Populism and Democracy

Yesterday, I discussed some of the concerns Walter Lippmann raised about entrusting too much power to “the people” at large.

Such concerns are near blasphemy in a democratically-spiritual society, yet I consistently find myself turning towards Lippmann as a theorist who eloquently raises critical issues which, in my view, have yet to be sufficiently addressed.

At their worst, Lippmann’s arguments are interpreted as rash calls for technocracy: if “the people” cannot be trusted, only those who are educated, thoughtful, and qualified should be permitted to voice public opinions. In short, political power should rightly remain with the elites.

I find that to be a misreading of Lippmann and a disservice to the importance of the issues he raises.

In fact, Lippmann’s primary concern was technocracy – the governing of an elite caring solely  for their own interests and whose power ensured their continued dominion. Calling such a system “democracy” merely creates an illusion of the public’s autonomy, thereby only serving to cement elites’ power.

I do not dispute that Lippmann finds “the public” wanting. He clearly believes that the population at large is not up to the serious tasks of democracy.

But his charges are not spurious. The popularity of certain Republican candidates and similarly fear-mongering politicians around the world should be enough to give us pause. The ideals of democracy are rarely achieved; what is popular is not intrinsically synonymous with what is Good.

This idea is distressing, no doubt, but it is worth spending time considering the possible causes of the public failures.

One account puts this blame on the people themselves: people, generally speaking, are too lazy, stupid, or short sighted to properly execute the duties of a citizen. This would be a call for some form of technocratic or meritocratic governance – perhaps those who don’t put in the effort to be good citizens should be plainly denied a voice in governance.

Robert Heinlein, for example, suggests in his fiction that only those who serve in the military should be granted the full voting rights of citizenship. “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

Similarly, people regularly float the idea of a basic civics test to qualify for voting. You aren’t permitted to drive a car without proving you know the rules of the road; you shouldn’t be allowed to vote unless you can name the branches of government.

Such a plan may seem reasonable on the surface, but it quickly introduces serious challenges. For generations in this country, literacy tests have been used to disenfranchise poor voters, immigrants, and people of color. And even if such disenfranchisement weren’t the result of intentional discrimination – as it often was – the existence of any such test would be biased in favor of those with better access to knowledge.

That is – those with power and privilege would have no problems passing such a test while our most vulnerable citizens would face a significant barrier. To make matters worse, these patterns of power and privilege run deeply through time – a civics test for voting quickly goes from a tool to encourage people to work for their citizenship to a barrier that does little but reinforce the divide between an elite class and non-elites.

And this gives a glimpse towards another explanation for the public’s failure: perhaps the problem lies not with “the people” but with the systems. Perhaps people are unengaged or ill-informed not because of their own faults, but because the structures of civic engagement don’t permit their full participation.

Lippmann, for example, documented how even the best news agencies fail in their duty to inform the public. But the structural challenges for engagement run deeper.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa documents how poor, white coal miners regularly voted in local elections – and consistently voted for those candidates supported by coal mine owners. These were often candidates who actively sought to crush unions and worked against workers rights. Any fool could see they did not have the interest of the people at heart…but the people voted for them anyway, often in near-unamous elections.

To the outsider, these people seem stupid or lazy – the type whose vote should be taken away for their own good. But, Gaventa argues, to interpret that is to miss what’s really going on:

Continual defeat gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action but also to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness, that may affect the consciousness of potential challengers about grievances, strategies or possibilities for change….From this perspective, the total impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts. Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness.

In the community Gaventa studied, past attempts to exercise political voice dissenting from the elite had lead to people loosing their jobs and livelihoods. If I remember correctly, some had their homes burned and some had been shot.

It had been some time since such retribution had been taken, but Gaventa’s point is that it didn’t need to be. Elites had established their control so thoroughly, so completely, that poor residents did what was expected of them without hardly a thought. They didn’t need to be threatened so rudely; their submission was complete.

Arguably, theorists like Lippmann see a similar phenomenon happening more broadly.

If you are deeply skeptical of the system, you might believe it to be set up intentionally to minimize the will of the people. In the States at least, our founding fathers were notoriously scared of giving “the people” too much power. They liked the idea of democracy, but also saw the flaws and dangers of pure democracy.

In Federalist 10, James Madison argued:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

To give equal power to all the people is to set yourself up for failure; to leave nothing to check “an obnoxious individual.”

Again, there is something very reasonable in this argument. I’ve read enough stories about people being killed in Black Friday stampedes to know that crowds don’t always act with wisdom. And yet, from Gaventa’s argument I wonder – do the systems intended to check the madness of the crowd rather work to re-inforce power and inequity; making the nameless crowd just that more wild when an elite chooses to whip them into a frenzy?

Perhaps this system – democracy but not democracy – populism but not populism – is self-reinforcing; a poison that encourages the public – essentially powerless – to use what power they have to support those crudest of elites who prey on fear hatred to advance their own power.

As Lippmann writes in The Phantom Public, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”

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