Populism may have a long history in the West but its danger lies in exploiting the romantic rhetoric of democracy by celebrating the mythical will of the people, argues Shadia B. Drury, professor of political science at the University of Calgary
"The Scourge of Populism" October 25, 1997
SHADIA B. DRURY
SPECIAL TO THE CALGARY HERALD

The populist rhetoric of Preston Manning and the Reform party is reason for concern. Even though populism has its roots in democratic ideas and principles, it is a debased manifestation of democracy that Canadians must guard against.

Ironically, populism rears its ugly head just when democratic institutions and ideas are at their strongest. And this is precisely the predicament of our time. We live in an age where democracy is the supreme term of approbation in political discourse. The defeat of so many totalitarian regimes around the globe has added even more luster to the allure of democratic life. Democracy has become indistinguishable from freedom, truth, justice and every other conceivable virtue that political society can boast.

It is the opposite of tyranny, corruption and everything sordid that is imaginable in political life. It has become an end in itself, whose moral excellence is beyond dispute.

In the history of western political thought, the defense of democracy has never amounted to the shear, unadulterated celebration of the will of the people.

In reality, the will of the people is little more then a cloak that conceals the naked will of leaders clever enough to invoke it

The history of political thought in the West contains at least two different conceptions of democracy - one is cold, even cynical, while the other is romantic and idealistic. But neither conceives of democracy as an end in itself. Both see it as a means to other ends.

In the cynical view, there is no truth, no right and wrong, no common good and no agreement about values.

In light of this state of affairs, there is no such thing as the will of the people. Democracy is simply the rule of the most numerous or the party supported by the most numerous. It is a technique for ending deadlock.

There is no guarantee that the rule of the most numerous will necessarily lead to justice, or yield freedom. It is merely assumed that submitting to the rule of the many is preferable to discord and civil war.

On the romantic view, there is something magical about the democratic process; it has the power to transform isolated, self- centered individuals into social beings. It allows them to exercise not only their rational capacities, but enlarges their sympathies towards fellow citizens, and makes them see themselves as part of a collectivity. Instead of thinking about their own selfish interests, they turn their attention to their community and its needs.

By linking the individual to the whole, democracy creates a collective will - the will of the people. The latter is identical to the true will of every individual, understood as a social being.

This view is best represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But ironically, the very idealism of this position opens the way to the populist perversions of democracy.

Populism exploits the romantic rhetoric of democracy by celebrating the mythical will of the people. The sovereignty of the people miraculously abolishes the distinction between ruler and ruled, sovereign and subject. Rule of the people, by the people and in the interest of the people seems to be immune to abuse. It gives the impression that politics has magically disappeared.

But in truth, there is no such thing as the will of the people. There is no collective will. If the will of the people is to have any meaning that is not mystical, then it cannot be distinguished from the will of the most numerous. And there is no reason why the rule of the most numerous cannot be arbitrary and capricious; nor can we expect the rule of majorities to be sympathetic to minorities or to eccentric individuals.

It behooves us to keep in mind that the sovereignty of the people, like the sovereignty of any other person or group, is not immune to abuse or incompatible with arbitrary power and even tyranny.

In its populist form, democracy is compatible with servitudes and this is precisely why the most masterful tyrants, demagogues, and leaders who lust for power, find it so convenient to conceal their own will by appealing to the sacred will of the people.

The worst tyrants in the 20th century were self- proclaimed democrats. They presented their will as the will of the people (or the genuine will of the people if only the people were clever enough to know what they really wanted). But in reality, the will of the people is little more than a cloak that conceals the naked will of leaders clever enough to invoke it.

It seems to me that the success of Preston Manning and the Reform party is connected to the populist perversions of democracy in our time. When Manning appeals to the mystical will of the people, we should take him with more than a grain of salt.

Did the will of the people dictate his policies on the deficit? On immigration? On Quebec? Did the will of the people make him move into Stornoway? And is the will of the people going to decide whether gays and lesbians have rights?

We must not forget that our political traditions are liberal as well as democratic and that we live in a liberal democracy. Liberalism and democracy are two different traditions that are not always compatible but co- exist in our political heritage. Liberalism insists on the rule of law that stands above the people and their leaders alike. The rule of law is intended to protect the liberty of individuals.

Our liberal traditions are a bulwark against the excesses to which democracy is vulnerable. But it seems to me that democracy has triumphed at the expense of liberalism, and that the current stature of democracy in the popular imagination transcends any sober evaluation of its merits.