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From Democracy to Populist Rallies

Summary:
In his 1945 book On Power, Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote: Democracy, then, in the centralizing, pattern-making, absolutist shape which we have given to it is, it is clear, the time of tyranny’s incubation. Sometimes, democracy in America looks a bit like the South American version. In general, democracy as we know it works differently than what Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call its “folk theory” version. In their book Democracy for Realists, they describe the folk conception of democracy: In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have references about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants

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In his 1945 book On Power, Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote:

Democracy, then, in the centralizing, pattern-making, absolutist shape which we have given to it is, it is clear, the time of tyranny’s incubation.

Sometimes, democracy in America looks a bit like the South American version.

In general, democracy as we know it works differently than what Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call its “folk theory” version. In their book Democracy for Realists, they describe the folk conception of democracy:

In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have references about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy. … Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent.

That nothing like this happens in the real world should be obvious by observing the current electoral campaign in America, reading the political advertisements, and listening to the presidential candidates of the two main political parties. Public choice theory explains many failures of folk democracy.

There is much to disagree with in the alternative proposed by Achen and Bartels, which is an elitist democracy based on group identities. But the populist solution does not produce better democracy. It is more an extreme form of “folk theory” democracy that worsens democratic failures.

What is said and done in President Trump’s rallies is more entertainment than information on a political program. These rallies are liturgical spectacles of fusion between the great leader and “the people.” Extreme illustrations were given when the president danced as the crowd was chanting “YMCA” (videos are available on YouTube).

This sort of show is not new in contemporary populism. In his book Populisms: A Quick Immersion (which I review in the forthcoming issue of Regulation), Carlos de la Torre, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, observes that “[p]opulism blurs the line between politics and entertainment.” Of Rafael Correa, the populist president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, Torre writes:

Rafael Correa’s campaign strategy in 2006 was also based on mass rallies, where common people were in close proximity to the candidate and sang along with him to revolutionary music of the 1960s and 1970s. Even though this music was retro, Correa’s political rhetoric was innovative. Unlike the long and boring speeches of his rivals, Correa blended music and dance with speech-making. He spoke briefly, presenting a simple idea, music was played, and Correa and the crowd sang along the campaign tunes and dance.

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