Is the World Seeing a Change in the Will of the People?

By Ian Palmer

Only twenty years ago, democracy was the champion system of the world.  The liberal world order was premised on power to the people, tolerance, and universal rights.  However, Brazil, the largest democracy in South America, elected far-right and Jair Bolsonaro as president.  Democracy is dying in Hungary under Viktor Orbàn who has rewritten the national Constitution to increase his power and stacked the courts in his favor. Even more recently, Donald Trump has exempted Saudi Arabia in the killing of a journalist, threatening America’s championing of democratic values and institutions. Authoritarianism and populism are in conflict with the principles of democracy, yet the bastions of democracy and liberalism are electing its downfall. So a question arises: do the people no longer want democracy?

The answer lies in defining who the people are. When the vote is the central power of the government, the definition of the citizen is more important to democracies than any other system of government.  The nation’s citizenry is, at its core, exclusive.  However, legally, there is not usually a clear binary between citizen and non-citizen.  Advanced democracies often have a spectrum for the role of citizens.  Countries often have age restrictions for voting and running for office, and historically Western countries have discriminated along the lines of race and gender regardless if those that were discriminated were citizens.  Culturally, there is even more fluidity in the definition. That fluidity is the fuel that drives the dialogue of illegal immigration, voter suppression, and naturalization, raising the question of “who really is one of us?” This discrimination—this distinction of groups—is important for understanding the functions of democracies.  It shows that the will of the people does not necessarily mean the will of the whole population. 

Countries have never functioned based on the “will of the people” but rather on the power of factions.  Factions—political parties, unions, interest groups, activists, corporations, other nations—dominate the political conversation.  Competition between these factions is natural, but also overwhelmingly chaotic.  Because everyone has many diverse ideas and impulses, the will of the people does not stem from the people, but rather from their leaders, the heads of factions.[1]  Leaders and political actors are the primary mechanism of collective actions and ideas; they advertise the ideas that garner public support.[2]  The competition in the political realm is the competition of leaders vying for office and using public interest issues as their vehicle.  Because the competition of leadership continues the cycle of elections and the democratic process, the core definition of democracy changes.  Instead of the people powering the government, the people only produce it.[3]  The people install their leaders, but they do not control them. 

            This is where authoritarians and populists find their power.  Populist movements threaten democracy by appealing to its highest ideal—“Let the people rule!”—but the leader chooses who the people are.  Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán all advertised the idea that the people who support them are the real people. Jan-Werner Müller, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, calls it the logic of populism:

Populism… is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior… in addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always antipluralist: populists claim they, and only they, represent the people.[4]

These leaders produce ideas and sentiments to which some portion of the population agrees.  They create scapegoats, whom they frame as corrupt, for the nation’s problems.  Müller notes that one of the most common examples is pitting the hardworking, virtuous, middle-class against a corrupt elite and, in right-wing populism, the very bottom of society. Populists take advantage of the competition between factions—that, again, are natural—by creating their own, exclusive and pure faction. 

With their manufactured voter base, populist leaders control the issues at hand. This is not to say that their followers do not offer feedback; Donald Trump must still respond to his base’s expectations such as his quick reversal of attacking the NRA in February.  Nonetheless, Trump riles up his supporters; they do not rile him.  Invoking a ‘silent majority,’ Trump makes it clear that it is the leader that guides this majority to speak.  These actions are indicative of a greater problem.  Populist leaders attract their followers by combatting the civic culture that protects democracy.  Müller advances the notion that populists run for office on the premise of illegitimate competition.[5]  Trump ignored the cultural norms of pluralism and tolerance—claiming his opponent, Hillary Clinton, should be imprisoned after losing the presidential election and the various insults such as calling Mexicans “rapists,” and telling John McCain, a former U.S. Senator and prisoner of war, that he was not a hero because he was captured.  Viktor Orbán refused to attend the debates before the 2010 and 2014 elections claiming that policy was a waste of time.[6] Bolsonaro has repeatedly reviled women and queer individuals.  These attacks on the civic culture are perpetuated first and foremost by authoritarian-populist leaders. 

If nations want to prove that they still believe in democracy and the rights and institutions that come with democracy, they need to empower leaders who believe in the people.  Democracy is a largely unnatural entity, existing to fight against our tribal instincts.  Plato, the “footnote” of all Western Philosophy, feared democracy.  He theorized that as the influence of the political elite would dissipate, establishment norms would deteriorate to popular norms.[7]  Jump forward 2,500 years and one will find ample case studies for support in Europe alone.[8] For the sake of pluralism, tolerance, and peaceful living, nations have to defend against the natural and convenient.  Is the world seeing a change in the will of the people? Perhaps, but in a democracy it is up to its believers to redefine the people. 

Ian Palmer is a junior at Swarthmore College, where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Religion.

Works Cited:

[1] Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 19-22. 263

[2] Ibid. Pg. 270

[3] Ibid. Pg. 269

[4] Ibid. Pg. 19-20

[5] Ibid. Pg. 26

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sullivan, Andrew. "America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny." Daily Intelligencer. May 01, 2016.

[8] Walt, “The Collapse of the Liberal Order”

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