When Do Democracy and Populism Diverge?

The Daily Yomiuri (Toyko, Japan), December 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

When Do Democracy and Populism Diverge?


More and more people are expressing concern about the drawbacks of democracy. Figures such as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump have used populism to gather support while repeatedly causing unease in the global community through their words and deeds. Could democracy lead countries and the world down the wrong path? We asked three experts.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 8, 2016)

Public will must be nurtured more

Yasushi Kudo

President of The Genron NPO

We cannot dismiss the Trump phenomenon in the United States presidential election as a temporary situation in a different country. This is because the essence of democratic government is being tested. The tactic of populism, which uses the anxieties and fears of voters and gathers support through the use of provocative statements, was not restrained by journalism and academia.

Since January, I have continuously discussed the topic of democracy with people from the United States, Europe and Asia. Among them, U.S. journalists have expressed a sense of helplessness. Although the media triggered the Trump phenomenon, nobody was able to stop it.

As populism is a form of expression for the voice of a nation, it can also become a powerful force capable of demolishing a political structure that has reached its limit. However, democracy has often been steered into harm's way when "brave" politicians have harnessed people's anxieties.

In exchanges with think tanks from 20 countries around the world this year, we shared a sense of danger about the inability of democracy to find its direction, as nations failed to reconcile with globalization over conflicting issues like economic disparity and the refugee crisis. These are also issues that Japan has begun to face, but awareness of them is still low.

Under democracy, citizens have freedom of speech and are mainly able to take part in government through elections. In this sort of system, there is an appropriate feeling of tension between the government and the people, and the government works to deal with problems. This is what it means for a democratic government to function properly.

I founded The Genron NPO because I wanted to support this cycle from a civilian standpoint, and to create a forum for discussion. Every year, together with over 100 experts, we evaluate the performance of the administration's policies and, at election times, publish evaluations of the parties' manifestos or policy statements.

However, even assigning marks has been difficult lately. This is because there has been no competition among the parties to resolve issues relating to the future of Japan.

The late Yotaro Kobayashi, a speaker who exemplified the business world, once told me, "The Genron NPO should work toward a strong democracy." lf citizens discuss issues on the basis of correct information, give form to their own aims and take part in resolving issues, it would not lead to be the kind of unstable, albeit direct, democracy that makes shallow, black-and-white decisions.

The important thing is to strengthen liberal democracy. The term "liberal" tends to conjure an antigovernment, left-wing image in Japan, although it originally referred to the freedom for citizens to be independent, and for the sovereign to be self-aware, take responsibility and act.

On The Genron NPO's 15th anniversary on Nov. 21, we invited knowledgeable people from Japan and abroad to a discussion about democracy. In March next year, we will hold the Tokyo Conference with the participation of think tanks from 10 countries around the world.

We also have plans to create a place where citizens, politicians and intellectuals can broadly discuss these issues.

If the public is not strong, democracy will not function well. Democratic government requires our sovereign consciousness.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Toshiyuki Ito)

Kudo is the president of The Genron NPO, a specified nonprofit corporation. …

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