In an era of rightwing populism, we cannot destroy democracy in order to save it

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Democracy isn’t an institution – it’s a practice that becomes stronger through use. The key to defeating Trump lies in mobilising ordinary people to articulate their real needs

The recent anniversary of the Trumpian riot at the Capitol building highlighted a growing anxiety about the state of democracy both in America and around the world.

In a widely circulated article, the Canadian professor Thomas Homer-Dixon warned of a rightwing dictatorship in the US by 2030. At the same time, a Quinnipiac University poll found nearly 60% of Americans believed their democracy is “in danger of collapse”.

Internationally, the Stockholm based-NGO International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance says more nations than ever before faced “democratic erosion”, while Freedom House argues that “in every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power”.

Related: Trump’s ‘cult-like control’ of Republican party grows stronger since insurrection

Unfortunately, in response to that rightwing populist threat, many centrists fall back to the bad arguments of the past.

In the wake of the first world war, US journalist Walter Lippmann claimed the mass media and its techniques of persuasion rendered the ordinary voter so susceptible to propaganda as to render democracy unworkable.

“The world about which each man is supposed to have opinions,” he complained, “has become so complicated as to defy his powers of understanding.”

Lippmann drew explicitly on a critique made by Plato in The Republic, where the philosopher described the Athenian assembly as giving liberty to demagogues. Such men, Plato explained, used rhetoric and emotion to whip up the masses behind power-hungry rogues, rather than allowing competent leaders to rule.

Following Trump’s shock election in 2016, a modern-day version of this argument became a kind of centrist common sense, neatly captured in a viral New Yorker cartoon by Will McPhail. The drawing showed an airline passenger addressing others in the plane: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

The gag was widely circulated by liberals aghast at Trump’s policies. Yet, as I’ve argued elsewhere, rather than critiquing his racism and sexism the cartoon implied that the problem lay with a system that allowed ordinary people to opine on matters they weren’t qualified to adjudicate. Running the country, the image suggested, was like flying a plane: a matter best left to the experts.

That was pretty much Plato’s argument – the basis on which he advocated a dictatorship by philosopher kings.

Yet, contrary to what centrists claim, the real problem with rightwing populism is not that it’s populist but rather that it’s not – and can’t be – populist enough.

A movement dominated by the super-wealthy and exploiting racial and gender anxieties relies upon exclusion

The evolution of the Republican party into a vehicle for Trumpian populism provides a good illustration. The Washington Post recently noted that at least 163 politicians who accept Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 poll are now running for “statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections’”.

That matters because legislatures dominated by Trump supporters have already been cracking down on mail-in ballots, imposing onerous ID requirements and otherwise making voting more difficult, with the nonpartisan Brennan Centre for Justice reporting at least 19 states imposing laws in 2021 that restricted voting access in some way.

Why do those associated with Donald Trump seek a restricted franchise?

A movement dominated by the super-wealthy and exploiting racial and gender anxieties relies upon exclusion. Despite its “populist” rhetoric, Trumpian demagoguery appeals to a minority: it cannot offer solutions to the population of an increasingly diverse nation.

The key to defeating Trump thus lies in mobilising ordinary people to articulate their real needs.

But across the United States, the legislative response to the Capitol riot pushed by Democrats has centred not on extending democratic rights but on laws criminalising demonstrations.

As Branko Marcetic points out, the aftermath of 6 January saw “a crackdown on dissent: a dramatic increase in anti-protest bills around the country, including at least 88 that have been introduced since the Capitol riot; a massive buildup of the Capitol police into a national force to target ‘terrorism’; as well as the rollout by the Biden administration of a sweeping domestic counter-terror strategy.”

Related: Covid will not be our last global health crisis – we need a long-term plan | Jeff Sparrow

The strategy includes on its list of “domestic violent extremists” groups such as environmentalists, anti-capitalists and animal rights activists, all of whom you’d expect to play an important role in a movement against Trump to cultivate.

During the Vietnam war, an American commander supposedly explained the necessity of destroying a village in order to save it. In an era of rightwing populism, we need to ensure that the defences of democracy doesn’t follow a similar logic.

Instead, progressives require a program that, as Nicholas Tampio puts it, treats “people as citizens – that is, as adults capable of thoughtful decisions and moral actions, rather than as children who need to manipulated”. That means entrusting them “with meaningful opportunities to participate in the political process” rather than simply expecting them to vote for one or another leader on polling day.

Democracy isn’t an institution. It’s a practice – and, as such, it becomes stronger through use.

That’s the real problem. When’s the last time you felt your opinion actually mattered in your daily life? How often do you take part in democratic debates in your workplace, your neighbourhood, your trade union or your community group?

The withering of opportunities for ordinary people to exercise meaningful power over their collective affairs gives the Platonic critique of democracy an unwarranted credibility.

Conversely, the more we practise governing ourselves – by debating, by organising, by demonstrating and protesting – the more natural democracy seems and the more isolated demagogues become.

  • Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist