Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Populism
In many of the established democracies of Europe and North America, populist alternatives to democratic governance are gaining popularity and political power. In attempting to make sense of these developments, I argue, unlike many, that the rise of populism is not simply a passing response to fluctuating circumstances such as economic recession or increased immigration and thus a momentary retreat in the progress toward ever greater democratization. Instead I suggest current developments reflect an underlying structural weakness inherent in democratic governance, one that makes democracies always susceptible to the siren call of right wing populism. The weakness is the relative inability of the citizens of the modern, multicultural democracies to meet the demands the polity imposes upon them. Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required. Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill understood and frightening. Populism offers an alternative view of politics and society which is more readily understood and more emotionally satisfying. In this context, I suggest that as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential, and the vulnerability of democratic governance to populism becomes greater. The conclusion is that democracy is likely to devour itself. In the hope that it may not, I briefly consider the kinds of institutional changes that are necessary to facilitate the development of the citizenry democracy requires.