Populism vs democratic socialism vs elitist democracy
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 8, 2019 - 12:00am

Populists are on the rise all over the globe. In some countries, they have gained substantial power. Among these countries are the United States, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Hungary and China. There are those who claim that populism is now the greatest threat to liberal democracy.

But what exactly is populism? Should everyone who criticizes the ideals of liberalism and democracy be called a populist? What is the difference between right wing and left wing populism? Does populism bring government closer to the people as populists claim; or, is it a threat to democracy?

Populism has been defined as a “political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” In the United States, the elites are commonly understood to be represented by Wall Street or the business and financial elite. 

The business and financial elites, therefore, are really responsible for the rise of populism. In the United States, the main force against populism, represented by Trump and the Republican Party, is the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party represented by presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. These progressives call themselves Democratic Socialists. Is this the emerging political reality all over the world – a choice between populists and democratic socialists? In the United Kingdom the choices for prime minister are Boris Johnson, a Trumpian populist, and Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist.  

In this book, What is Populism, Muller argues that at the populist’s core is a rejection of a pluralist democracy. Populists claim that they and they alone represent the people and their true interests. He also shows that populists will try to govern on the basis of their moral claim that they are the only ones that have the true interests of the people at heart. In this regard, populists are often similar, in their beliefs, to socialists and the elites.

Socialists claim that they alone represent the interest of the people; and, only through socialism can the “common people” expect society to treat them with respect and dignity. The business elite have a similar claim – that the masses will eventually be rewarded if business earns more profit. Therefore, for the common people to finally lead a life of human dignity, business must be allowed to be as profitable as possible. 

If populists have enough power, however, they will end up creating an authoritarian state that excludes all those that not considered part of the proper “people”. The question is whether democracy will survive the rise of populism? 

In a recent issue of the Economist, had this observation: “Democracies are generally thought to die at the barrel of a gun, in coups and revolutions. These days, however, they are likely to be strangled slowly in the name of the people.”

In the last decades, the perception is that democratic governments have been taken over by the financial and business elites. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner for Economics, has written that in almost every country, a few corporations have come to dominate entire sectors of the economy, contributing to skyrocketing inequality and slow growth. 

He writes that the financial industry has managed to influence the writing of its own regulations, tech companies have accumulated reams of personal data with little oversight, and governments negotiate trade deals and imposed labor laws, like wages, that fail to represent the best interests of the workers. The contention always is that business interests must be above the interest of the common people because “...what is good for business is good for the common people.” 

In his book People, Power and Profits, Stiglitz writes: “Too many people have made their wealth through exploitation of others rather than through wealth creation. If something isn’t done, new technologies may make matter worse, increasing inequality and unemployment.”

In countries where democracies are facing a crisis in confidence, it is because voters believe that they were being “... governed by aloof, incompetent, self serving elites,” according to the Economist. “Populists have tapped into this pool of resentment. They sneer at elites, even if they themselves are rich and powerful; they thrive on and nurture anger, anger and division.” In effect, populists thrive on the cynicism of the voters and resentments toward the indifference and selfishness of the elites. 

What then is the alternative to populism and save democracy?

In the United States, the Democratic Party is offering, as an alternative, democratic socialism. This is a term used to describe a system with a political democracy alongside a socialist economy. Democratic socialists argue that capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of freedom, equality and solidarity and that these values can only be realized through the establishment of a socialist economy. They advocate, for example, abolishing private health insurance for a single, government controlled national health insurance system. They also advocate free college tuition and wages based on the concept of a “just and living wage.”They also believe in introducing laws that will reduce the power of business and financial institutions.

It is still the United States that will set the trend for most of the capitalist world. Whichever wins in the 2020 elections – Trump populism or Democratic Socialism – will set the trend for most of the world.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on Sept. 14 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  Adult class on writing poetry with Gemino Abad on Sept. 28, 1:30-4:30 pm. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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