By Vexen Crabtree 2018
In politics, popularism is the effect of uninformed mass opinion on governance. It can transpire through the government being too sensitive to the loudest voices of the masses, through grassroots movements that are too narrow in scope to represent the entire population, through nasty forms of nationalism and jingoism. Popularist slogans are often catchy policies based on simple one-line policies that do not have a proper depth of research or meaning; hence, they appeal to 'the masses' and it is the job of politicians to convince the populace to pursue wiser courses of action than they would if left to their own devices. In the modern world, Internet-based and social media campaigns are becoming the most important source of public pressure on governments1 and this is giving enemies of democracy powerful new tools of interference2. The worst aspects of popularism are a disregard for minorities3 and any unpopular subcultures (wherein popularism becomes 'the tyranny of the majority')4 and the other main disadvantage is the pursuit of shallow and short-sighted policies that harm the nation in the long-run5,6,7. The solution to popularism is to ensure the politicians are professional, well-trained, well-educated, and who are not afraid to engage in long-term strategy that is unpopular in the short term.
“The 'tyranny of the majority' refers to the unfortunate occasion where a majority of a population come to care mostly about their own concerns at the expense of others, and often support policies and actions that suppress minorities3. This can be accident through ignorance of issues, or, on purpose, through malice and intolerance. The solution is that 'majority rules' are not enough to ensure good governance and fair society5. There are "circumstances where the idea of majority rule has to be modified"8. The result of unchecked popularism is the loss of democracy and human rights followed by social instability, strife, sectarianism and national developmental degradation6,7. Additional checks and balances are needed in any democracy to ensure that popularist ideas that are short-sighted or biased cannot simply be shouted through by the loudest voices3,6. In history, human rights have proven to be the surest and strongest bulwark against such 'mob rule'.3,9 Other strong factors are good general education, a liberal culture of tolerance and the strong rule of law with limited powers for the executive.”
Communities are not simple to govern; society is complex. Cause-and-effect is long-winded, unpredictable, and many indirect factors need to be considered in order to look out for everyone's interests. It is not possible to govern well without being educated, having many historical examples and precedents to use as guidelines, and it is not possible to govern well if it is a part-time endeavour. In other words, you need professional politicians to do this job, and you need those politicians to be well-educated.
Wise societies will therefore delegate politics to official policy-makers whom must base their own opinions on a body of expert knowledge.Political theorists such as Edmund Burke (18th century, UK), James Madison (19th century USA), John Stuart Mill (19th century, UK) and Joseph Schumpeter (20th century, Austria & USA) all argued that it is best to elect knowledgeable and wise representatives who work for the people. But they don't blindly trust the opinions of the masses directly because they are given the job of deliberation over issues and that those representatives have a duty to do what is right even when the majority opinion goes in a wayward direction.5
It is not possible to govern well by simply accepting the loudest and most popular opinions of the masses.
Direct Voting is a rare occurence where the population directly vote on policy decisions and the result is automatically implemented. In some cases, people imagine systems where the populace invent, refine and vote-upon their own policies. There are no historical examples where this form of governance has turned out well. Politics needs long-term strategy and vision, and direct-voting does not provide it.
A more common compromise is the referendum, which is when a government asks for public opinion on a topic (although in some countries such as Australia, the phrase means a vote on a change to a constitution). Referendums are often run along similar lines to votes, with the electorate registering and then attending polling booths in order to cast their formal answer to whatever question is on the referendum. Governments are not bound by a referendum; they are merely advisories to the government on where the public sit on an issue. Despite this most referendums are often accompanied by politically illiterate commentaries that claim that the government must act on the 'vote' of the people. This would turn referendums into cases of direct voting, which is of course, not what they are.
“Democracy is rule for the people10. The democratic process is designed to avoid dictatorships and totalitarianism by making government accountable for its actions through voting and legal sanctions. There are different ways to implement democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis. The separation of powers means that no particular government organ has unfettered control. The rule of law applies to all: politicians from the ruling party and from other parties, rich businessmen, and poor citizens, are all subject to the same equalities and restrictions. Human rights are protected by allowing reporters, watchdogs and civilian concern groups to scrutinize government. The principal of secularism requires that Government must not come to represent a sole ethnic or religious group (i.e., it should be secular and unbiased), and there should be no laws that grant particular freedoms to particular ethnic or religious groups, and likewise, no laws that specifically prohibit them.
Democracy faces many challenges. Large multinational companies can outmanoeuvre and ignore local governments, which sometimes places them above-the-law. Therefore regional and international agreements are now an essential part of maintaining the rule of law - bodies such as the UN and EU answer this call. Special interest groups and single-issue lobbies (as well as parties) can, through their hearty activism, undermine democracy. Mass stupidity and voter apathy means that the people normally vote (if they vote at all) on short-sighted, shallow and unimportant issues, hindering the ability of government to overcome long-term problems. Nationalism, ethnic divides, religious impulses and mass intolerance can all pressurize a democratic government into allow the 'tyranny of the masses' to overcome human dignity and freedom: new ways of curbing populism need to be tested and implemented.
Democracy needs to be actively watched and defended against these challenges. Despite weaknesses, its democracy has proven itself to be the superior method of governance and facilitates personal freedom, human development (technological and moral) and human rights. Good national governance is not a simple affair, and those in power should be dedicated to their job, highly educated and capable.”
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Grim & Finke. Dr Grim is senior researcher in religion and world affairs at the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C, USA. Finke is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
(2011) The Price of Freedom Denied. Subtitled: "Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Cambridge University Press, UK. An e-book.
House of Commons (UK Government)
(2018) Disinformation and 'fake news´: Interim Report. Published by House of Commons (UK Government). Fifth Report of Session 2017–19 together with formal minutes relating to the report. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 24 July 2018. A briefing paper.