- Safe Democracy Foundation - http://english.safe-democracy.org -

Populism, democracy without liberalism

The populists tend to enlarge the group of contemporary non-liberal democracies. The author points out that t is not strange that within a single, caudillo-style leadership that claims to act in the name of the people (pueblo) and for the people, political rights and freedoms, like the freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the plural-party system, and the control of electoral processes are suppressed or diminished.

 

(From Barcelona) THE POPULISTS CAN BE UNDERSTOOD in various ways. One of them is to think of democratic systems in which political liberalism as an institutional element that forms the backbone of said systems has disappeared.“Beginning in the seventeenth century, political liberalism has offered a distinct way of organizing power: protect a series of rights and freedoms, and guarantee that political power has limits in its application”

The populists tend to enlarge the group of contemporary non-liberal democracies. It is not strange that within a single, caudillo-style leadership that claims to act in the name of the pueblo and for the pueblo, political rights and freedoms, like the freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the plural-party system, the control of electoral processes, etc are suppressed or diminished.

A political action directed at, from paternalist premises the most impoverished sectors, is usually combined with a very simple speech about great concepts (equality, anti-imperialism, nationalism, etc) with a demagogic undertone, which makes for a non-liberal interpretation of the democracy that appears in Latin America during the twentieth century.

THE EVOLUTION OF DEMOCRACY

Democracy is an ancient idea. As it is well known, it refers to the Ancient Greek experiment. Certain Greek philosophers, historians and politicians (Aristotle, Thucydides, Socrates) who saw important elements of the Athenian democracy of the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ that were worth keeping, significantly criticized how democracy functioned in practice.“The tails side of the populist paternalism coin is the infantilization of society; the heads side is governmental corruption”

Out of all of these criticisms it is worth mentioning the irrationality and demagogy caused by resorting to the emotions of great audiences, the political irresponsibility that results when decisions are made by large groups, or the bad decisions that are made when those who decide have little technical competence.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, political liberalism has offered a distinct way of organizing power. The basic objectives: protect a series of rights and freedoms and guarantee that political power has limits in its application, regardless of whoever might exercise the power. This was put into practice by means of a series of techniques: constitutions, bills of rights (and freedoms), separation of powers, the legality principle, elections for representational bodies, the plural-party system, etc.

“There are more than enough examples of what happens when true democracies are declared in the name of authentic liberty and equality”Later on, the democratic perspective reappeared in the hands of movements that were able to endow liberal institutions with democratic aspects that seem self-evident to us today: universal suffrage, freedom of association, the right to protest and go on strike, social rights, etc. From the twentieth century onward, the liberal democracies were consolidated, thus creating a concrete way to articulate democratic elements surrounding a prior liberal nucleus.

ENEMY OF LIBERTY?

Accentuating those democratic elements, while getting rid of those that are liberal, means treading on a slippery slope that ruins pluralism, liberties, and the rule of law. Democracy can be an enemy of freedom, of the practical freedoms.

The tails side of the populist paternalism coin is the infantilization of society; the heads side is governmental corruption. In contemporary history there are more than enough examples of what happens when true democracies are declared in the name of authentic liberty and equality.

The populists carry with them another version of some risks that have very old roots that illustrate the dark side of the democracies without liberalism.