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Is populism a problem? Reflections on the 2017 World Forum for Democracy

Is populism a problem? That was the headline question posed last month when diplomats, academics, politicians and students coalesced in Strasbourg for this year’s World Forum for Democracy

"Realising the Athenian ideal of fully engaged, responsible, critically-thinking citizens who debate, discuss and deliberate before they vote on their laws must be our ultimate aim." Pericles' oration. Wikimedia. CC.Is populism a problem? In a word: Yes.

But we didn’t pack our bags there and then. For two and a half days, speakers and attendees examined the state of our democratic political systems the same way one might examine a particularly old blue cheese discovered at the back of the fridge. Is it meant to smell like that? Was it always this mouldy? Would it be safer to just bin it? ‘Populism’ contested with words like ‘demagogue’, ‘nationalism’, ‘the people’, and, of course ‘democracy’. Everybody agreed that everything was wrong, so clearly defining problems proved problematic.

Attendees at the Council of Europe event were, of course, mostly European. Europe is currently experiencing a particular confluence of four significant crises which at the Forum often became conflated with populism. The Syrian refugee crisis and the decline of fact-based journalism present the first two, both inflamed by Russia as it seeks to destabilise Western political systems. The rise of nationalism presents a third crisis. The Second World War is passing out of our collective memory and globalism has lost its global appeal.

This brings us to our fourth crisis - the political crisis - in which ‘the people’ have lost faith in systems which they feel don’t listen to ‘real’ people and in representatives that don’t socially represent wider society. Speakers at the WFD largely blamed this last crisis of confidence on the first three – and while these four problems are undoubtedly interrelated, it is this last crisis which really has to do with populism. But what are we talking about here?

When trying to find a definition for populism, speakers and delegates often focused on its qualities and tactics – it’s emotional, it’s nationalistic, it’s divisive, it’s simplistic, it’s dishonest, it’s simply the people given a voice for a change. But this is just the populist’s European wardrobe. None of these tactics are permanent features of populism, even if they are useful tactics often used by populists. They distract from the truth that populism is about power.

Stéphane Dion, the Canadian Prime Minister's Special Envoy for the EU and Europe, put his finger on this in one of the debates, offering perhaps the clearest definition from the three days. He argued that populists seek to gain personal political power by eroding the institutions which keep liberal democracies balanced, that they are the champions of an ‘illiberal democracy’. This correctly diagnoses a part of the sickness affecting democracy globally, but is still too narrow to offer scope for a solution.

Populism is not just about taking power from the system, it is about taking power from the people as well. Populists claim to represent the popular will when in fact they are only attempting to win votes. Populism is an expression of power downwards from those who already have political power onto the people. A populist takes over popular ideas, appropriating the will of the people in order to progress their political career and gain more power. Anybody seeking to win votes is populist to some degree. Populism is inherent to representative democracy.

This doesn’t mean all politicians are motivated by naked self-interest or that we should bin representative democracy. To start saving representative democracy from populism, we must have means of popular recall, so that we can vote out populists who mislead the public during election cycles. Our systems and constitutions are merely the best products of their time. While they should be protected, they must not be worshipped and prevented from evolving .

During crises we should know not only what we’re trying to protect but also what we’re trying to create. Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. It is to that end that our political systems have supposedly been reformed or created over the past millennia, and to that end we must again turn if we are to escape the corrosive crises that time and social progress inevitably bring. Our democracy only begins to fail when we stop democratising.

Realising the Athenian ideal of fully engaged, responsible, critically-thinking citizens who debate, discuss and deliberate before they vote on their laws must be our ultimate aim. In the UK, there has been no major electoral reform in almost a century. Our once hallowed systems are hollowed with age and decay.

Earlier this month, the House of Commons discussed Brexit again. There was much rhetoric of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ and the values that our grandparents fought for. But this ignores the fact that Brexit is fundamentally undemocratic. The Brexit referendum was a political manoeuver called to settle political infighting and perpetuate a two-party system that divides politicians’ loyalties between their party and their constituents. Meanwhile the Brexit campaign itself was awash with misinformation and a lack of coherent public debate.

If Brexit were really about a surge in democracy and the sovereignty of the British people, then democratic reform would be a key part of the debate. In fact, throughout the whole of Brexit so far there has been a marked misunderstanding of the difference between democracy, tyranny of the majority and mob rule. Fifty-two percent is scarcely a majority and certainly not a mandate. A coin-toss would have provided a less controversial result. Brexit is the undemocratic result of a British political leadership failing to do real democracy, and the backfire of Brexit was a backlash against an archaic model of representative democracy which disempowers citizens.

The industrial revolution in the West saw vast improvements in communications, civil governance and democratic systems of representation. The digital revolution holds an even greater potential. We now have the technology to finally solve the problem of how to scale up direct democracy. Via the internet we can engage millions of people in online debate, deliberation and voting. Direct digital democracy is an inevitable progression for democracy in the twenty-first century. The party that passes new Great Reform Acts for this new age will make history. Citizens in the West are desperate not only to be listened to and discuss problems in a meaningful way, but to have more practical power in political systems which they feel have been hijacked by a neoliberal elite of career politicians.

None of this is not to say representatives should serve as unthinking, amoral drones for the popular will, nor is this a wholesale indictment of representative democracy. Self-representation may be the most direct form of representation, but it is not currently the most efficient, informed or effective method of governance. A separation of powers and parallel legislative houses are at the core of liberal democracies, and these institutions must be protected. But they must also be added to.

Citizens parliaments on a mass scale in the form of digital democracy and online referenda, and on a small scale in the form of citizen juries and local town-halls are essential to combating populism. Such democratic projects empower the people themselves, rather than asking them to entrust their political power to a fallible intermediary - or, worse yet, upset the entire political, cultural and economic landscape of their country by using a referendum on a complex issue as a protest vote against the status quo.

If people are to choose their representatives in a citizen’s parliament, it should be via a process of Liquid Democracy in which they can opt to select different representatives for different fields that align with their values. Democracy is developmental. It will never be a finished project or set of institutions. It is an end in and of itself, an ideal to be striven for and realised by us as citizens - and by our leaders.

About the author

Alex Zur-Clark writes on democracy, rhetoric and politics. He is a passionate proponent of direct digital democracy, and works with online democracy projects in the UK. He currently works for a Westminster-based International Development initiative.


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