By:  Dr. Robin Lauermann, Assistant Dean of General Education, Common Learning and Advising; Professor of Politics

A while ago and far away, a democracy shattered; on April 5 1992, the constitutionally-elected president, Alberto Fujimori, committed an auto-golpe (self-coup), washing away the footholds of democracy that had developed within Peru. Fujimori won office in 1990, convincing the Peruvian people that he was the best candidate to respond to domestic terrorism and economic woes. However, after facing increasing criticism, he shut down government, closing Congress and the courts, because of disagreement. What followed seems bizarre, but was the reality for Peru: using polling technology, Fujimori brought legitimacy to his actions by garnering the support of over 70% of the public. This support continued even in the face of his use of extreme repressive tactics, not only against the insurgents who physically threatened the Peruvian people, but also against those who were democratic critics. Moreover, Fujimori continued repressive tactics even after the return of democratic rule, until he was later removed from power when he attempted to run for an unconstitutional third term. This experience, which has occurred in similar forms elsewhere in Latin America and across the globe, serves as a historical lesson for humanity: populism should not be confused with adherence to democracy; the will of the people, should never be confused with citizens’ rights to articulate perspectives in the service of the common good.

In recent years – including this election – we have heard the term “populism” used in reference to American politics. Candidates, like Mr. Trump, have developed popularity because of their ability to identify and espouse concerns held by individuals who are frustrated with the political system and concerned about the problems that face our society. However, recognizing – and even voicing – those concerns does not equate to a candidate who has sound enough policy knowledge and background in order to successfully identify the actual roots of social, economic and political problems and, thus, solve them. Populists across history and globe have, at many times, created a false sense of democracy, as they have generated popular support by tapping into larger emotions and used evidence from polling to claim mandates for their campaigns and actions. This approach is sometimes called plebiscitary democracy, and is considered quite shallow, as compared with the greater expected level of deliberation in representative democracy. As a political scientist, I affirm that polls conducted with proper methods, can yield reliable information, at least much more reliable than impressions, gut instincts or wishful thinking. However, much more analysis and information is needed to know why people believe what they do, as well as which actions the governments should pursue to solve a problem, preferably without the creation of significant new ones, which may result from oversimplified responses.

For thousands of years, proponents of democracy, as well as its practical advocates – from the works of Aristotle to John Stuart Mill to my own – have focused on a concept of democracy that is not simply about majority rule, but rather one that involves deliberation to produce outcomes that have both legitimacy resulting from due process, as well as argument and evidence supporting them. In fact, our founders intentionally created a republican form of government, similar to the polity for which Aristotle advocated, in order to restrain the passions and impulses that might strike the public, because emotions are a natural part of humanity. James Madison best articulated this rationale in Federalist 10, indicating that the proposed (and adopted) government under the new constitution would “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In this way, emotional reactions would be hampered, limiting policies adopted as knee-jerk reactions. However, the founders also rightly recognized that leaders, as humans subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us, also might abuse the public interest; for this reason, among others, we have the accountability mechanisms of elections.

However, as we evaluate and choose candidates for whom we cast our votes, we must remember our political reality: the problems that our society faces are, like most others, quite complex. Resolving them requires leaders who are willing to invest the time in understanding these problems in order to make decisions that realistically and feasibly can solve these problems – or, at the very least, improve conditions. Doing so requires moving beyond fear, anger and other emotional reactions as a means of “problem solving.” In our system, as in any other, citizens, qualified candidates and their larger parties will legitimately disagree on solutions. The underpinning pluralism supported by the First Amendment ensures that citizens, as well as leaders, can contest these ideas – both through elections, but also through the policy process. Deliberation, including the willingness to closely examine our own beliefs and preferred policies, accords the respect to these differing ideas and often, as noted by John Stuart Mill, may produce a result that is more effective than that which any one side might offer on its own.

Having a comparative perspective, by analyzing our nation’s political process and history in a larger context, allows us to see common human tendencies despite particulars of culture. It tells us that we should not confuse populism with democracy, simply because a candidate generates support within the public. Many current officials have not engaged in the sincere deliberation that the founders –or the people – have a right to expect. Looking at the experiences of gridlock, most particularly the government shut-down two years ago, but also many actions by leaders in both parties in recent decades, we see evidence of some leaders willing to obstruct, for self or party power. As a result, public support, particularly for Congress, hovers in the low double digits for very understandable reasons. Our response, as citizens, should be deliberative rather than reflexive, selecting new leaders who possess knowledge and expertise, as well as that spirit of deliberation. Otherwise we may find ourselves sanctioning non-democratic behavior by leaders. This behavior, and its resulting policies, not only often fails to actually solve pressing problems when enacted in the real world, but also potentially harms constitutional rights and deprives humanity of the respect that it deserves.

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