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”.
John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). He is the co-founder and director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN).