Populism in the western democracies has become a threat, says Anthony Painter at the Guardian. And that’s happened because the elites that govern our American democracy, a standard for other countries, have become entrenched and comfortable. But making these adjustments to the ship of state has thrown it off course, so that it is now headed full speed in a direction a majority of the passengers don’t want to go while failing to provide services most of them need and desire.
Which is a perfect situation for populists, usually of the right-wing variety, to point to the obvious flaws in the functioning of the current system as evidence of its inherent incompetence to voice the will of the majority. Painter points out that the view many of these populists hold is that the majority will should always be respected, which of course is not the basic premise of modern democracies, where the rights of minorities are also protected. The majority may be racist, for example, or there may be a pervasive rape culture, but were that a fact the democratic society that allowed it would not be executing its stated program.
So Painter claims that the modern democracies had better get it together and start addressing the problems at hand rather than enriching themselves and fighting over who gets to give the kill order or contribute to the most environmental destruction.
…maybe there is some truth in the populist critique of political elites — in Brussels, Washington and right through western democracies — and the way they have embedded their own self-interest in the system. Mainstream parties have lost their edge. They have grown comfortable, closed and politically nepotistic — relying on voters having nowhere else to go. That works for a while but becomes progressively more difficult to sustain. Mainstream democracy needs to become a contact sport again — with greater openness and engagement between the people and those who seek to represent them. Parties need to open up to real change and diversity.
Given the entrenched nature of the Republican right wing described by Andrew Kohut in his recent WaPo piece, that party seems unlikely to open up to real change, and resisting diversity is a central tenet for its base. Which might lead some to conclude that this puts pressure on the Democratic party to fill the gap; but my understanding of political history makes me think otherwise.
Consider how the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the threat of a workers’ state — which of course the USSR did not embody, but the capitalist states considered it a philosophical threat nonetheless — unleashed western capitalism, which returned to its worker-exploiting ways, reducing the social safety net on the premise that there’s not enough money to pay for it. Of course the reason there’s not enough is that it’s all concentrated at the top at levels comparable those that led to the Great Depression. As Chomsky says, they’re trying to roll back the twentieth century, and at this point they’re winning.
The knowledge that the Republicans are hopelessly locked into their positions seems to me to remove any pressure from the Democrats to change their own self-interested methods. The crazier the Republicans seem, the more people who would have no alternative but to vote Democrat. So why change?
As Chomsky says, no individual alone can change things. That’s why we’re being atomized so we each have our own car, TV, and news. We can each be programmed individually, leaving us operating in a consensus reality that’s constructed for profit. Sounds like a movie…
Change won’t come strictly from within. Power never conceded anything unless it was forced to, and that force can only be mounted when the popular will takes the form of community action.