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Populism is not for the people

Any criteria based on race, religion, nationality, language and culture undermines democracy

By Nirupam Hazra
  • Published 12.02.20, 12:50 AM
  • Updated 12.02.20, 12:50 AM
  • 4 mins read
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In its early days, populism was seen to be inspired by leftist ideology Shutterstock

A discussion on democratic politics is not complete without references to populism. ‘Populism’, however, creates more confusion than clarity. The term is indiscriminately used in the media but seldom explained. A potpourri of political events, leaders and policies are labelled populist, but they are too disparate to lead to a common understanding of the phenomenon. Many of us even find it difficult to distinguish between popular and populist. A political leader does not necessarily have to be populist to become popular although every populist leader becomes popular for some time.

The confusion around populism can be located in its conceptual ambiguity. It is an unusually nebulous concept and lacks a commonly agreed ‘core’. Social scientists consider populism to be a thin-centred ideology unlike socialism, nationalism and liberalism that exhibit a more developed structure. The study of populism is a highly-contested terrain and its definition is fiercely debated among scholars.

Significantly, the concept of populism is not as recent as we tend to think. It traces its origin in the people’s movements of the 19th century, with the agrarian political movements of mid-19th-century America and Russia believed to be incipient incarnations of populism. These movements ostensibly aimed at raising the voice of the ordinary people and safeguarding the interests of the toiling farmers. The People’s Party in the United States of America and the Narodniki in Russia were identified with many of these movements.

Populism underwent many changes over the course of time. In its early days, populism was seen to be inspired by leftist ideology. Eventually, it transcended ideological boundaries. The populism that we witness today is largely rightist in character. The agrarian character of populism is no longer relevant and has been replaced by such contemporary concerns as identity and dignity. Nevertheless, one of the features of populism has remained unchanged — the centrality of the people and its accompanying moral claim.

Democracy and populism talk about people and hold the will of the people to be sacrosanct. Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, ‘Of the people, by the people, for the people’, applies, to a great degree, to both populism and democracy. But what separates populism from democracy is how the idea of the people is conceived and how their will finds expression in politics. In democracy, the idea of the people is stable, inclusive and egalitarian. It does not define people with added qualifications. Populism, on the other hand, rejects the default definition of people in its quest for the ‘real’ people and sets criteria based on race, religion, nationality, language and culture to determine who deserves to be part of this constituency. This definition of the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ people is, inevitably, majoritarian in nature. Once the ‘real’ people are identified according to pre-determined criteria, the rest are delegitimized and are often demonized as the ‘enemy of the people’. Thereafter, a moral binary is constructed around this newly-discovered ‘definition’ of the ‘real’ people. Honesty, simplicity and wisdom are made integral moral characteristics of this group, while others, especially those who enjoyed power or upheld causes that are not explicitly linked to the interests of the majority, are condemned as corrupt and dangerous. This division is often justified by real and imagined acts of corruption and misuse of power by those who were entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of the people. People can feel betrayed by their rulers and the sense of betrayal is further accentuated by the unrealized ideals of democracy. The mismatch between what democracy promises and what it delivers is assumed to be the consequences of the dishonesty and selfishness of the corrupt elite. The assumption is not entirely baseless, but the resentment that it gives rise to becomes the capital of populist leaders and the foundation of the populist moral narrative. The convenient populist answer to the real and the perceived venality of the elite is the honesty of the masses. Populism makes the majority a repository of virtues while portraying the elite as the source of all vices.

Another important aspect in which populism parts its way with democracy is the manner in which the will of the people is expressed. Vox populi — the voice of the people — is the primary purveyor of legitimacy for populism and democracy. In democracy, the people’s will is supreme, but it is not unrestrained or unmediated. The doctrine of separation of power ensures that power rests with the people, but not in a manner that could undermine other checks and balances necessary for the smooth functioning of democracy. Populism takes the idea of people’s will literally and turns it into a potent moral force behind every political action. In a real democracy, or so goes the populist logic, the volonté générale — the general will — must be unrestrained; every other institution and authority should be subservient to the will of the people. Populism is thus guided by the spirit of what the sociologist, Edward Shils, called, “inverted egalitarianism”, which places people not as equal to but as better than rulers.

Much like the imagined community of the real people, the myth of people’s will in populism is constructed to cater to the majoritarian tendencies of society. Populism manufactures a monolithic entity of authentic people that speaks in a unified voice, which had remained unheard because the elite and the intellectuals allegedly never paid heed to it. This animosity explains the populist contempt for intellectuals, academics, activists, journalists and others who refuse to buy ‘simple solutions’ offered to resolve complex problems. The populist overglorification of the myth of general will, which is also a fundamental principle of democracy, is accomplished in the name of the people. Yet, this infallibility of people’s wisdom actually results in the perversion of democracy.

Although people are at the heart of both populism and democracy, populism dispenses with the duties that keep democracy’s heart beating. Nonetheless, populism claims to be more democratic than democracy, a claim which is, ironically, stilted upon a structure that is far less democratic and inclusive by nature.

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