Remedies Against Populism
Democracy is not "the rule of the people" and not even "the rule of majority". It is a compromise between four principles: the will of the people, the wisdom of the elected, respect for rules and social commitment. The second principle is under attack by populists and needs protection as democracy should be strictly representative. How can we gain a balance between the necessary distrust and the equally necessary confidence towards politicians?
Populism is the Achilles heel of democracy, its security hole for totalitarian exploits. Is it possible to close it? Common qualities of populist movements around the world:
- They attack only democracies. Weimar Germany before Hitler was a functioning democracy. Even Russia was, for a short time, a functioning democracy. Putin exploited it professionally.
- It starts to destroy democratic institutions as soon as it gets access to political power. This does not happen because populism is "evil", but because it has no choice. Actually, populism only functions by promising the impossible in the globalized world – welfare on the cost of the other. Voters will soon punish such an ignorance of economic and political principles, and therefore populists have to inhibit the mechanisms of such a punishment as soon as possible.
Democracies have developed some protective appliances against such destruction, especially in countries like Germany, which already has experienced a destruction of their democracy by a populist movement. But will they hold in case of emergency? Let's consider an attack on a fundamental right. The right itself of course cannot be abandoned. But there must be an institution, for example a Supreme Court, which states that in a certain case a fundamental right is violated. If this institution is infiltrated by populists, it simply states that "in this case no fundamental right is violated".
Democracy is a political idea which actively has to be kept alive and not a blind mechanism which by itself guarantees freedom and justice. In fact, democracy is not "the rule of the people" and not even "the rule of majority". It is a compromise between four principles: the will of the people, the wisdom of the elected, respect for rules and social commitment. The slogans liberté (will of the people), égalité (respect for rules, because we are equal before the law), fraternité (social commitment), established by the French revolution, therefore miss one important component – the wisdom of the elected. This component partially is contradictory to the will of the people, because we, on average, are not wise. Nevertheless, France developed an educational system which seemed to guarantee the supply of high quality candidates. But something went wrong. The "will of the people" swept away all efforts to reform French economy. The last two presidents flopped. The French people do not seem to feel much obligated to the representatives they voted for. As soon as decisions do not suit them, they refute it. In Britain, people voted for the Brexit although a majority of MPs is against it.
We learn from this, that plebiscite and "the pressure from the street" kick democracy out of the balance of its four components by making the first one, the will of the people, exclusive. These forms of political will-formation are therefore fundamentally anti-democratic.
Elites are going to be discredited by populists as "establishment". Ignorance feels uncomfortable with intelligence and tends to react on it with impertinence. On the other hand, control should not be confined to future non-election. How can we gain a balance between the necessary distrust and the equally necessary confidence towards politicians? In a short story by Chekhov, the peasants refuse a benefit by a philanthropic land-owner, because they always suspect evil from him. Analogically, we constantly suspect politicians' misuse of privileges, lack of expertise, patronage.
Therefore, we need professional politicians, but we want the community to be "represented" in parliament. Where are the nurses, workers, engineers in the parliament? Here, we should clearly discern political powers: the government (executive) should be absolutely professional, the parliament (legislative) should be representative. To avoid accusations against a political "establishment", we should clearly discern: The government should be maximally professional and therefore elitist, the parliament should be "vox populi" and therefore must not be elitist. In France and the U.S. this division is held more consequently than in Germany or Britain. Why does it not work anymore even in these countries? Because through migration the population dramatically changes, and migrants do not feel represented in France and the U.S. They don't vote. In Britain and Germany, those who broke away from social and economic development, feel not represented by the political class, which dominates not only the government, but also the parliament.
For government, however, we have to foster some elite with people who can handle complex problems, are cleverer than average people and at the same time are modest and respect rules. This combination is hard to get. Was Richard Nixon a good president? He was clever and he was able to handle complex problems, but he did not respect rules. Donald Trump expresses the will of the people but in terms of wisdom he by far undermatches Nixon. He obviously is not modest, and complex problems are not quite his cup of tea. Will he respect rules? Can he be forced to do so? American democracy has never been challenged by a populist attack before. Will its institutions hold? Another question is whether Trump is clever, as Nixon was.
There are, however, two forms of cleverness. One is already included in the ability to handle complex problems. The other, which Richard Nixon exhibited in abundance, is shrewdness. This helped him to end the Vietnam War and to establish good relationships with China, but it also brought about his downfall with Watergate. Is Trump shrewd? Many analysts suspect that he easily can be manipulated. Therefore, Trump may be called the worst case scenario of election: representing the will of the people, he falls short of all the other three criteria of a good president. This could happen because the election of the president in the U.S. is highly plebiscitary. This could not happen so easily in Germany or Britain, where the MPs elect the chancellor. One possible control mechanism can be the electoral delegates. They, however, behave as if they had an imperative mandate.
As a conclusion, we can ask if it is wrong, as Popper argued, to place political power in the hands of an intellectual elite? Plato was convinced that the result of democracy is to be governed by the mob. As we see, it is not a trivial task to avoid exactly this. Moreover, the mob has only the illusion to rule. What we experience today is the age of political allurers. One main task of a legislative is to block the misuse of laws by them. One element may be the restriction of plebiscitary elements in politics. Democracy should be strictly representative.
Matthias Freise is Professor for Slavic Literatures at the University of Göttingen.