Here
and
Now

opinions

What went wrong with democracy?

13 Comments

Can Donald Trump and the populist leaders of Europe do us some good?

They do what populists have always done: play on fears, especially of those not defined as "our" people; exaggerate social breakdown; identify centrist and liberal governments as out of touch and corrupt, and point to a cosmopolitan, snobbish and self-interested elite with no respect for "the people."

This is their time. But could they also help, even unwittingly, the societies they aspire to govern?

Most of the research suggests not. A recent study from Harvard - not an institution loved by populists - contends that in both the United States and Europe, the 1970s shift away from class politics in rich countries to "post-material values" sparked a cultural backlash, especially among white, older, less-educated men - call them the "WOLEMS" - who "actively reject the rising tide of progressive values, resent the displacement of familiar traditional norms, and provide a pool of supporters potentially vulnerable to populist appeals."

WOLEMS fear marginalization (many already experience it) and often haven't the time left in their lives to make fundamental changes. More than economic inequality, cultural distaste powers them. Where they live is no longer the America, the France or the Poland in which they believed they were raised - and the social and cultural revolutions in their native society has rendered them, the core native stock, outside the pale. They are the minority now.

In the past, populism had many toxic characteristics. The Ku Klux Klan extended its venom from black Americans to Jews and Roman Catholics. In the mid-1920s, the Klan and its allies helped push Congress to pass strict annual quotas that limited immigration to the United States from eastern and southern Europe to a few hundred immigrants a nation. The quotas weren't lifted until 1965. Trump's demonization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals dips into this turgid pool. A Washington Post fact checker found, however, no evidence to support the view that Mexican immigrants committed more crimes than native-born Americans.

In Europe, populists see Muslims as the dangerous aliens of choice, given that terrorist attacks on the continent are usually perpetrated in the name of militant Islamic groups. While centrist politicians struggle to protest that the large majority of Muslims abhor the attacks, the fear of violence has made the National Front's Marine Le Pen one of the most popular politicians in France and pushed the socialist government into endorsing ridiculous bans on "burkinis" - full body coverings for Muslim women bathers - bizarrely condemned as "provocative" by former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

These characteristics don't seem to make for benign legacies. But populism is the cry of part of a community - in some cases and places, nearly all of a community - that believes itself wounded. Its rallying point is that the labor of local workers is undercut by immigrants, who weaken communal bonds by refusing to respect them. A flood of cheap goods, the product of free trade agreements, eviscerates local manufacturers. The liberal cosmopolitan elite that forms the government enacts laws that enforce tolerance of sexual and ethnic minorities, who are not part of "us."

But populism is rooted in the same word as "people." The movements based on it express a popular protest - and protests are necessary in democracies. Bernie Sanders' pitch was based on populist disgust at economic inequality and corporate greed - and though he had few financially realistic policies, his passionate advocacy struck chords and pushed rival presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to acknowledge that globalization measures she championed had hurt millions of Americans.

Populists in the past did the same as Sanders, and changed policy. The Peoples' Party of the 1890s advocated greater state intervention to help the "plain people" of the United States. Although the party had a short life, its opposition to exploitation became part of both Republican and Democratic agendas at the turn of the century. Even the party's campaigns against the employment of foreign labor, usually backed by labor unions and often with racist overtones, led to better wages and conditions for workers.

In the United Kingdom, where what Brexit means is still being worked out, the government is investigating a long-overdue plan to expand medical training to reduce the National Health Service's dependence on foreign doctors and nurses who may face post-Brexit barriers on non-British labor.

What might Trump's benign legacy be? It is likely to be one in reaction to his policies and behavior, rather than learning from it. Some men, who indulge in "locker room talk" about sexual conquests, may be thinking again: Few things are a better prompt to change than seeing one's own ugly image in a mirror provided by another's actions. The insults Trump offered in July to the patriotic family of Captain Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq, should in their grossness, have caused those attracted to his anti-Muslim diatribes to reconsider.

Similarly, though his policies on immigration were couched in more insults, the status of millions of undocumented workers in the United States needs to be addressed. His proposal to reduce or eliminate tax loopholes for the superrich - if sincere, given that he's one of them - is appropriate at a time when the Panama Papers teach us how large these loopholes are.

Trump and his European comrades have ranged from right to left across the spectrum, as populists tend to. In doing so, they touch issues that needed airing, express resentments that need a voice. Populist parties and champions, the U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter remarked, are like bees: Once they sting, they die. Trump will not die. My own bet is that he will found a populist-right TV channel.

Populism can descend through several circles of hell into fascism and Nazism. Yet, it can also be a cry of despair, of frustration, an appeal for help couched in the language of rejection and aggression. Democrats can beat populists, and usually have, by attending to what underlies the surface ugliness. That's likely to happen in the United States. We in Europe must hope we have politicians able to face down the challenge, too.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
Login to comment

What happen to democracy? simple. Democracy is only the left if they can get the votes they want. If they don't get the votes that they want, then they will elect a new people. Mass importation of third world people that perpetually vote left is what happened and is still happening. Third world people don't know how to create, let alone sustain a first world country, therefore what makes you think they will make ours better? The though of being out voted by third world people in your home country for sake of keeping left leaning politicians in power is the grand final ultimate truth to the "populist uprising" or "far right ascendancy" or what ever else you want to call it.

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

The media were corrupted and abandoned it (democracy).

I'm not sure we can expect a straight answer from the co-founder and Director of Journalism of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

If you want a research topic, explain why Google News front page is almost entirely anti-Trump, and can carry specific anti-Trump links for days, and excludes some Trump-positive storylines entirely, when nominally the content should be measurable at somewhere not too far off from the polling levels.

Oh, and some comments on the media collusion uncovered by wikileaks would be nice. At least a week before Nov. 8th, if you can manage it.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

If anything, the onset of populist ratbags ought remind more balanced and fair-minded people to avoid complacency.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Democracy is fine and well, the problem is democracy only works at the level of the populous in which if the populous is not wise and only reacts to sound bites and populism and then the government goes down with it. The media is the same since they gain popularity through the people and if the people are not wise to select the media then the media will rule the people.

At the end with democracy the government is only smart as the populous, and if you are an American citizen then you can only blame yourselves in getting in the position you are in now.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Democracy has been hijacked by people with a common trait - they're all sociopaths.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The electorate are ignoramuses.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." -- Winston Churchill

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Democracy has two problems: while center-right wing countries take some time to keep or develop general well-being, left-wing countries destroy their little well-being in a much faster speed. Thus, the gap between rich and poor nations just get wider and wider. And I agree with Aiser-X, it's the poorer nations that keep electing leftist-populist administrations who are damaging democracy as a whole.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Short answer: money.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Any attempt by your feeble-minded species at self-governance is inherently flawed. 'We the People' are a population entirely unfit to rule over anything on your planet, including yourselves. The evolutionary mechanisms at work here inevitably lead to tyrants and despots that rise above to subjugate the weak and helpless.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

BaltanSeijin84: Any attempt by your feeble-minded species at self-governance is inherently flawed. 'We the People' are a population entirely unfit to rule over anything on your planet, including yourselves. The evolutionary mechanisms at work here inevitably lead to tyrants and despots that rise above to subjugate the weak and helpless.

This is why Hillary's handlers never let her do press conferences. Or appear in full sunlight without special blue sunglasses.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

There is an old saying that Democracy is "2 wolves and a sheep deciding what is for dinner". For example, in a pure democracy if the electorate votes to eliminate all members of a certain group then so be it. With that in mind the founders established a Constitutional Republic in the U.S. With all their faults the writers of the U.S. Constitution created great document which was used to expand civil protections and liberties for a couple hundred years. Of course the U.S. is a democracy as well with the above exception.

A bigger fear is a small cabal of global elite seem to be more interested in establishing a type of global governance and diluting unique countries and cultures. Many Europeans I talk to see the EU as being "anti-democratic" While visiting a winery in Italy last month I spoke to the Italian wine maker who happened to be married to a British lady. Their winery had been in his family for more than 200 years. In the wine maker's opinion since the advent of the EU the EU laws and regulation now take precedence over many Italian laws which is making it very difficult for him to continue the winery. One example he mentioned was the fact he wishes to remove old no productive vines. This now requires approval both from the Italian Govt. and the EU.

A definition of populism is as follows;

"At its root, populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite"

I am not sure I see anything wrong with the "root" definition of populism provided the protections of the Constitution (this is a US example) remain in place.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

It went wrong when the people found out they could vote themselves money. It went wrong when the majority figured out it could rob the minority. These were the fears America's founders had when the created America's system of democracy, and why many of them were skeptical that a democratic system would be workable.

The people always vote for whoever promises to give them the most in pensions, medical care, or bring government jobs and projects to their cities and states. They never thought about how these things would have to be paid for, or the corrupting influence that controlling such vast amount of spending on their lawmakers.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites