The Rise of Populism, pt. 4

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

A growing political phenomenon, populism, is making headway in many countries around the world today, including western democracies. It is a worldwide phenomenon with far-reaching ramifications. Here is part 4 of this blog series …

6. Authoritarian Tendencies (cont.)

The prospect of some wholesale overthrow of the system in pursuit of greater unity is appealing to many authoritarians. An example of this sentiment was when Trump supporters in the 2016 presidential campaign claimed that they wanted someone to “shake things up.” The consequences of this shake up were vague, but the mere act of “doing something” to right the wrongs of the perceived corruption and chaos was appealing to his supporters. As a result, liberal democracy is least secure when authoritarians believe that another type of government is better able to grant them the oneness and sameness they crave.

Mocking, belittling, and patronizing authoritarians are triggers that further aggravate their anger and insecurity. Stenner found that to ease their distress, there needs to be greater consensus on issues, leaders capable of inspiring confidence, and rhetoric far more focused on the power of unity than the joys of diversity. Authoritarians are malleable in their positions; for example, the boundaries of “us” and “them” can be shifted as long as there is a common in-group identity.

7.  Populism and Democracy

The relationship between populism and democracy has sparked intense debates. Some critics see populism as dangerous to democracy, while populists often present themselves as the only true democrats. On the positive side, populism can serve to give status and recognition to some social groups who feel excluded and marginalized from the political process. It also directs negative attention to the elites of society, who the populists perceive as usurping power, privilege, and wealth from the common person. 

Populist leaders tend to dislike a complicated democratic system. When populism takes the authoritarian track, it is at odds with liberal democracy. As mentioned above, populists who have an authoritarian predisposition undermine the tenets of liberal democracy by rejecting notions of pluralism and the idea that constitutional limits should constrain the “general will” of the people. Populists tend to view democratic institutions such as Congress as alienating, rambunctious, and full of conflict; instead, they prefer direct democracy like referendums or executive orders that settle issues in a clear-cut manner. Ultimately, populist leaders make decisions in a way that typically isn’t possible in traditional democracies.

Populists who live in liberal democracies often criticize the independent institutions designed to protect the fundamental rights of minorities, particularly the judiciary and the media. Mudde notes, “Populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers, which are courts, which are media, which are other parties. And they tend to do that through a variety of mostly legal means, but not classic repression.” Fearful of this type of governance, liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill described it as the “tyranny of the majority.”  

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Ames’ varied life experiences— teaching, scholarly research, personal reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units, and conducted professional development workshops for the non-profit and its clients.

Dr. Ames is now developing her new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, and Reflection Nexus.  Turn encourages life-long learners to see things with new eyes, learn from the past, and understand the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five colliding worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released!

Divided addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.

Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 



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