Populist and Liberal Democracy

Alan Brudner


                Many see the authoritarian bent of Donald Trump’s presidency as a threat to liberal democracy—not as great, perhaps, as the populist dictatorships of Poland, Hungary, and Russia, but certainly on the spectrum.  Those who hold this view typically contrast populist democracy with liberal democracy. Populist democracy is the personal rule of a leader who draws direct support from the masses.  Liberal democracy is the rule of laws authorized by the masses’ civic-minded proxies, administered by public servants, and endorsable by all subjects viewed as free and equal.

How true is this opposition between populist and liberal democracy?  No doubt, attempts by populist leaders to bend departments of justice to their partisan ends threaten the rule of law, and their fondness for rule by executive decree diminishes the representative legislature on which self-government depends. But self-government and the rule of law are not the same thing as liberal democracy. They are the aims of the 19th century political juggernaut known as liberal democracy, but the time has come to question whether liberal democracy is capable of achieving its aims. Perhaps we should see the global movement toward populist dictatorships as the fate of liberal democracy, and perhaps we should think about putting self-government and the rule of law on stronger foundations.

Liberal democracy puts the individual at the center of political life.  It says that government is legitimate only if based on the consent of the governed, and the governed are viewed as a formless mass, a multitude of separate individuals. But government would be impossible if laws depended on the consent of each self-interested individual, and so liberal democracy becomes civic republicanism.  It thinks of consent as given by a majority of civic-minded deputies kept virtuous by courts and an independent press. These deputies are supposed to represent their electors’ disinterested judgment concerning the common good, screening out their private interests, which are seen as a corrupting force. The result is that the self-interested individual who began at the center of political life ends up excluded from it.  All that is left for him is a vote every few years—one that counts for a fraction of his deputy’s voice so small as to make apathy natural and withdrawal from the ballot box a rational choice. So, by a strange inversion, liberal democracy ends up enfeebling the individual it sought to empower. It becomes government by a civic republican elite.

Liberal democracy compensates for its democratic deficit in two ways, both pathological from the standpoint of self-government and the rule of law. One way is for the wealthy and one is for the not-so-wealthy. Wealthy individuals whose private interests the formal representative system blocks (electoral units are populations rather than organized interests) seek informal representation through financial contributions to political parties and candidates, in return for which they receive back-channel access to political decision-makers. This, of course, corrupts the government of laws into the government of the rich, makes civic republicanism a fairy tale, and exacerbates the ordinary individual’s alienation from government.

The not-so-wealthy turn to the populist leader. The leader accepts the masses, not through filtering institutions like the legislature and the press, but just as they are—in the crude immediacy with which they appear at a political rally or a crowd demonstration. And he speaks for them, not as a public office-holder for putatively high-minded citizens, but as a “real”, quirky, politically incorrect gadfly for a rabble fed up with venality posing as high mindedness. He is to modern civic republicanism what Diderot’s character of Rameau’s nephew was to the 18th century French aristocracy.  All that civic republicanism screens out he, in the name of honesty, allows in.  Exploiting the masses’ estrangement from a political process that officially admits only disinterested citizens, the leader appeals to what is most personal and private about them—their status anxieties, their bigotry, their misogyny, their fear of violence and hatred of elites.  To all these basement sentiments he promises state power, and, unlike the statesman, he keeps all his promises.  So, yes, populist democracy subverts the rule of law and self-government, but it does so by providing, in an indiscriminate way, a channel for the individual’s private interests that liberal democracy (because of its mass foundations) formally shuts out.

The challenge, then, is to integrate the individual’s private interests into the political system in ways no longer destructive of self-government and the rule of law. But to do this, we need to abandon two fundamental tenets of liberal democracy: that the individual is the unit of representation and that no one can have more than one vote. If putting the atomized individual at the center of government ultimately disfranchises the individual, we have to consider making private sector organizations the new unit of representation and giving individuals as many votes for their organizational deputy as they have memberships in politically relevant organizations. Instead of electoral districts based on population, we would have electoral units corresponding to the economic and cultural sectors of society, each sector having an equal vote in the legislature regardless of its population. This would give the individual’s socially adjusted private interests a powerful and transparent say in the formal political process through deputies who, ideally, would advance the group interest within bounds consistent with the public interest.

Much more needs to be said about what organizations would qualify for representation and how to secure deputies who are good corporate citizens. But the initial task is to disentangle the rule of law and self-government from liberal democracy’s mass-based politics.