Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Democracy and Fantasy

For Tocqueville, democracy was a system of government based on "the dogma of popular sovereignty." Though Tocqueville had the greatest respect for religion, his use of the word "dogma" in this passage of Democracy in America was not without irony. A dogma is a firm tenet of belief, but it is also an unexamined assumption to which people devote blind faith. The people are indeed sovereign, Tocqueville thought, but it was best if they remained un roi fainéant, leaving the arcana of government to ministers better versed in the affairs of the day than the average voter. Participation was a fine thing on the local level, where the people understood the details of their own business. But as the scale of government increased and the art of government came to require higher and higher levels of technical competence, democracy functioned best, Tocqueville thought, in nations where the popular sovereign grasped the need to delegate authority to competent elites.

"Populism" is not an easy term to define, but with Tocqueville's dictum in mind, we might venture to say that populism describes a situation in which the popular sovereign fails to recognize the limits of its competence and presumes to pronounce on all manner of things beyond its ken. Populism is of course an inevitable and constant feature of democratic government. Without it, elites would tend to become autonomous, not to say autocratic. Hence a certain dose of populism serves the useful function of keeping elites honest and responsive to the broader concerns of the population. Populist outcries are loudest when elites become most rapacious and self-serving. Thus in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the U.S. saw its most potent populist uprising, provoked in part by the ravages of robber-baron capitalism.

And so it is again in this latest Gilded Age, at the end of an era of growing inequality, reduced social mobility, elite consolidation and closure, and the extraordinary rapacity of some of the best and brightest. Populism is on the march across the United States and Europe. In the U.S., for example, we have Rand Paul, an outspoken opponent of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, assuming responsibility for Senate oversight of the Fed. Populist parties have arisen in many European countries as well. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has led the Parti de Gauche in a populist direction, attacking elites in blunderbuss fashion (his book is entitled "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous," despite the often Mandarin quality of his rhetoric) and accusing the IMF of "organizing famine, disorder, and dismantlement of the state." Olivier Besancenot's NPA has wrapped a core of Marxist doctrine in a fanfare to the common man, ably trumpeted by the golden-tongued postman himself. And Marine Le Pen, as Laurent Bouvet reminds us, has moved her party from racist xenophobia toward a less pestiferous set of populist economic themes, focusing in particular on the same IMF that is Mélenchon's preferred target.

Bouvet also analyzes Mélenchon as an exemplar of what he sees as a "new populism," defined primarily by an anti-Islamism grounded in fidelity to republican laicité but fueled by popular fears of a dilution of the national cultural identity (one sees similar fears in classic 19th-c. U.S,. populism as well). Bouvet echoes the point that I've been trying to make here, that these various manifestations of populism can be ignored only at considerable peril:

Ces mouvements néopopulistes servent ainsi aujourd’hui de signal d’alerte et de symptôme démocratique. Ils avertissent les « élites » que le mal-être du « peuple » doit impérativement être mieux compris et mieux pris en compte qu’il ne l’est. Où l’on voit que le populisme est sans doute le mal nécessaire de la démocratie.

The question, then, is how to respond to the populist cri du coeur. Although it is tempting to dismiss Rand Paul by assuming that the electorate is well-informed enough to imagine what would happen if the Fed were dismantled tomorrow or to counter Mélenchon by asking if he really believes that the IMF has "organized famine and disorder," the reality is that the selective designation of scapegoats for the errors of government can be a potent rallying point of mass movements that open the door to unsavory politics of many varieties. The danger is most acute in the United States, where the Republican Party has been infiltrated and taken over by radical populist elements. In France, populism is weakened by internal division and comes in left and right variants. In any event, the prospect of seeing populist fantasies empowered, even to a small degree, is something that should concern responsible democrats everywhere. But what to do about it?