From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.
Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.
Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.
A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.
Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.
Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.
While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.
It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.
Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
democracy: a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
post-democracy: a society or state that possesses democratic systems but does not fully practice them
theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
The election of 2016 marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the people’s vote. Some trying to understand what the election results mean in the context of history have turned to Colin Crouch’s idea of post-democracy from his 2004 book of the same name. Crouch argues that Western democracy is in a post-democratic state due to several causes, including globalism, post-industrialism, and the failure of electoral systems, among others. But what does it mean if the U.S. and much of the West is currently post-democratic? Can we define what we are in hopes of seeing where we are going?
The reality is that America is several different “things” at once that lack a cohesive identity. In part one of this series in which I search for a post-democratic American identity in 2017, I argue that the United States has always been part theocracy, and the inequality wrought of our government’s romance with religion has alienated much of its populace, creating distaste, distrust, and dissent.
A Long Romance
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedoms but also ensures that religion has no place in government. Religion is exclusive by definition—believers set themselves apart in their beliefs from those who believe alternately or do not believe at all. Conversely, democratic government must be inclusive of its citizenry. It must uphold the rights of all citizens, regardless of belief or social stature. Everyone participates in a democracy. Only some are religious.
But the First Amendment couldn’t completely protect the infrastructure from religious infiltration. America has flirted with theocracy since before the Union was legitimized. The word GOD is printed on currency, purposefully placed to penetrate the daily vernacular. John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2 before the Constitution was ratified: “Providence has given this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”
The founders were all religious. Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson were Deists, but most were Christians. Quakerism was rampant. The men who drafted the Constitution believed in free practice of religion without fear of persecution, but they also understood the necessity of a divided church and state for a healthy democratic system. Madison wrote to Congress in 1789: “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Nevertheless, almost every president has been Christian.
Presidents Obama and Trump are Christian. Ninety-eight percent of the Members of the 114th Congress (2016) were reported to be affiliated with a religion. Of the 98%, the vast majority (92%) were Christian.
Equality is at the forefront of the ideals of liberal democracy. But equality is a vague and broad term, and those who wield it must respect its power. Ask five men what equality means to them and each will describe something different. But if those same men were to compare the main tenets of theocracy to the tenets of liberal democracy they would undoubtedly notice the gaping abyss between the two.
Since god was always present in American language, was it necessary for him to be? Theocracy is government by god and for god—god is the primary concern in structuring laws and social institutions. Conversely, the people are the primary concern in a liberal democracy. The people are the sole weapon in the system.
But America in 2017 is not a true liberal democracy. Perhaps it never was. There is proof enough in its flawed electoral college, which has failed the American people again. But there is further proof in its disproportionately Christian-American government. Are Americans as Christian as their government representatives? Are they as religious in general? Can citizens be represented fairly and equally when they subscribe to another religion or to no religion at all, and can this be proven in theory and in practice?
The answer to all of these questions is no. As stated before, Americans have always been religious. The pilgrims of the Mayflower were Protestant Christians from the Old World who sought the New World as a place for peaceful worship without persecution. I point again to the founders and the words they deliberately set in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them …” At its inception, America’s greatest architects placed equal value on man’s natural abilities and those abilities provided to him by god. But do Americans still feel that way?
A 2014 Pew study found that 89% of Americans believed in god, with 70.6% of those identifying as Christians. Pew identified at least nine other active religions in America, illustrating a more diverse populace than its representatives. Further, many Americans do not practice a religion. Religiously unaffiliated Americans—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans (22 percent) today. The populace is not as Christian as it once was, and its government fails to reflect this. A lynchpin in liberal democracy is equal and proportionate representation, and the American system must either verify equal representation for all citizens and amend itself to account for them, or the people will need to “dissolve the political bands” as their founders did 241 years ago.
Belief and Equality
Life after death is a common theme in religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western civilization. “In the Judeo-Christian conception, death is real and fearful. [Death is not] thought to be like walking from one room to another. Only through the sovereign creative love of god can there be a new existence beyond the grave.”
Though Jewish people have diverging views on the afterlife, the Talmud—a sacred religious text in Judaism—describes a life after this world in which believers must prepare their souls. Likewise in Islam, the souls of believers in this world are resurrected by Allah, or god, to be judged for assignation to heaven or hell, with either eternal punishment or reward for their actions and beliefs in this world.
Christians also believe in an afterlife. As with the resurrection of Christ in Christian lore, so too are believers resurrected to an everlasting paradise of emotions and sensations upon their earthly demise. The Christian’s struggle in this world is rewarded in the next. Just as with Jews, Muslims, and many other religions, Christians believe that true reality—true salvation—lies in a reality beyond that in which you read these words.
Conversely, the non-believer places no credence in any reality other than the reality in which she lives each day, the reality in which she routinely participates in civic life. It is her right to vote for equal government representation in a fair and just electoral system. She lives in the here and now and values her immediate world and its reality over any other. She would rather choose for herself than place trust in elected officials with alternative views of reality. She does not need her Christian neighbor to decide the legality or legitimacy of her actions because her Christian neighbor is living for another time, another place. She is burdened by the weight of a government that does not value her reality, but a potential future reality in which she plays no part. Just as the Muslim and Jew, the non-believer is alienated—disconnected and distrustful of those chosen to represent her.
Conclusion – Disarmament
Post-democratic America has no identity, but several sub-identities that make up the whole. Its religiose government has forged theocratic ideals into daily reality, sweeping the legs from democratic principles and alienating (and often persecuting) a growing number of citizens with alternate views. America is a diverse populace and the people’s worldly religions are supposedly welcome, free to practice, but always under the eye of Christian scrutiny.
Further undermining the democratic system is the broken electoral structure, which has failed (for the fifth time) to appoint the people’s choice for president. Sabotage of the election by rival states and the impotency of the people’s vote begs for a dramatic overhaul of the electoral infrastructure. Until then Americans float in post-democratic limbo, without a central identity. The time is ripe for faction, which Madison warned about in Federalist No. 10:
Complaints are heard everywhere […] that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of minor parties, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
The post-democratic reality now facing many Americans has led them to look not within the system to repair it, but elsewhere to disarm it.