July 23, 2024

Populism and the Failure to Form A Democratic Society

“A democracy without demos, that is the people who have proper understanding of the mechanism and mode of democracy, has no reason whatsoever to implement democracy. It will only lead to a bunch of kratos, that is a group of exclusive elites who exploit the idea democracy to further their interests within the bound of the constitution.”

In this article, I will present to you three key concepts: populism, democracy, and the democrats. Before I elaborate my main argument, first let me put the definition of each of those three concepts.

What is populism?

According to online Cambridge Dictionary, populism is political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want.

According to Cas Mudde, a political scientist from the University of Georgia, populism is a fluid and thin ideology. It means populism can be attached to other ideology, such as socialism, nationalism, or racism, in order to justify a certain agenda.

In populism, the interests of the majority people is always right. This is bad for democracy for two reasons: it ignores the minority and the rule of law.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who live in the 19th century, said that whenever we talk about the opinion of the people, we need to consider what determines that opinion, and what do we mean by “the people”. Is it the media? Who own the media?

Another political scientist from Princeton University, Jan Werner Müller, says that a populist usually regards themselves as the only true representative of the people. Jan also distinguishes inclusive populisme from exclusive populism.

Exclusive populism is usually against stigmatized groups. For example: the attitute of many European citizens towards immigrants from the Arab countries. Meanwhile, inclusive populism is more open and try to reach out to stigmatized groups (the poor or other minority groups).

Furthermore, according to the editor of the Britannica Encyclopedia, Andre Munro, populism is a political program or movement with the intent to win common people’s support, usually in a campaign against the elites. Munto also says that, in a more contemporary context, populism is usually associated with a brand of authoritarian politics. A populist politician will benefit from the fact that the majority of the people want to be led by strong and charismatic leader who will strive for the fulfillment of the general will.

A populist leader usually promote an economic policy that appeals to the interests of the common people and the state, or an economic platform that strive to distribute wealth in order to gain popularity without considering further economical consequences, like inflation.

Munro notes that many Latin American politicians were populist, like Juan Peron, Getulio Vargas, and Hugo Chavez.

It is then safe to conclude that populisme may be manifested in two forms. Firstly, it manifested in the form of political pragmatism. A politician tends to be populist to gain votes in an election by becoming a persona that is liked by the majority, or by proposing a set of policies favored by the masses.

Secondly, populism may be manifested as a ‘people power’ movement or any other inclusive political movement. In this sense, populism is a political movement based on the interests and hopes of the people, and to challenge the domination of the elites. Populism is then needed to challenge the interests of the elites which seek to steer democracy in an exclusive manner.

Populism is complex, and I refuse to take a binary position towards this issue. There is an ugly side to populism, while at the same time there is also the good side. And we need to have a proper discussion about populism to put it into the context of Indonesian society.

What is the definition of democracy and the demomcrats?

Democracy is a political system which is rooted back to the Athenian tradition in the 5th Century BC. Etymologically, the origin of the word democracy refers back to the Greek word demokratia, which is formed by two words: demos, means the people; and kratos, means strength. Generally, democracy is defined as government by the people.

The word demos in democracy should not be understood simply as all members of the people, but only members of the people who understand and embrace democracy, or at least he/she should understand why he/she choose democracy and how the mechanism works. This is because any common people who does not understand democracy will only become an object for negative populism, which can be used as a tool to gain political legitimacy by politicians.

Democracy without the people who understand democracy, or what is referred to as the democrats, will become a government that is ruled by a mindless mob. This kind of democracy has been criticized not only by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but also by Nietzsche, whose idea had inspired Hitler, a fascist leader who got elected fair and square in a democratic setting.

Democracy without a majority who understand democracy will not end in a deliberative democracy as desired by Jurgen Habermas, and will not produce any prosperity and wealth. Such democracy must be resisted.

Are you a democrat?

I like Socrates’s dialogue method. Socrates developed his philosophy with the help of his dialogue partners. Dialogue is an effective method to assess our own understanding of a certain problem or concept.

To all readers, I kindly ask you to answer these fifteen simple questions: (1) do you agree with democracy?; (2) Is there any other political system that is superior to democracy?; (3) what are the elements necessary in a democratic system?; (4) why are you willing to vote on the election day?; (5) what type of criteria or political program that can make you vote for a certain candidate?; (6) do you think it is necessary to oversee and criticize the elected government?; (7) do you think the government has provide enough space for you to oversee and criticize the elected government?; (8) is there any mechanism to sue the elected government for breaking their promise during the election campaign?; (9) what causes corruption within the government?; (10) what is your opinion about political party in general?; (11) what do you think is the best political party and are you willing to be a member of that party?; (12) in your opinion, is the election in Indonesia has already been free and fair?; (13) from the three government branches (the executive, legislative, and judiciary), which one is the most trustworthy and which one is the most untrustworthy?; (14) what policy from the Joko Widodo’s administration do you think that violate the democratic principle and what policy that strengthen it?; (15) what kind of policies do you expect in the Elections Law and Political Party Law?

If you find it easy to answer at least ten out of those fifteen questions, the congratulation is in order: you understand democracy and hence you are a democrat.

Any person who does not understand the reason why they choose democracy over any other political system will have no interest whatsoever in democratic and political issues. If the majority of people are like this, democracy will never be an organic necessity for them.

Education, the Democracts, and Populism

Plato in the book Republic stated that he will reject democracy if it produce a government ruled by commoners. Common people who do not understand democracy and not very versatile in public policy making process may destroy the society and harm the public in general.

Plato then said, democracy should begin with equal opportunity for everyone to access education. Democracy without proper and accessible education for every citizen will never bring prosperity. This is because, with election, democracy has made it possible for incompetent man to be elected as state leader. Democracy should not only based its principle on “winning the vote of the majority”, but also “educate the majority”.

Aristotle, a disciple of Plato, also says that if an equal access to education is not guaranteed for every citizen, then democracy will not run properly. Democracy requires some prerequisites, and one of the most important prerequisites is education.

Based on such argument about the importance of education for democracy, I make two conclusions.

First, as long as the population of democrats in a country is less than 60 percent, then populism will always be a problem. People will always be the object for politicians to gain popular votes, and they will not aware of the importance to oversee the elected government.

Secondly, if members of the society have received proper education, the general public opinion produced by that society will also improved. As the consequence, democracy will resulted in public demands based on active awareness of the democrats. By then, we will not have to worry about the negative consequences of populism anymore.

Only when democracy has turned into a necessary for the people it will produce prosperity and wealth.

Lesson for Indonesia

The implementation of democracy in Indonesia is an implementation of a political system that fails to fulfilled its prerequisites first. In other words, democracy in Indonesia lacks the democrats as its prerequisite.

We need to solve immediately the paradox of democracy vis a vis prosperity. Is it impossible to form a democratic society if we are not yet prosper? Is it only when we’re prosper we can only form a strong democratic society?

Democracy and prosperity should not be in opposition with one another. Democracy is a political system which we are agreed upon to hold a peaceful succession of power, to put the proper appreciation for human rights and liberty, and to realize the ideal social justice.

If democracy does not resulted in all of that, then why should we choose democracy over other political systems? We should regard democracy as an infrastructure for social development.