Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?

Eternal nervousness might well be the price of democracy

Rohit Pradhan usually has interesting things to say and minces no words. Especially on Friday evenings. As he inaugurated last weekend, he decided to take liberals to the cleaners.

“But of course democracy is awesome till it elects people I don’t like. Then I want to rescind democracy & elect the government by the elite.”[@Retributions]

Let me deliberately take this statement out of its context, to try and escape the hangover of the politics of the previous week.

In conditions of “business as usual”, Rohit would be right. Supporters of liberal politicians and parties sometimes do engage in the dubious sport of blaming democracy for their electoral reverses. It would be appropriate to call out such behaviour as self-serving and hypocritical.

However, sometimes the sourness of the grapes is an early sign of bitter poisonousness. Communists, Fascists, Populists and authoritarians-sans-ideology can use democratic process to acquire power, and then systematically undermine the institutions and values that enabled them to do so. Like burning the ladder after you’ve climbed it, there are many instances in world history where this has occurred (even without invoking Godwin’s Law). The fear of “one man, one vote, one time” can be ignored at our peril. This is neither an argument for excessive, unwarranted fear nor for disenfranchisement based on political ideologies. Rather, it is a case for greater vigilance.

In the introductory chapter of a new book on populism, Jan-Werner Muller argues populism is “an exclusionary form of identity politics (that) tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but irreducibly diverse citizens.” Read his essay in the London Review of Books.

Mr Pradhan ought to be kinder on those are scared by what they happening around the world.

3 thoughts on “Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?”

  1. The problem mr.pai is also in terms of the alternatives that liberals are siding with. While a theoretical and academic discussion on populism is what interests liberals more, the masses have to vote in real life based on real considerations. Are we to believe that rahul gandhi led india is better off than modi? Recently lalu yadav was being courted on freedom of expression , as a bihari i can ensure it does more harm to the concept itself than otherwise. If you conclude from the choices liberals are making they are seen to be siding with dynasts, mediocrity, corrupt and are increasingly seen to be not interested in any conversation beyond the coterie. The crisis is with liberals , that needs to be addressed.

  2. The analysis by Nitin pai is half constructed and betray a sense of elitism disconnected from the identity of the masses.There may be examples of extreme populism or identity based exclusionist politics that had occurred in Western hemisphere predominantly. Nevertheless, There are two problems that come out in this argument about Liberals versus populists in a democratic setup.

    The first problem is the appropriation of liberalism to what is basically an elitism and disconnectedness from popular cultures of the masses of the land.A liberal cultural, political and economical outlook is not mutually exclusive to the religion,language,boundaries of civilizations.The indian civilization which is predominantly Hindu(for a lack of better term) has been conservative, ritualistic and yet tolerant towards each other.There never was one strong core that imposed itself on others.People with myraid languages,customs,cultures and yet living together is unparallel in History. The liberalism that has come to existance after 1947 stands for undermining the civilizational inheritance and active disconnectedness from the masses.A Nehru and his offsprings had nothing in their personal lives that connects them to the masses of this country.So are the lives of Humanities educated, upper class Indians who detest native cultures and their languages.

    The second part of the problem is breeding an intellectual environment to impose alien notions of liberalism by undermining the cultural roots of those who identify with communities.Whether its Modi or Brexit or Trump, there is a large section of people who are comfortable with their language,rituals,customs,food and traditions.When an elitist ridicules ideas of natives or breeds a kind of intellectual suffocation by dominating Academics & Research institutes, there is bound to be a reprisal.The deracinated elitists should ponder whether they have lost the touch with the ground and representing a rootless idea.

  3. There is a joint hypothesis problem when ‘liberals’ want to repudiate democracy if it leads to the election of ‘populists’.

    (1) Is it that they are genuinely worried about what populist-demagogues would do to the society and democracy?
    (2) Or, is it that the liberals are actually illiberals in disguise?

    If demagogues would undermine democracy, it is best to undermine it beforehand! That sounds like good logic from the liberals. Well, I suppose it is too much to expect either logic or consistency or fairness from self-styled liberals.

    How about asking themselves where they erred and why? For starters, they can read Dani Rodrik’s piece

    and they can listen to this brilliant rant by a ‘Left-Liberal

    If an individual is full of certitude, is he/she really a Liberal?

Comments are closed.