Democracy and Populism Are Not the Same

Cape Times (South Africa), August 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Populism Are Not the Same


BYLINE: Louise Vincent

Recent ructions in the ANC have been described from time to time in the media as signalling a dangerous shift towards "populism".

What makes a politics "populist" is not a particular, definable set of principles or a particular social, political or economic programme but rather an antagonism to elite values and existing orthodoxies. Populism's famous eclecticism arises not from an inherent confusion but from the fact that the precise values that are being resisted or opposed vary depending on the |context in which the populist movement arises.

Where, for instance, as is the case in South Africa, elite political culture emphasises liberal values such as individual rights, gender equality, tolerance of moral diversity and non-discrimination with respect to religion and lifestyle choice, populist appeals will question these values as being out of touch with the views of "the people".

The appeal to "the people" is the most important rhetorical device employed by populists. The wisdom of good, simple, ordinary, decent working people is contrasted with the privileged, the highly educated, the arrogant cosmopolitan elite, |corrupt politicians and outspoken minorities. Populists speak in the language of "ordinary people".

The implied distinction is with an overly bureaucratised politics, distant leaders, unapproachable government, ideas that are out of touch with everyday life, stodgy, unappealing, boring politicians who make long complicated speeches when what is needed is simple, direct action to solve the everyday problems of ordinary folk.

Appealing as these ideas sound, some observers of South African politics read a sinister populist dimension to the shift in the way in which the ruling party has begun to position itself in the post-Mbeki era. Outbursts emanating from ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, the self-appointed and oft-quoted battering ram of the ANC's 2009 electoral campaign, are seen to offer a window into some deeply embedded views in at least a section of the ruling party which are troubling.

At issue is the equating of democracy with "the will of the people" which, at one level, sounds reasonable enough but represents a very fundamental challenge to the founding precepts of constitutional democracy. Constitutional supremacy is a very particular form of representative democracy. It differs from parliamentary sovereignty systems in that a constitution is a non-majoritarian mechanism that places out of the reach of majorities certain fundamental rights. Constitutional democracy places emphasis on the need for checks and balances in the democratic system - for counterweights to power, even the power of the people.

The constitution, in other words, places out of the reach of majority preference rights that may be unpopular and that a majority, left to its own devices, may not particularly want to go to the wall to defend, particularly in troubled times, when crime is rife, life expectancy is falling and the gulf separating rich and poor is growing.

When politics takes a populist turn, the message is that intellectuals and other social elites, for instance those represented in the judiciary and the independent |press, are to be regarded with suspicion and to be brought under the control of the people. The populist appeal to the irrefutable moral compass of "the people" serves to legitimise attacks on all non-elected |independent institutions including, for instance, the judiciary, central banks and regulatory agencies - all of which, it is claimed, must be subject to the will of the people.

In liberal democracies populist movements gain support when social processes seem to frustrate democratic input into the policy-making process.

The post-1994 era in South Africa was marked by a move to a very different kind of politics than that which had brought the ANC to power in the first instance. …

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