Democracy and populists: a misconception

Man casts referendum ballot in Swiss mountain village
Feb. 28, 2016: A man casts his ballot on four referendum initiatives at an improvised polling station in Bruelisau, Switzerland (source: dpa)

It is almost impossible to listen to politicians, intellectuals and media personalities lately without hearing the lament that liberal democracies are being threatened by populists, usually of an authoritarian bent.

At face value this assessment seems correct. But on closer examination, doubts grow about whether Western political systems can still be called democratic and liberal.

Representative democracy depends on legislators who represent the public interest (res publica), not that of a party or its ideology. In practice, however, this only works if most parliamentarians are independent people rather than professionals who view politics as a career. Unfortunately, in nearly all Western democracies, the latter predominate.

We commonly refer to parliamentarians as lawmakers. Today this is doubly true, as parliaments have evolved into factories belching forth new legislation, to the detriment of their true role of representing the nation’s long-term interests.

In so-called Western democracies, the established parties have become extremely populist

The political system has also evolved, as established parties do whatever it takes to uphold the status quo and maintain their grip on power. In so-called Western democracies, this has meant the established parties have become extremely populist themselves.

A myopic focus on the next election has led to strong uniformity within the political mainstream. Many people have stopped voting because they no longer see any differences. Without a real opposition, there is an absence of vigorous, fact-based debate – a vital ingredient of any democracy.

One way of stifling debate is the concept of “political correctness,” which excludes alternative thinking or raising ideas labeled as “radical.”

Absurd system

Meanwhile, the tsunami of laws and regulations has led to a “nanny” state that little resembles its liberal roots.

The powers of government have become increasingly centralized, to the detriment of individual responsibility and autonomy which would be better invested in regions and municipalities. As is well known, democracy functions best in smaller entities, where issues are closer to home and the individual voter can still be heard.

In Europe, countries like Switzerland and Liechtenstein – which uphold strong traditions of local autonomy, direct democracy by referendum, and a militia system requiring members of parliament to earn their own livings – are not threatened by authoritarian movements.

Democracy functions best in smaller entities, where the individual voter can still be heard

What we now call “liberal democracy” has in fact traveled a long way down the road toward centralized bureaucracy. It is a system that cannot be trusted. No longer liberal, it cannot really be called democratic, either.

The system’s absurdity became painfully obvious during the presidential campaign in the United States. Neither of the two major parties was able to select a convincing candidate after a lengthy series of primaries. Instead, we have been offered the political equivalent of mud-wrestling – an appalling spectacle on both sides.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 66 percent of American voters are convinced that the U.S. is on the wrong track, while 22 percent think things are headed in the right direction. The situation in Europe is not much different.

What ordinary people have grasped, consciously or subconsciously, is that the current political system is populist and ridden with self-interest. Its resistance to change and decentralization is palpable, as is its hostility to notions of personal responsibility and freedom of thought and expression.

No wonder voters are looking for alternatives.

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