The Information Review
Information, Technology & Systemic Change

Democracy Without the Majoritarian Abuse of Power

Jun 11, 2022

While people have tried to critique or defend populism, it has just become necessary in democracies because it helps whip up frenzied support and win votes. Populists attract fans by verbally attacking others. They encourage people to channel all possible negative human emotions stemming from self-centred righteousness so that more than what is being voted for, the narrative hinges on what or who to vote against. This does not simply demonise the other individuals contesting the elections. Entire groups or classes of people are imagined as the enemies who are to be defeated and put in their place by reducing them to a minority through a majority vote.

It would not be an exaggeration to describe democracy as a very arbitrary popularity contest. And one of the the easiest ways to be popular is to tell people that their hatred of someone or something is totally justified. Election campaigns and voting patterns have become intrinsically tied up with invoking allegedly justifiable hatred of some or the other common enemy.

The most ridiculous and bigoted religious fundamentalists and xenophobes are not the only sorts of populists around. Irrespective of ideology and party lines, all democratic praxis has acquired populist hues. But countering populist rhetoric with rationalist rhetoric is counterproductive. It never ceases to amaze me that people sincerely argue in favour of countering bigoted populist rhetoric with rational populism, as if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms. The best that such strategic, "pro-people" populism has ever given us is practical alternatives to particularly blatant hatemongers, and even in that, it is not always successful. To borrow words from philosopher Richard Rorty's 1980 essay Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism: "Our tyrants and bandits are more hateful than those of earlier times because, invoking such self-deceptive rhetoric, they pose as intellectuals. […] So our culture clings, more than ever, to the hope of Enlightenment, the hope that drove Kant to make philosophy formal and rigorous and professional. We hope that by formulating the right conceptions of reason, of science, of thought, of knowledge, of morality, the conceptions which express their essence, we shall have a shield against irrationalist resentment and hatred."

The problem is not that rational populism to mobilise people in favour of a more inclusive, progressive politics does not always work as an electoral strategy. The problem is that if a social system necessarily depends on mobilisation via some kind of populism, the dangers of the more virulent strains of populism are never eliminated from such a system.

The social and political failures of democracy can be witnessed all around us as various antagonistic factions cling to their own beliefs and philosophies, convinced of the superiority and universality of their respective ideas of governance - most often, conservatism based on theology and socialism based on historical materialism. And the problem is not restricted to just elections. All parties are affronted and embattled and on the offensive all the time. Governance at every level and all contemporary public discourse adhere to an ideology of the fortress, replete with combative squads mustered behind banners and warlike chants.

A citizen’s right to vote does not solely impact their own life. When citizens vote, they bring to power people who will make laws and take actions that impact the lives of others. We can not base all democratic processes on the assumption that all those who vote and are voted into power will use the power of their vote and/or office responsibly because of a shared language, culture, national history, or racial/ethnic genealogy. We hope they do. But that hope is not a tangible, inviolable structural provision.

The whole point of social systems is to prevent leaving it up to the individual whether they want to be hateful towards others or not. In a bleak piece that advises us to watch out for our irrational feelings lest they run amok and take down civilised society, Brian Eno notes that “the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.” One possible reason for our being the only surviving variant of the many hominid species is that we developed increasingly creative and sophisticated ways to delimit our impulses and violent behaviours in order to foster cooperation. In the name of democracy, we cannot periodically act as if there is a choice whether we continue to maintain a system based on cooperation and coexistence.

It may indeed be enlightening to further understand the role survival, self-interest, and violent urges played in the evolution of our brains, how they came to be the chief motivations behind the most innate human behaviour, and what use, if any, these instincts have now that our survival does not necessarily depend on them. But while we work towards more clarity on these issues, we must all be able to agree that "there is conflict in human society because once we could not trust anybody in the savannah and so evolution hard-wired out-group suspicion in us" is not a principle on which civilised societies can be based.

What do we do when as a species we become aware of not just our own evolution but also its limitations? It is foolhardy to have a misleadingly simplistic understanding of the species as being able to process everything only through some primitive decision-making skills acquired through a usually painstakingly slow process of evolution based on resource acquisition for survival. Allegedly inevitable human conflicts are always reinforced, and in many cases solely stage-managed, via cultural practices. It is not as if people haven’t realised that complex phenomena like biases in human behaviour being a reflection of primitive evolutionary pressures are not sufficiently explained by one of two possibilities - the innate biological or the imbibed cultural. Just that we don’t know how things flow and translate between those two factors.

By now, it is really not news to anyone that not only does our environment shape our evolution, but we also shape our environment and thus ourselves. Surely there must be ways for societies to feel secure and address collective concerns other than appealing to the most primitive, tribal impulses of our nature. For democracy to truly function, we have to stop caricaturing entire populations as collections of simpletons and bumpkins who can be easily manipulated via their emotions. Also, those populations have to stop acting like an easily led collection of simpletons and bumpkins! But in case they don't, should we not do what we can sensibly do to reduce conflict in society instead of laying the blame squarely at the doorstep of evolution?

In order to counteract and eventually eliminate the harmful effects of populism, the inviolable guarantee we need is that people’s life will not be adversely affected when other people make angry and hateful decisions in democratic processes, as they often do, irrespective of what percentage of the population endorses their hateful actions. No one's basic human rights should be held hostage to the whims of any vote bank. That is the very idea behind such concepts as constitutional rights, that they are supposed to be inviolable. Putting forth grandiose (populist) narratives about the astute pedestrian wisdom of the citizenry and the innate goodness of the larger number of people ultimately emerging victorious and love triumphing over hate and so on and so forth will not provide us this guarantee in a concrete, institutionalised form.

The argument here is not aimed at bringing down the institutions of democracy but directly related to improving the efficacy and stability of democratic governance. Panic-driven social criticism and public posturing cannot be the bedrocks of democratic praxis. It should be worrying that our highest global ideal of freedom and social organisation is living under a ‘winner takes all’ system of governance.

“The human moral emotions are an internal mechanism for creating cooperative social structures. Political, legal and economic structures are an external mechanism for the same purpose,” writes Steve Omohundro. As our instincts for self-preservation become more and more complex in response to our increasingly complex and diverse societies, different groups of people genuinely believe in the moral superiority of the different values they are seeking to safeguard through democratic practices. Our socio-political structures have to become correspondingly more complex to ensure cooperative, conflict-free societies can be maintained in spite of the collective moral failure we witness in the functioning of democracies when all citizens do not simultaneously act in everybody's interest.

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