Wednesday 23 February 2011

Democracy versus populism


I don't like to be topical, but let's just say there are a lot of democratic uprisings going on just now, within the USA and abroad, so that even I have noticed.

Let's be clear on this - democracy is leftist, populism is rightist.

Democracy is about process, populism is all about outcomes.


The right cannot beat the left at democracy - process (= legalism, = bureaucracy) leads inevitably to the left; the right may win the occasional battle but they will lose the war.

(Process cannot beat process, and process is leftist.)

Only an outcome-oriented populist right can beat the left.


As things stand in the US, the left is winning strategically by use of democracy, by legalism, by process.

To be sure, the left is fighting battles tactically - using whatever might work, including law-breaking, ignoring and subverting process, rigging or ignoring democracy...

But the mainstream political right is eschewing populism (or deflecting populism into democratic politics) for fear of what populism might unleash.

The right are sticking to process - to the democratic rules (more than are the left, at any rate), sticking to the law, sticking to official procedure - and justifying all their actions in terms of democratic process.

And the right is trying to make the left stick to process... it is apparently their main strategy!


Populism makes (common) sense - whereas procedure is highfalutin nonsense - the left's specialty.

Only if, or when, the right starts circumventing democracy with outcome-oriented strategic populism, the left will start to get very worried indeed, and will in fact be hard-pressed to survive.

But it has not happened yet, and may never happen.



Alex said...

Since the soul of democracy consists in giving people what they want (not what they need), then it's inevitable that democratic institutions will "lean to the left", I think.

In his recent book, The Servile Mind, Kenneth Minogue argues that democracy erodes the moral life, and, contrary to pious liberal sentiment, it has not furnished a set of right principles that will guide us to a better world.

(You do not seem to have abandoned your blog just yet. It will be a shame if you do because it's one of the very few worth reading and posting to.)

Bruce Charlton said...

I have met and corresponded with Ken Minogue - a powerful and honest intellect!

However, democracy is not really about giving people what they want (*obviously* not, when you think about it - do the majority get what they want?) - but about the primacy of procedure/ system.

Well I did abandon my blog - for two whole days - to concentrate on getting 'the book' straight in my mind; but it looks like I'm back!

Alex said...

I ought to have said democracy is theoretically about giving people what they want.

Despite the promises of politicians, they often don't get the things they want and it's at least arguable that they ought not to have lots of things they ardently desire.

Kenneth Minogue discusses democracy as both process and ideal. Among his scholarly observations he has this to say:

"In its political and constitutional role, democracy refers to a process by which the ideal is thought to be advanced, but in its role as a moral or social idea, it stands for an outcome, a criterion of what is morally desirable by contrast with which our current world is regarded as dramatically deficient."*

*The Servile Mind, page 38.

Bruce Charlton said...

According to my current understanding (I haven't read the Servile Mind, and will probably avoid it until after I have drafted 'the book') the ideal of giving the peopole what they want is an outcome - hence 'populist'.

It is trivially easy for a competent ruler to know what the people want, and this has nothing to do with voting or any other formal process.

Of course people cannot ever have everything they want, and some things they want they cannot have; and they can only get what they want at a cost, which they may not be prepared to pay.

But democracy has - strictly and formally speaking, at the highest level of logical analysis as well as reason - nothing whatsoever to do with either discovering what people want nor with giving it to them.

Democracy refers to actual procedures of voting to replace specific office holders.

Explicitly democracy is justified in terms that it will inevitably tend to lead to the outcome of giving the people what they want, but in practice democracy works by looking at the outcome of democratic procedure and stating that this is what the people want.

If the outcome of the procedure becomes undeniably different from the supposedly-desired outcome, then the proposed solution is an improvement to the procedure.

Democracy can therefore never be refuted; the solution to all problems and any problem related to democracy is more of the same.

JP said...

"Only if, or when, the right starts circumventing democracy with outcome-oriented strategic populism, the left will start to get very worried indeed, and will in fact be hard-pressed to survive."

If the Right does this, the Left will (not without justice) scream "fascism!" and will counter the populism with process (the law) backed by force. The Left will not be hard pressed to survive if they violently repress "fascism" after going through the proper legal motions. Indeed, it is hard to see how the populists would survive having the full power of the coercive state used against them.

"Populism" can trump process if there are some elements of the process-oriented system willing to permit the populism to succeed. In short, there must be judges who are unwilling to enforce the law. It is hard to see this happening in the USA.

Bruce Charlton said...

As I have often said, I don't think the secular right will get power in the West - but not for the reason you give.

Populism has won against much more ruthless governments than exist in the West - but that was when populism was fuelled by a quasi-religious motivation such as nationalism. People were prepared to suffer and die for their cause.

Nowadays, secular right populism is 'merely' commonsense realism with a libertarian flavoring - which is apparently not something that human beings are prepared to suffer and die for.