Ralph Mathekga

Ralph Mathekga: Will populism take down democracy?

2019-09-17 08:19

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Will populist political projects eventually lead to the collapse of democracy? The answer is complicated, but there is a second option, writes Ralph Mathekga.

In a paper presented at the International Society of Political Psychologists in Lisbon a couple of weeks ago, Professor Shawn Rosenberg made a startling argument predicting the impeding collapse of democracy as a system of organising society.  Rosenberg places the blame squarely with elites who have captured democratic processes to their interest, resulting in mass disengagement with the democratic process and the emergence of right-wing populism as an alternative politics.

I would add that the problem is not only right-wing populism presenting itself as an alternative system, but also other forms of extremism including nationalism. While I'm yet to read the actual paper, Rosenberg's paper is widely reported on and at the moment we can work with reports that have surfaced on the paper.

The weakest link in democracy, according to Rosenberg, is the human being. He argues that we are just not clever enough to appreciate and internalise the rules of democracy. We get frustrated whenever the democratic processes produce results that we do not desire or prefer. There are those among our societies who still believe that there can be a stable community amidst high levels of inequality so long as crime is kept under control, forgetting that high crime is a product of inequality and poverty.

Even if I do not see an impending collapse of democracy anytime soon, I share the idea that democracies are experiencing serious legitimacy crises as they are being challenged by populist political projects. The result of this contest is not necessarily the collapse of democracy. It could also be the strengthening of democracy and liberating it from the clutches of the elites and interest groups.

Will populist political projects eventually lead to the collapse of democracy? The answer is complicated. Most societies experience a moral challenge to their democracies not because the nations are tired of the system. Even where the challenges to democracy present themselves as populist alternatives, they do not seek to dislodge the entire democratic project and replace it with something else.

There isn't currently a global regression when it comes to proliferation of some form of democratic regimes. We can agree that most countries have become democratic. However, we cannot shy away from the reality that many democracies have become weaker and of less quality, judging by the manner in which those democracies distribute resources across the societies.

The growth of inequality across the world as recently documented by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz and Thomas Pikkety, remains the greatest threat to the legitimacy of democracy, and has given a lifeline to populist rhetoric that seeks to challenge consensus politics and replace it with ultimatums.

When democracies are seen as failing to respond to the needs of the people, a vacuum exists which is often filled by alternative projects.

The populism that challenges democracy – be it right-wing or even progressive nationalism – will eventually strengthen democracy in a sense that it will unsettle the elites and the continued domination of the democratic process.

Left unchecked without occasional confrontations by alternative political projects, democracy will be overrun by those with vested interests. South Africa's political landscape has recently been a theatre for competing vested interests, aimed at influencing policy direction and the national discourse to be benefit of interest groups.

The most dominant political battles underway in South Africa currently are among the influential and prominent political and business elites; those at the top echelon of our society. Some of those battles are sold as bearing public interests because some of them play out at the centre of our public institutions.

The reality is that those battles are actually about the political powerplay between the rich and influential in society, and not so much about the poor and the vulnerable. Do we then conclude that democracy will collapse dues to our inability to internalise its rules and values?

The truth is that the biggest threat to democracy is the persistent domination of interest groups that hijack the system for the benefit of the few. This delegitimises democracy, resulting in people pulling away from the system and therefore being drawn to simplistic solutions to complex problems. We are on the brink of this; a democracy that does not enjoy popular legitimacy.

There are two possible ways out of this problem as far as the future democracy is concerned. Firstly, the elites will refuse to let go of the democratic institutions, resulting in the masses disengaging and refusing to respect democratic processes.  This will result in the collapse of democracy.

The other alternative is for the dominant elites to allow democratic institutions to respond to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. Thus, democracies should be seen to be responsive not only to special interests, but to the public interests. This requires deep introspection; a tough task that might be required to save democracy.

- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    populism  |  constitution  |  democracy
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