Populism, against the people

The story of democracy in the last century was claiming the right to rule for majorities from unrepresentative elites. The form varied — seizing independence from colonial empires under the rallying cry of national self-determination; overthrowing dictatorships of the left and right whose governments ruled by fiat and with military force; questioning the divine right of kings to rule and replacing royal courts with parliamentary debates — but the implication was the same: the only legitimate source of power was the people.

Election to power

The success of this sea-change in popular imagination is evident in the ubiquity of elections around the world. Today a mere handful of states, clustered mainly in the Arabian Gulf, remain the only places not to use elections as the means of allocating national power. But everyone else uses elections, even when only one party is allowed to compete and no one believes the election is free or fair. The quality of these elections notwithstanding, the point of elections is simple: they are an efficient way of determining the will of the majority.

Yet if establishing democracy required replacing unelected elites with the representatives of the ‘people’, then preserving democracy requires defending it against the ‘people’. Democracy requires two things: rulers who reflect the majority’s choice, and respect for those in the minority. This is critical because the power of free and fair elections is that today’s government can be tomorrow’s opposition (see Maharashtra). Even more to the point, democracy presumes the possibility that voters might shift their loyalty depending on the issues most salient to them. Today’s health-care voter might be tomorrow’s national defence voter and day after’s climate change voter. This fluidity means that rational voters fully expect to be in the opposition at some point, and, when that happens, want to know that their rights will not be trampled upon by the newly empowered. This is the point of constitutional democracy: the constitution guarantees us certain inalienable rights that cannot be rescinded by the whims of those in power.

Confronting abuse of power

If the majority’s interests are represented by the government, then the minority’s rights must be protected by institutions of the state capable of checking government action that infringes upon minority rights. Of course, governments can enact all manner of policy that is not liked by those in the opposition — elections have consequences after all or why bother holding them. But when government’s overreach threatens to violate constitutional principles, the courts and the press are obliged to step in to confront this abuse of power. Such counter-majoritarian institutions such as the judiciary and the press are critical to the health of democracy. Ironically, by constraining the abuse of power by the majority, counter-majoritarian institutions preserve the legitimacy of majority rule.

The jousting and interplay between governments and opposition is sustainable when winning elections are constructed on programmatic appeals. But for politicians to win on the basis of policy promise requires state capacity — fiscal space and bureaucratic wherewithal — to deliver government services broadly and fairly, including to those who might not have voted for the government. But when state capacity is limited or non-existent, politicians target their efforts to narrower slices of society. To get credit for the targeted provision of public goods, politicians must target on the basis of a clearly identifiable marker, such as religion, caste, language, or ethnicity.

In this equilibrium, politicians do not represent ideas or policy positions, they stand for groups of people. Think of any state election in India. What are the policy planks on which politicians and parties compete? (I could not answer this question either and I study Indian politics for a living.) No wonder that election analysis in India is couched more in terms of ethnic combinatorics, what pundits refer to as caste-community arithmetic.

Populists understand this dynamic. Their instinct is to build identity-based coalitions that harness a majoritarian impulse. The legitimacy populists claim is cloaked in the will of the majority, but the premise of their appeal is that the majority has hitherto been undermined by the minority. This accusation can be augmented — the minority might be anti-national or in cahoots with foreign anti-national elements — but the core contention is the same: the majority, which represents the true interests of the true nation, is tired of minority appeasement and betrayal and, now that it has its turn in power, will not relinquish power.

Pressure on judiciary, media

By framing their responsibility as being to the ‘true’ national interest, represented by the majoritarian coalition that brought them to power, populists accuse counter-majoritarian checks and balances on executive authority, as anti-national. Indeed, rather than guardians of liberty, judges and journalists are portrayed as anti-majority, against the will of the people, and therefore fundamentally anti-democratic. It is hardly a surprise that populists expend so much effort undermining these institutions. Judges are threatened and coerced, and politicians use appointment powers and influence to install pliant judges on the bench who are more attentive to majoritarian sentiments than to minority rights. The media is choked and vilified until the only rational response is to be a mouthpiece for the government rather than its adversary; much easier to hide behind the flag than to defend it. Not even staid bureaucrats in their dusty cubicles are safe — ask awkward questions about environmental impacts of infrastructure projects, and run the risk of being added to the rolls of the ‘tukde tukde gang.’

For advocates of democracy, these are worrying times. Over the past 30 years, national elections worldwide are more likely to result in the deterioration of democracy than its deepening. The populist revolt dovetailed with a technocratic middle-class scepticism about the ‘state’. Politics becomes a bad word to be avoided personally and hedged against professionally. Much better to place authority in the hands of the consultant class, whom we assume will be less venal and power-hungry, and more focused on getting the right answer. But this plays right into the hands of populist leaders whose primary objective is to undermine the legitimacy of the political process. Democracy is the casualty — mocked by technocrats and populists, it is stripped of its constitutional guardians. This is the irony of democracy: government of the people, for the people, and by the people, works best when it is protected from ‘the people’, or, more accurately, those whose hubris and ambition allow them to claim to speak for the people. The responsibility for this debacle is equally shared by the left and the right — for every Viktor Orbán in Hungary who openly calls for ‘illiberal democracy’ is an Evo Morales in Bolivia who abrogates constitutional term limits to preserve his grip on power in the name of the people.

Democracies work best when we remember that there is no one people and no one party or politician has a monopoly on knowing what the people want. Unless today’s winners can expect and accept that they might be tomorrow’s losers, electoral democracy is doomed. And unless today’s losers can have confidence that their rights will be defended by democratic counter-majoritarian institutions, they have no reason to keep faith with elections. When that happens, the populists win, the people lose, and democracy dies.

Irfan Nooruddin is the Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Indian Politics in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and author of  Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 11:08:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/populism-against-the-people/article30170129.ece

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