Democracy and populism


Sir, – David Smith’s letter (January 2nd) seems to imply that a switch from a left-leaning government to a right-leaning government is merely a change in political colour while retaining all the essential elements of democracy.

Unfortunately, however, our experience of political developments in 2018 from the US to Brazil to Indonesia, taking in Turkey and several parts of Europe en route, is that the rise of right-wing governments is often accompanied by an undermining of democratic norms.

A commitment to democracy must accept that electorates can and will change their allegiance. We have been fortunate in western Europe and the United States where, during the lifetimes of most of us currently alive, these changes have been broadly accepted by the great majority of the population, regardless of their personal political preferences.

What has enabled this has been that parties of all hues have prioritised the norms of liberal democracy over and above the extremities of either left-wing or right-wing ideology.

Political liberalism includes respect for opposing viewpoints, the rule of law, regard for minorities, consensus in reaching decisions, individual rights, freedom and respect for the press, and widespread access to education.

It doesn’t require any deep analysis to see where many of the newer right-leaning governments have deviated from these norms. It is only to be hoped that the defects of majoritarianism, particularly when combined with authoritarianism, will quickly be recognised by those who live under these dispensations. Equally hopefully, the electorates concerned will have the option of reversing their choices at future elections.

A further interesting dimension of this topic was illustrated in a recent review by Eoin O’Broin of For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe (Books, December 22nd).

Mr O’Broin’s review discussed “the triumph of liberalism over democracy” being the “cause of the populist moment”, and democracy having acted “as a constraint on unbridled liberalism”.

I believe this is unfortunate because it seems to see democracy and liberalism as, necessarily, in opposition. This analysis implies that the survival of a functioning democracy depends on an abandonment of liberalism.

The main point of concern is to do with the references to liberalism.

It may be that terminological confusion has arisen because of the unfortunate and widespread use of the term neoliberalism.

This, despite perhaps giving the impression of being a new form of liberalism, is in fact in many respects its diametrical opposite. Neoliberalism, in essence, promotes the interests of globalised deregulated business to trade freely, often to the detriment of the economic wellbeing of individual citizens. Its only connection with classical liberalism arises though a sharing of the concept of freedom.

There appears to be a consensus that social democracy has lost electoral support because it has elevated, at least in some instances, its concentration on liberal rights above its concern for rising inequality, diminishment of local involvements in political decision making, and a perceived disregard by political leadership of individual economic difficulties.

But to propose that new political movements might succeed better if they abandon the ideals of liberalism seems to me to be, at minimum, a retrograde step.

It would, perhaps inadvertently, hand yet another element of victory to unscrupulous populism. – Yours, etc,



Co Wicklow.