Populism — Threat to Democracy

My country India is a democracy and I am proud of it. Democracies practiced in various countries around the world do have some variations. Democracy is considered to be the best form of government. (Today many may contest it, but we will keep that for later). The famous definition of democracy is that democracy is by the people, of the people and for the people.

How much these prepositions (by/of/for) are made relevant in our democratic governments is a matter of concern. The democratic governments are elected by the majority (of people or representatives), and the role of the voters stop there. In many cases, it becomes a government by an elite class for an elite class. The definition of elite class can vary in different circumstances. I think the populist trend seen around the world ( and in many democratic countries) is one of the natural outcomes of irrelevancy of these prepositions (by/for/of).

Thus, there is an anger of the majority (not necessarily religious), which is ready to be vented out at the so-called best system called democracy. And where they could vent it out? Many a times, they showcased it during elections. But the conditions may not have dramatically improved — at times deteriorated even after the governments have changed. Now what is the option? Definitely we are not interested in a military coup or the rule of dictator. I think this is also the right platform for a populist party or leader to emerge as an alternative. In the Indian context, the added advantage to that populist leader had the extensive ground work done by a so-called cultural organization over the years. Thus the marriage of this extensive ground work with that popular narrative (which is also anti-establishment), a victory was carved out. The strength of Indian democracy was that still they could achieve only a 31% of the total votes though it was enough for a majority in the parliament. Although they start with the narrative of the general will of the people (as in the pic above), that narrative is only for election times, and it again becomes the follower of certain interests.

Democracy is based on the choices of the majority (with a safeguard to the minority). But the populist could say, “We could decide for you, and it is based on their grand narrative, and you please follow it. We know what is the best for all”.

An extremely dangerous trend of such populist governments is their aversion to the faculty of thinking. Government in a subtle way (not explicitly as in the case of dictator) does the act of thinking for the people. Thus corruption and other crimes can be challenged in a democratic government (which follows/seems to follow democratic values to some extend); but the corruption and such crimes are invisible in a populist government as government does the thinking for the people. Such governments remain in-corrupt and holy.

Now what is the way to counter it? Reclaim the ability to think is probably the best solution. I happened to listen to a talk on traditional medicines, which gives another strategy to counter the same.

According to them, traditional medicines treat the person and deals with him as an organism, whereas modern medicine treats him as a machine (though life is there). Modern medicine is efficacious and powerful during emergencies, but traditional medicines can help us to revive and rejuvenate the immune system of the body. Similarly, there is an emergency situation because of the growth of populist systems, which calls for a surgical strike. How and what should be discussed. I think alliances of the opposition parties (though opportunistic to certain extend) serves this purpose. Simultaneously, a long term strategy should be adapted which empowers people to think, speak and act for themselves making democracy more vibrant and people-oriented. The inspiration of Scandinavian countries (with least inequality and highest happiness index) can be adapted to our own circumstances.

Acts of Charity and Acts of justice should go together. When all the crimes(lynching, hate crimes etc) are happening, we hear the news and feel pity for them. We do charitable help in whatever ways possible. Definitely that is the short-term goal. But the long term goal of justice, which includes finding the root causes and dealing with it shouldn’t be avoided and the success of the populist governments are that they deal a big blow to this fight.

[comments and critiques are welcome. I know this is just a stream of thought, and we should do more thinking]

A Jesuit interested to think and write; Loves philosophy, spirituality, politics…. Believes in God & well-being of all humans… Open to difference & newness..