The big misunderstanding of populism and demagogy

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I’m a strong believer in democracy – even within companies. Logically, the wisdom of all has to lead to better results than the wisdom of just a few. If the few are smarter than the rest – they should be able to convince the rest to follow. That’s the base concept of democracy. Democracy is not lack of leadership, producing random results by whatever mood currently reigns. Quite the opposite: democracy actually needs strong leaders. But leaders who lead by personal authority based on competence and trustworthiness and not by formal authority based on greedy entitlement and power brokerage. Democracy needs leaders with voluntary followers and not people taken hostage.

Demagogues are dangerous, the populace is easily manipulated

Throughout history, we have seen demagogues seemingly seducing people by populist appeals, leading into great catastrophes. That is the argument of an unholy alliance of patronizing intellectuals, system profiteers and the currently powerful, challenging the wisdom of the populace. Whenever they see developments that are against their worldviews/interests, they fight them as extreme and dangerous. They condemn demagogues as dishonest and people voting for them as stupid, shortsighted or easy to manipulate. Lot of us are tempted to see it that way, whether it’s the rise of extremist parties in Europe or extremist candidates in the US. It applies to both sides of the political aisle, although the extreme left seems to enjoy a better public opinion.

Another view

I’ve learnt to see it differently: Extremist movements arise, whenever fundamental problems are not addressed – not to speak of solved. Fundamental problems that the populace cannot or do not want to endure much longer. These can be for example

  • a cruel king, czar, dictator or all-powerful party / president,
  • a repressive system enforced by the powerful (occupations, capitulation treaties, hopeless indebtedness of countries or social classes),
  • the exploitation of the powerless during economic disruptions (industrialization in the 19th century, globalization in the 20th century, digitalization in the 21st century),
  • geopolitical or climatic changes (wars, terror, mass migrations, water shortages), or
  • more generally speaking the systematic unfairness of a rigged system (slavery, gender inequality or one-sided distribution of productivity gains).

If these problems are not addressed for a longer period of time, people start to look for solutions themselves. They first use all legal tools that are to their disposal:

  • Requests to the local administrations,
  • letters to the powerful, to editors of journals and nowadays posts in social media,
  • petitions in the political process,
  • demonstrations,
  • and finally elections.

If the powerful do not address the problems, how should they ever be able to solve them? They even seem not to see them at all. Therefore more and more people want to vote out the powerful not addressing fundamental problems. But whom to vote for, if you want to vote out the powerful? First you vote for the opposition, because you hope, they will address these problems. But if the opposition is not addressing them, you resort to more and more extreme parties/persons.

That also explains, why Trump gets that many votes, even from people who do not like him. That’s why extremist parties win more and more votes, although even their voters do not want them to be responsible for steering a country. It’s the last resort for voters, before they would go for instruments outside our democratic process.

Populists and demagogues are not the reason for people voting extreme but the consequence of an environment that lets them arise.

The solution?

Direct democracy is a mighty tool to provide a valve for a specific topic to express dissatisfaction with the powerful. With direct democracy the populace can make the powerful work on issues they would not work on by their own initiative, e.g. the swiss example with radical Islam.

I have lost hope, that the powerful can change themselves and the system, they have created. The moment a revolutionary party/person gets to power, it inevitably becomes part of the system. The most promising solution is to adopt direct democracy as a way of counterbalancing power.

It’s time to democratize democracy.

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