The Strange Case of Democracy and Populism

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Faisal C.K

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson,published in 1886. The names of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two alter egos of the main character, have become shorthand for the exhibition of wildly contradictory behaviour. Jekyll has secretly developed a potion that will allow him to separate the good and evil aspects of his personality.

          He is able at will to change into his evil counterpart, Mr Hyde, who gives way to uncontrollable urges on the streets and alleyways of London. While the respectable doctor initially finds no difficulty in returning from his rabid personality to the sanguine one, he soon finds himself slipping into Mr Hyde without recourse to his drugs. Having committed terrible crimes, Mr Hyde is now wanted in London for murder. Dr Jekyll takes his own life, but the body found at his house is that of Hyde’s.

          The nexus between democracy and populism is similar to the bizarre relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The contemporary phenomenon of populism isa sinister alter ego of democracy and the embodiment of its inherent risks. Populism gains power through the democratic ways; thereafter it gradually neutralises the spirit and values of democracy. Finally populism would nix democracy altogether.

          Plato, the Greek philosopher hinted the hidden dangers of democracy in his Republicwritten in 380 BC. Plato describes the democratic man—by which he means a democratic leader—as one of “false and braggart words and opinions” who dismisses moderation, calls “insolence ‘good breeding,’ licence ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’” and “temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and banish it with contumely.” Plato opined that as common masses lack political wisdom, demagogues would exploit their emotional weakness. Vindicating Plato’s prophecy, there is a world-wide upsurge of the political movements and leaders who capitalize the negative emotions of the common folk. This contemporary political phenomenon is called populism.

          In early 1990s world witnessed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Communist bloc. In that point intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama argued that the adventof Western liberal democracy may signal the end-point of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government. Fukuyamaobserved –‘’What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’’.

          Fukuyama prophesied the end of the war of ideologies and final victory of liberal democracy. He predicted that no comprehensive ideology would emerge to challenge liberal democracy in future. But populism has emerged as a serious contender to liberal democracy in the contemporary world politics. Populism is not a compact political ideology. It is a degenerated form of democracy. Populism is the embodiment of the evils and risks hidden in the democracy. As Dr Jykell succumbed to Mr Hyde, the embodiment of his own evils, democracy would eventually succumb to populism.

          Jan-Werner Müller,Professor of Politics at Princeton University, in his ground-breaking volume,What is Populism? argues that at populism’s core is a rejection of pluralism. Populists will always claim that they and they alone represent the people and their true interests. Populism emanates out of resentment of people and their resultant anti-elitism. Müller also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, populists can govern on the basis of their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people: if populists have enough power, they will end up creating an authoritarian state that excludes all those not considered part of the proper “people.”

          Leaders like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia and political parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain represent the left-wing populism. Whereas Donald Trump of USA, President JairBolsonaro of Brazil, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and BeppeGrilloof Italy represent the right-wing of contemporary populism.

          The most dangerous feature of populism is its fierce anti-pluralism. In social front, they exclude racial, religious, linguistic and sexual minorities. In political front, they do not accept the legitimacy of opposition parties. All the minorities and opposition are anti-nationals and they alone represent people and nation in their perspective.In populist perception only their party and its leader are the sole spokesmen of the people. As French revolutionary leader Robespierredeclared ‘I am the people’, Chávez raised the slogan ‘Chávezes Pueblo’ (Chávez is the people).

          While in power, populists practice mass clientelism.  Clientelism involves an asymmetric relationship between groups of political actors described as patrons, brokers, and clientsRichard Graham has defined clientelism as a set of actions based on the principle take there; give here, with the practice allowing both clients and patrons to gain advantage from the other’s support. Moreover, clientelism is typified by “exchange systems where voters trade political support for various outputs of the public decision-making process”.

          The animosity towards civil society is another characteristic feature of populism. Populists are always reluctant to engage in deliberative politics.Populist parties seldom tolerate inner-party democracy. The party is merely a shadow of its authoritarian leader. In decision making, the rank and file have no voice at all. The debate and dissentience are not tolerated in populist parties.

          Populists pay little respect to constitutions and constitutionalism. Viktor Orbanin Hungary ignored the constitutional principle of political neutrality of bureaucracy and appointed his loyalists in the key posts. He seriously damaged the independence of judiciary too. . While in the po­sition of power,populists make discretionary use of the law for politi­cal purposes. With this discriminatory legalism, they attack, un­dermine, and intimidate the opposition in their respective countries, moving toward competitive authoritarianism as well.Discriminatory legalism substantially undermines the rule of law.

          Viktor Orban even dared the rewriting of the constitution. Both domestically and abroad, the 2011 constitution has been the subject of controversy. Among the claims critics make are that it was adopted without sufficient input from the opposition and society at large, that it reflects the ideology of the ruling Fidesz party, and enshrines it in office, that it is rooted in a conservative Christian worldview despite Hungary not being a particularly devout country, and that it curtails and politicizes previously independent institutions. The new constitution granted a cultural dominance to majority Magyar people over the minority Romani people.

          JairBolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election recently marked a major populist leap in word stage. The ‘Tropical Trump’ has declared his Trump-like policies in internal and external fronts. He has declared his admiration for military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.His anti-LGBT stance is well known. Bolsonarohas said that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one and that homosexuality is a result of a lack of beatings. A recent string of attacks on gay, lesbian and transgender people by his supporters has shocked many here and sparked fears that homophobic violence will increase — and go unpunished — during his presidency.

          All characteristics of populism- Anti-pluralism, intolerance towards opposition and dissent, hostility towards minorities, majoritarian politics, mass clientelism, animosity to civil society, indifference towards deliberative politics, neutralisation of constitution, lack of inner-party democracy and apotheosis of leadership- are palpable in India’s ruling party, BJP. So the populism is not an academic interest or foreign phenomena to India.

          The most alarming truth about populism is that the distance from populism to Fascism is very less. Fascism rejects democracy altogether; whereas populism accepts the formalities of democracy and negates its core values and principles. Populism could easily metamorphose into Fascism. So countering populism is the primary obligation of democrats worldwide.

Faisal C.K is an independent researcher with Graduation in Law and Post Graduation in Political Science. He writes on Law and Diplomacy in leading English and Malayalam medias

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