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