The Death of Pluralism

by George Hatjoullis

The year 2016 has seen the death of pluralism and the rebirth of populism. The onset of the illness goes back some time.I first commented on it in Erdogan, Turkey, and the Nature of Democracy posted June 3, 2013. Indeed the rise of populism, and the path it can take, is most vividly illustrated by events in Turkey since this date. Populism is the antithesis of pluralism. There is a rather tidy little article in the Boston Review entitled Real Citizens that explains this succinctly. I have previously explained pluralism in Democracy, Theocracy, and Pluralism and given a flavour of the economic consequences of populism in Populism and Markets but it is time to bring all these ideas together.

In a pluralist representative democracy the electorate choose their representatives to sit in the house of representatives. They may directly elect an executive or have one chosen by this house. A second house is elected or appointed to provide second sight on legislation and constitutional matters. The executive may well represent one party or group but accepts that its responsibility is to all citizens and recognises and protects the rights of minorities within the society. It will bias its agenda to its own values but will recognise the need to defend plural values. It is a government of all the people and for all the people.

In a populist representative democracy the apparatus of government is the same but the executive has no interest other than the interests of the group that elected it. Once in power it becomes a dictatorship and oblivious to plural views. It justifies this by reference to the ‘true people’, ‘real citizens’, and classifies anyone dissenting as unpatriotic, treacherous, or terrorist. It constantly refers to the ‘will of the people’ and the people are those that elected it. This group may even be a minority of the electorate. As this group is ‘the people’ anyone disagreeing is not ‘the people’ and can be ignored. Worse this justifies it in suppressing all opposition. In Turkey we have seen how far this can go and Erdogan is not finished yet. In the UK, the Brexit camp is proceeding as if the 37% of the electorate that voted to leave the EU is ‘the people’. The election of Donald Trump as President with all his anti-pluralist promises raises the prospect of a four-year dictatorship in the US. This is made all the more horrendous because the two representative houses are also Republican controlled.

The great sin of the EU was not in being undemocratic. It was in being a pluralist representative democracy. Populism is very difficult within the EU because power is spread widely. This wide distribution allows the institutions of the EU to accommodate a huge range of opinions. This does make it rather unwieldy but it allows it to accommodate populists such as UKip even when the domestic parliament would not. It is because the EU is immune to populism that populists hate it so. The only option for populists is to break up the union into more amenable chunks such as nation states. The attack on the EU is, and has always been, an attack on pluralism.

The US is the ultimate pluralist democracy. The checks and balances within the US are second to none. This is just as well as it is ethnically and culturally as diverse as it is possible to be. The election of a crudely populist executive is thus rather alarming especially as the same party controls both houses. Much depends on how the GOP responds to Trump’s promised populist policies. It brings to mind the UK labour party, Corbyn, and the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Republican Party may also be Trump’s official opposition. Moreover, the US has many independent powerful institutions that are steeped in pluralist tradition. Predicting the direction of US policy in the next four years is impossible.

In Turkey, populism has won and is wreaking a savage revenge on all that oppose it. Ataturk wanted a secular, pluralist democracy. Unfortunately, he placed the defence of the  constitution in the hands of the army, which made sense in context, but could not be accommodated by western pluralist countries. This allowed the populist Erdogan to usurp the constitution and create a populist state. Dissent is not tolerated. The path of Turkey is a natural path for all populist regimes.