By Daniel Innerarity
The recent rise in populism is caused by movements that inherently ignore other values of democracy. If populist ideas prove to be so acceptable for increasingly broader sectors of the population, it means there are more people who allow themselves to be convinced that democracy is only that.
The fact that we are increasingly approaching a horizon of turbulence, volatility, crisis, and uncertainty explains that events which Perrow called “normal accidents” are occurring more and more, namely unforeseen events that burst into our political and social lives: referenda that are designed for ratification of previously adopted decisions are lost, such as the peace accord in Colombia or Great Britain’s remaining in the European Union; processes for prediction and anticipation have come to fail, with the 2008 economic crisis being the most resounding example, and polling has shown to be erroneous, as the case appears to be with Trump’s recent victory (although there will always someone who declares that he or she already knew).
By their very nature, democracies are systems that are hard to predict. The chance that the unlikely may happen is something that is made possible by the logic of an open system, although we may pay for it with a troubling vulnerability at times. Democracy is not a system that necessarily elects the best nor one where experience is an indisputable virtue; it also provides access for others to assume influence, while favoring turnover among elites and not leaving anything absolutely protected from any form of criticism.
When Americans elected George W. Bush as their president, some hailed this event as a demonstration that a normal person could advance to highest office – someone who had experienced difficulties with alcohol and who choked as he ate cookies. Now we can be surer that democracy is such an open system that even someone who is very below the normal presidential stature can become president, and we should be surprised that voters appear to make decisions that are at odds with their real interests.
Beyond the indeterminacy—toward the best and toward the worse—of our political systems, what is happening so that populist leaders appear to gain so many competitive advantages? I believe that, instead of being a time for technical specialists in political communication, this is a time for political consideration of structural conditions that are rendering our democracies fragile while promoting electoral expansion of extremist positions.
My hypothesis is that our political systems are now incapable of managing the world’s growing complexity and that they are impotent in responding to entities who offer tranquilizing simplifications, even at the price of a gross falsification of reality representing nothing more than temporary relief. People who now speak of limits, responsibilities and shared interests set themselves up for losing against people who, for example, establish accentuated demarcations between Us and Them, or are who offer a contradistinction the establishment and the people, in such a way that responsibility and innocence are posited in a comforting way.
Among the things that make uncertainty more bearable, there is nothing better than identifying a culprit who will exonerate us from the difficult task of building collective responsibility. It is of little importance that many candidates propose unworkable solutions for poorly identified problems, as long as both things – problems and solutions—acquire the bold relief of a wall or are as gratifying as knowing oneself to be part of an unquestionable We.
Amid the confusion, the most frequently sought path of recourse is to declare oneself opposed to something. The recent American elections have been the apotheosis of something that has been observed for a long time in many of the world’s democracies. More than electing, there is “deselecting.” There is much more about rejection than propositions for solutions.
These forms of behavior by the “negative sovereign” express profound disillusionment: instead of voting in order to solve problems, people are voting in order to express dissatisfaction. And, as a logical counterpart, those who prefer to lead protests against problems instead of getting to work to solve them are being elected. Therefore, a candidate’s competence or lack of competence is such a weak argument. The decisive factor is to represent dissatisfaction better than others. The element that most resembles hope is an empty appeal to a completely different world order, such as the one invoked by Zizek’s pop-Leninism. This new reality would be the result of a process of self-destruction of the existing order, without giving us the slightest indication of what the new reality could consist of, which social protagonist would be capable of causing changes of such dimensions, and which form of action would be the most appropriate.
Of course, it is not sufficient to be indignant in order to be correct, nor for the so-called “victims of globalization” – or those who self-identify themselves without being clear victims – to have greater perspicacity concerning what is needed. Anger, which is so often justified, does not exempt us from actually performing correct analyses and proposing effective solutions for solving the same problems that are being denounced.
The far-right is not the current that is most capable of confronting the disruptions of globalization, but it is the one that has offered the most plausible narrative for a significant portion of the enraged. Another faction has proceeded to seek simple explanations from the opposite extreme, from politicians such as Iglesias, Grillo, or Mélenchon, for whom the fact of sharing the same logic as their sinister opponents does not appear to trouble them unduly.
In my opinion, those who judge the expansion of extremisms to be the precedent of anti-democratic movements and rise of 20th Century totalitarianisms are incorrect. Unlike those previous extremes, today’s forms continue use democratic language. The phenomenon that occurs because they have a simplistic idea of democracy and are absolutizing one of its dimensions. Hence, we will fail to confront this threat so long as we do not win a conceptual struggle that will make the idea of a complex democracy legible and attractive.
Democracy is a body of values and procedures that one must know in order to orchestrate and balance them effectively. Citizen participation, free elections, expert opinions, national sovereignty, protection of minorities, the rule of law, independent authorities, accountability, deliberation, representation; there are many components. New populisms have a democratic rhetoric because they only take one of those values and absolutize it, while disregarding all others. With this, democracy is degraded at the electoral moment or when the click logic is rendered absolute, or when we surrender power to experts and prevent turnover within elites or see democracy to be confined by national sovereignty. If populisms prove to be so acceptable for increasingly broader sectors of the population, this does not occur because there are more and more fascists among us, but because there are more people who allow themselves to be convinced that democracy can be distilled into one value. For this reason, these threats in the name of democracy and its simplistic mutilation can only be confronted by another concept of democracy that is more complete and more complex.
The first thing that a complex concept of democracy teaches us is that democracy is a process. A quality democracy is more complex than plebiscite-based applause. There must be space for rejection and protest, of course, but also for transformation and building. The time dedicated to deliberation must be greater than the time that we use for deciding. Democracy must articulate greater institutional complexity than that which is allowed by people who only conceive of it according to a vertical relationship between a leader and the masses. A good public life and adoption of the best decisions will not occur when decisions are made without good information (as was the case with the Brexit) or with debates that are dominated by a lack of respect for reality (which Trump demonstrated). Nor does a vibrant democracy exist when citizens have an attitude that is more appropriate to passive consumers, like a public of voyeurs that is being harangued and whose most immediate desires are being satisfied – an attitude that is not based on a horizon of responsibility.
Society’s involvement in government must be more sophisticated than the involvement that takes place in electoral processes or in aggregation of preferences through the Internet. It must be understood as continuous involvement in self-government through a variety of procedures, some more direct and others more representative, by means of majority-based processes and others that are not. It must be possible to reject or introduce proposals, with space for antagonism but also for agreement, where questions are politicized and depoliticized according to that which is needed in each situation, which permit expression of emotions as well as exercising rationality.
We must work toward a more complex and nuanced political culture. The source of one of our principal problems lies in the fact that, when societies polarize around simple contrapositions, they do not foster quality democratic processes. How can we design a political culture where nuanced and complex conceptualization cease to be systematically punished by indifference and scorn? How can we prevent simplification and mere rejection from being so politically profitable? Why are political values such as accuracy or responsibility so seldom recognized? Only a complex democracy is a complete democracy.
Daniel Innerarity is professor of political and social philosophy, “Ikerbasque” researcher at the University of the Basque Country and director of the Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática. A former Robert Schuman Visiting Professor in the European University Institute of Florence, Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the University of Munich and visiting professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
He has been awarded the Miguel de Unamuno Essay Prize, the 2003 National Literature Prize in the Essay category, the Espasa Essay Prize and the Euskadi Essay Prize. He has also received the Prize for Humanities, Culture, Arts and Social Sciences from the Basque Studies Society/Eusko Ikaskuntza in 2008 and the Príncipe de Viana Culture Prize 2013.