political movements such as Podemos, in Spain or Kirchnerismo in Argentina, have sought to redefine the term positively, repackaged as "popular democracy." However, as with every populist, they label themselves anti-institutional or protectors of the oppressed. That so called Popular, Participatory or Democracy for the Masses preaches a sectarian credo without respecting the rights or even the legitimate participation of opposition minorities [i]. Also it begets concentration of power, destroying or nullifying institutional checks and balances and separation of powers. It is the tyranny of the majority in full-fledged form.

Populism’s true nature, sometimes in the past and certainly nowadays, hides within the very rules of the democratic game. But make no mistake, populism is fundamentally undemocratic despite looking as if it seeks to legitimize its power from the people, as the name suggests. Even when populist leaders fail to reach power they will change the political dialogue, planting in their followers deep skepticism about the validity of the institutions; and when democrats use populism’s seductive tools to gain power, they equally undermine democratic institutions by the skepticism sown (drunk uncle's "inconvenient truths" -mercantilism, favoritism and corruption- suggested by B. Arditi, as cited by Frei and Rovira, 2008).

Democracy can only be sustained when people trust their institutions. When trust declines a leader can take advantage of that lack of trust by calling the institutional system incompetent, corrupt or rigged. The expectations created by the leader’s promises feed a craving for radical change and breeds hope in the movement’s followers. When achieving power by institutional means, i.e. popular vote, the only way for the leader to fulfill the promised change is by eventually destroying the institutional system that brought him or her to power; otherwise followers in the future will seek a more radical populist. When the populist leader achieves power through non-institutional means, ferocious purges are unleashed against the institutional representatives of the previous system. Undoubtedly the populist and authoritarian go hand in hand. Unbridled populism always and eventually will become totalitarianism.

Institutionalists left behind by the wave leading the populists to power in the best of cases retire, and in the worst end up in exile, prison or executed. Survivors write and ponder from their political paleolithic cave, sometimes not even realizing how they failed the constituents and institutions or media they led.

Thomas Jefferson argued that institutions should be renewed radically every so often—periodic elections originate from that reasoning. Institutional stagnation undoubtedly can decelerate, prevent or reverse the political, and therefore economic, development of nations. For industrial cycles in business theory Schumpeter referred to a similar concept calling it Creative Destruction, caused by technological development and its consequent effect on both production and distribution systems as well as lifestyle preferences. Populism is inserted into the political world as an alarm, like the canary in the mine, indicating the need for a fresh renewal in a nation’s institutions as social needs evolve—or else be forced to face a destructive transformation.

When populism appears democrats need to read the signs and take a stance against it, even if it seems contradictory that a democrat is apparently against popular will. The leader in a liberal democracy must recognize the grievances behind the populist movement and rectify the institutional elites' rule. A populist leader is not fooling people, he is channeling dissatisfaction, collecting and making a powerful emotional echo that appropriates the voice of those alienated by socially bankrupt institutions. [ii] True democrats need to expand horizons outside their political bubble and recognize that the alienation the populist harvests exists. True democrats have to address and rectify the social and economic conditions that cause dissatisfaction, because allowing populism to take over political and media institutions causes serious damage to democracy. And democracy must be protected even though it is the worst system of government, except for all the rest.

Populism has its role in democracy, that of the canary. It is attractive and sings a song, but is toxic and dangerous, as botox can be. The utopian idealism offered by populism is seductive when it groups heterogeneous complaints under the large cover of general dissatisfaction and promises to satisfy these complaints with simple symbols and slogans instead of specific and complex proposals. Liberal Democracy is in danger under those conditions but must hold its political ground to balance the attacks of populists with the need for social redress. 

The fundamental promises of Liberal Democracy are: defending the dignity of the individual, equal protection under the law, ensuring equal opportunity, and protecting private property. Those also are seductive promises. Those are the conditions under which individuals can take charge of their life freely in their pursuit of happiness and thrive, a pursuit that brings benefits to the collective of society—as postulated by Adam Smith almost 250 years ago and proven in practice.

It is only under a system of Liberal Democracy that nations have been able to improve the economic and social condition of their population. There are flaws of course but, we must reiterate, it is only in an alternating democratic system committed to solving these flaws that they can be rectified, as history has demonstrated. Human, civil and social rights have flourished and developed under democratic governments with constructive dialogue. Herein lies the largest and most damaging failure of populism: its purposeful ignorance of history. And that ignorance has led prosperous societies to the abyss of economic suffering, social disintegration and destruction of civic values under regimes using the state’s monopoly of legal (and para-legal) violence to remain in power.


[i] Qualifying democracy with adjectives is an unfortunate necessity to distinguish ideological systems. Just as "populism" often has implicit negative connotations in its terminology, "democracy" is considered a positive descriptor for any system of government, as was the case for the German Democratic Republic (DDR – East Germany, a fiercely totalitarian regime) or is that of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Because the usage of the word democracy has been distorted so much it needs the qualifying adjective “liberal” to describe a government system based on free periodic elections, rule of law, and free market principles.
[ii] Regarding the link emotion / reason Frey and Rovira (2008) make this interesting observation: "The fact that the establishment of populism is based more on passion than reason points out one of its greatest political weaknesses: the problem of duration. Rational criteria are much easier to stabilize than emotional factors. Thus, the permanence of a populist movement depends on its continued ability to activate and sustain collective passion. To do this it exploits emotional attention niches, such as speech and images arousing emotions like anger, fear and hatred that keep alive the distinction between friend and foe in society. "


Whatdo we mean when we speak of Populism?; Ezequiel Adamovsky. AMPHIBIOUS, National University of San Martin, Buenos Aires Argentina - Accessed August 11, 2016
Populismas Political Experiment: History and Political Theory of Ambivalence; Frei, Raymundo and Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristóbal. Journal of Sociology 22, 2008; Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Chile - Accessed August 11, 2016
Populismwith a Brain; Lynn, Barry C. and Longman, Phillip. Washington Monthly, June / July / August 2016 - Accessed August 11, 2016
It'snot just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here's why; Norris, Pippa. The Washington Post, March November 2016 - Accessed August 14, 2015
Sorry,Obama: Donald Trump Is a Populist, and You're Not; Chait, Jonathan. New York Magazine June 30, 2016 - Accessed August 14, 2016

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