What Is The Difference Between Democracy, Populism And Demagogy?



Berlin, Wahlplakate NSDAP

National-Socialist election posters in Berlin, 1932 (German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons) 

Democracy is a concept which is universally invoked but seldom defined. Indeed, many people use the term ‘democracy’ without explaining its meaning. Some argue that democracy means ‘the will of the people’ and that as much power as possible should be devolved to the people by means of referendums – what is called ‘direct democracy.’

As Roland N. Stromberg wrote, democracy “is invoked as a model and used to legitimize different causes for different reasons,” and even tyrants talk about democracy to justify their actions. “In assuming absolute power, Sheik Majibar Rahman of Bangladesh explained in 1975 that banning opposition parties and strikes was necessary in order to ‘ensure democracy.’ The longtime Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos published a book proving that his rule was, as the title claimed, Today’s Democracy. Communist-ruled countries called themselves ‘people’s democracies'” (Roland N. Stromberg, Democracy: A Short, Analytical History, 1996, p. 4).

Despite the theoretical complexity of the term ‘democracy’, a concept that is so fundamental and universally used needs to be properly explained. We shall attempt to give a definition that describes democracy as it developed in the United States, Europe and Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan since the end of World War II.

We shall argue that democracy is a system based on inalienable individual rights (such as freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion, the right to life, liberty and security of person etc.); a representative government elected by universal suffrage; separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial); equality before the law regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, political creed, social class, gender, cultural-linguistic identity; and rule of law. All of these criteria are fundamental for the proper functioning of democracy.

Demagogy and populism are often conceived of as synonyms. Demagogues/populists are political leaders who manipulate public opinion by appealing to people’s feelings, such as anger, fear and suspicion. The ancient Greek term ‘demagogue’ originally simply referred to a leader of the people (dem-, from Greek demos, as in ‘demo-cracy’; and agogos, from Greek agein, ‘to lead’), but over time it came to signify a person who ‘misleads’, rather than one who ‘leads’ the people.

However, here we want to use the terms demagogue and populist in a slightly different way.

A demagogue is someone who misleads the people by appealing to their feelings and by promising simple solutions to complex issues. Demagogues’ arguments are based on oversimplification and emotion. Rather than providing evidence to back up their claims, they urge the people to trust their judgement without proper consideration.

One ancient example of a demagogue was Alcibiades, an Athenian commander who convinced the people of the city to launch a military campaign in Sicily by promising that victory would be easy and by appealing to Athenian pride. The expedition proved to be a failure and the people turned against him (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book VI).

A demagogue doesn’t always have a specific ideology. Politicians at times may resort to demagoguery to achieve their objectives. For instance, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s attempt to convince public opinion to support the Iraq War might be viewed as an example of demagogy. He made claims without providing proof, discouraged a thorough debate on the issue, and appealed to people’s feelings, pride and prejudices rather than to reason.

By contrast, we shall define populists as political leaders who are motivated by a divisive ideology whose main objective is to redefine the concept of who ‘the people’ are. Populists are motivated by either religious, nationalist or social fundamentalism. They view society as made up of identity-based (sub)groups that are opposed to each other.

For instance, Mao Zedong believed that society was made up of good and bad social classes, and that the ‘people’ consisted only of the ‘good’ classes. “[W]orkers, peasants, soldiers, intellectuals, businessmen and other patriots” were the ones fighting for the revolution, while the imperialist, feudal and bureaucrat-capitalist classes were the enemy (Mao Zedong, On the Question of the National Bourgeoisie and the Enlightened Gentry, 1948).

Adolf Hitler regarded humanity as consisting of racial groups engaged in a struggle for survival. Therefore, he defined the ‘people’ of Germany only as those who belonged to the German ‘race’ and who supported his ideology. All individuals who did not belong to the ‘superior race’ or who opposed his political beliefs were imprisoned, murdered, deprived of basic rights, silenced.

Therefore, a populist is someone who uses the rhetorical tools of demagogy to pursue divisive identity politics. As we shall explain later, Brexit, Trumpism and Catalan separatism are all examples of the resurgence of populist movements that threaten the very existence of democracy.

Democracy Is Not Absolute Freedom

Many people hold high the banner of democracy, even those who promote radical populist views make use of this term to justify their cause.

In 1948 Mao Zedong referred to the Chinese revolution as “a new-democratic, a people’s democratic revolution in character.”



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However, as we have noted earlier, without checks and balances and basic individual rights (not group rights) there can be no democracy. For instance, Hitler rose to power through democratic means.

In the March 1933 elections, the Nazis gained 288 seats and were the largest party in parliament, followed by the Social Democrats with 120 seats. One year later, the Nazis held a referendum on whether Hitler should become “leader and chancellor” ( Führer und Reichskanzler). 90% of the voters approved.

In April of this year Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan won by a margin of 51.3% a referendum that granted him sweeping powers. The reform does not completely eliminate democratic institutions, but it visibly weakens them. The referendum abolishes the office of the Prime Minister and gives the President the power to appoint ministers and senior judges, prepare the budget and enact some laws by decree. The President can also declare a state of emergency and dismiss parliament.

History shows that voting alone doesn’t mean democracy. If one votes to empower a dictator, or to oppress a minority, or to deprive people of certain rights, one destroys democracy.

True democracy must be based on fundamental individual rights for all, it must uphold separation of powers, voting rights and the rule of law. Only if these criteria are met can all citizens coexist peacefully. It must be emphasized that democracy presupposes diversity of opinion, religion, national identity and social class. When one group wants to seize power, or when one group wants to secede from another on the basis that they are different or disagree, they are destroying the principle of democracy and its institutions.

Democracy cannot let freedom become the tool of populism. Democracy cannot exist if any form of social, nationalist or religious radicalism takes root and uses freedom to destroy freedom. Democracy cannot allow populists to divide the citizens into subgroups based on national, religious or social identity, and entice hatred among them in order to seize power. A democracy must be strong enough to act against all kinds of fundamentalist threats and to firmly reject the rhetoric of populists who invoke the ideal of freedom to destroy it.

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