Populism and Democracy

October  2018 Pulse

In his op-ed article published in The Straits Times (11 October 2017), Jonathan Eyal examines the problem with referendums in the wake of the one conducted in Catalonia, Spain. While some have hailed referendums as the highest form of democracy, others see it only as an instantiation of mob rule.

One of the practical problems with referendums, Eyal correctly points out, is that ‘it tends to reduce highly complex matters to a binary “yes” or “no” answer’. The reductive aspect of referendums makes them a valuable tool for the rising political trend that we have been witnessing in America and Europe, namely Populism.

Numerous articles have been written to warn of the dangers of populist rhetoric and the tendentious political culture it engenders. Appealing to base instincts and social angst, populist rhetoric sacrifices intellectual rigour and careful deliberation on complex issues for the sake of quick solutions and instant gratification.

Populism jettisons public-spirited dialogue and compromise the common good. It creates the naïve but harmful division between the ‘virtuous people’ (those who stand with the majority) and ‘the dangerous other’ (those who hold a contrarian view), thereby forcibly polarising society.

Populism also polarises by arousing prejudices and encouraging misconceptions through the epistemic silos it creates that ignore those facts and arguments that may serve as counterbalances to the visceral fervour or ideological vision of the masses. Populism therefore is in this sense not interested in arriving at the truth.

Eschewing the subtleties of a truly democratic culture, populism promotes a superficial and anaemic version of majoritarian politics, which can easily become a form of tyranny. Populism subverts democracy in the name of democracy.

I have argued elsewhere that Christianity does not favour or commend any one political system, not even democracy. However, Christianity upholds rationality, justice, compassion and the dignity and value of every human being. Thus, Christianity would deem a particular version or practice of democracy laudable if it promotes these values.

In his famous social encyclical of 1991, Centesimus Annus (‘Hundredth Year’) Pope John Paul II, who played a pivotal role in the collapse of Communism in Poland, discussed democracy at length. ‘Authentic democracy’, he writes, ‘is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of a human person’. The Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II maintains – and here Protestants can readily agree with the pontiff – values democracy because it fosters citizens’ participation in public life.

But the democratic process must be guided by truth, especially moral truth, the pope insists. ‘[I]f there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity’, he argues, ‘then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power’. Events in the twentieth century, he notes, have shown that ‘a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly-disguised totalitarianism’.

The rise of populism has engendered a political culture that is especially susceptible to the dangers that John Paul II warns about – if not a ‘thinly-disguised totalitarianism’, then different shades of demagogy and irrationality. Perhaps this is the reason why deliberative democracy, which was once dismissed as being a touch too idealistic, is making a comeback.

Deliberative democracy, championed by conservative philosophers and politicians like Edmund Burke and more recently Roger Scruton – is a political philosophy that is primarily concerned with improving collective decision-making, especially on important issues that affect society at large. It insists that the democratic process must be rational and that it must involve as many citizens as possible.

Deliberative democracy is a form of participatory democracy where participation in collective decision-making goes beyond the mere casting of votes. It is a political system or culture that recognises the rights of anyone who is subjected to a collective decision to participate in what some writers have called ‘consequential deliberation’ about that decision.

Consequential deliberation’ suggests that the viewpoints of the participants – especially those of the ‘common man’ (i.e., non-expert) and those of minority groups – are taken seriously. Furthermore, it implies that their viewpoints will in one way or another shape the deliberative process and possibly influence the decision itself.

Deliberative democracy (or argumentative democracy, as Rowan Williams termed it in a recent lecture in the Netherlands) requires participants in the conversation to engage with the arguments and viewpoints presented with an open mind. It requires a willingness to listen to and engage with alternative views. It requires participants to be fair-minded and to recognise the merits of the arguments of fellow citizens whose views are different from their own.

In other words, deliberative democracy urges the electorate to take a more matured approach to decision-making, one that requires patience, fairness, understanding and even mutual accommodation. It is a stark contrast from the kind of politics where protagonists simply refuse to budge from their position, regardless how persuasive and sensible the alternative view might be.

Deliberative democracy insists that the complex issues that we face cannot be resolved by the ballot box. Neither should the results of the vote be seen as the final word on a particular issue.  Deliberative democracy insists that these issues can and should be revisited when necessary and our position on them can be changed or modified as a result of the deliberation.

Critics of deliberative democracy have pointed out its shortcomings ranging from its epistemological assumptions to its practicality. For example, while the democratic virtues of the mini-publics are generally acknowledged, how deliberation can be scaled up so that these mini-publics can be properly linked to broader discourses remains a practical problem.

Despite these weaknesses deliberative democracy is a better approach to decision-making than populism.

The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve’. Deliberative democracy, while by no means perfect, will in some ways prevent modern society from short-changing itself.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.