The structural weaknesses of democracies: Part II – Citizenry
The Right-wing Authoritarian Populism (RWAP), witnessed all over the world in recent times, is often ascribed to the personality and charisma of the leaders. (The personal traits and politics of RWAP leaders is discussed in Part I of this series). However, one should note that leadership is a mere product of circumstances. Specific social conditions enable a definite type of leadership to emerge. After all, especially in a democracy, it is the majority vote that matters. So, one must also ask: what made the majority population vote for a specific type of leader? What aspects of the current and past politics make people abandon the old elite and choose the new populist leaders and their politics?
Research in sociological and psychological areas about the individuals and the supporters of RWAP politics have concluded that a person “being less educated, working class or being a member of a dominant ethnic group tend to support the right wing politics” (Arzheimer 2016). Other researchers have concluded that RWAP leaders and the media use changing socio-economic conditions such as “increased economic inequality, general economic decline, increased immigration or demographic changes with persisting but latent right wing predispositions” to achieve their political goals (Bonikowski 2017).
Adding to the above research, Shawn Rosenberg (2019) focussed on the structural weaknesses located in two pillars of any democracy: the citizens, and the elite who claim to mediate between democratic institutions and the people. Failure from the part of both these pillars to understand and defend democratic values has led to the rise of right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple solutions to complex problems. As a result, in many democracies such the United States, India, Brazil, Turkey, Philippines, etc, democratic governance has declined, democratic institutions are being hollowed out from within, people’s democratic rights are being curtailed, the media is being controlled, dissent punished, and a surveillance-based authoritarian or fascist state is emerging. To clarify his argument Rosenberg distinguishes between democratic structuring of politics and right-wing populist structuring of politics.
Why and how citizens fail democracy?
In democratic structuring of politics, the “collective structuring of democracy is realised both in the logic of its cultural construction and its institutional organization.” Here the polity is a construction based on abstract principles, the quality of which depends on those who are involved in it. In this process of politics, the individual is conceived to be a self-organising and a self-constituting system.
Individual citizens have essential integrity and existence, which is independent of their place within the polity. Citizens are reflective, rational, and self-directing. Most importantly their relationship with the state is of rational and legal nature. Here, the purpose of the state is to serve the individual’s purposes in conjunction with other individuals where all are connected to the state through obligations and rights.
Under this system, the individual is the source and value of social life, and, hence, individuals are ends in themselves. That is why under democracy freedom of expression, personal integrity, and equality of recognition that all have that integrity are fundamental values. In view of protecting these individual rights, the state must be guided by the notion of justice as fairness. All institutions in a democracy exist to protect the integrity and equality of individuals (Rosenberg 2019).
Primarily, democracy works on consensus and not coercion. For this to happen unhindered, there must be communicative engagement between state actors, its institutions, and citizens, as well as among the citizens. The democratic polity demands that citizens, despite their antagonistic or antithetical standpoints, engage in dialogue and forge an “intersubjective or common understanding.” To do that, individuals need to possess or cultivate the ability to form their own opinion and claims, also understand the opinion and claims of those who disagree, and yet arrive at an intersubjective understanding.
To facilitate this intersubjective understanding, democracies structure their public sphere as open, accessible, and free, so that anyone can participate. All participants are offered an equal voice to speak as well as being heard. This process is also deliberative so that claims and counterclaims can be adequately addressed. This can happen only if the media and the participants are free of political interference, intimidation or bullying of any sort.
The entire structuring of a democratic polity is geared towards the qualities of its citizens. In a democracy, citizens are constituted as “independent, emancipated subject/agent.” To be such a citizen, it is assumed that individuals have the cognitive and emotional capacities to self-direct themselves. The capacity to self-direct implies that the individual while observing particulars of a situation, would be able to view it from a larger context. This implies a capacity to evaluate what is right and just, which help make considered political decisions. Such individuals will not respond merely to any and every stimulus but see the causes behind such stimulus and formulate a considered response (Rosenberg 2019).
The emotional dimension, here, refers to the ability to forge an affective bond between people who depend on one another to achieve a similar goal in life. This requires the feelings of sympathy and empathy towards others. This is evident when individuals can go as far as to care for others. When we care for others, we show that we value them as much as we do ourselves. This capacity to care for one’s fellow human being comes from the self-confidence and security of the independent self. These qualities are attained in an environment of sympathetic and caring connection. Such a caring and sympathetic environment is sustained by people who are confident and secure (Rosenberg 2019). Hence, these cognitive and emotional capacities are vital to sustaining the democratic citizenship and democracy itself. Only citizens with independent thinking, self-confidence, and sympathy towards one another move beyond the security of identity politics which vitiate democratic way of functioning.
But do the citizens in our democracies act with independent thinking? How do poverty, unfreedom, force, intimidation, caste and ethno-religious allegiances and propaganda come in the way of their democratic participation? Think about India. What is happening in India today is that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi behave with a “winner takes all” attitude. They leave no space for dissent.
Opposition parties and opposition-run governments are destroyed or destabilised through corrupt means. The most recent examples of alleged purchase of members of the legislative assembly in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan bear witness to how authoritarian leaders can trample on the constitution and democracy by jettisoning the constitution. To make things appear normal and to mislead the nation about the failure and misdeeds of the government propaganda is employed.
The government has eliminated fairness and legitimacy to minorities and those fall outside their ideological spectrum. Hence the question: is the Indian citizen an independent-thinking, reflective and self-directive person fulfilling his/her role in the democracy? If he/she did, how would one explain the re-election of Modi in May 2019 when the economy was going downhill, the unemployment rate had reached a 45-year-high ceiling and the atrocities against women, Dalits and minorities were on the rise?
Is the Indian citizen emotionally mature enough to explain one group celebrating at the misfortune of another group of citizens, like Hindus celebrating the demolition of Babri Masjid or the lockdown of Kashmir? To answer this question, we need to discuss Rosenberg’s understanding of the right-wing populist structuring of politics and why identity politics, existential anxiety and nationalist feelings trump rational thinking among citizens.
Over the last several decades, though democracies had been dealing with social, economic, or cultural onslaughts of various types rather successfully, Rosenberg argues that the “recent developments are manifestations of something more fundamental. They reflect a basic structural weakness in American democracy, one that renders it ever more vulnerable to the threat of right-wing populist alternatives” (Rosenberg 2019:17). (If it applies to a mature democracy such as the US, then it applies to India even more due to the inherent weaknesses in its democracy). Relying his arguments on research in political science and social psychology conducted in the US, Rosenberg concludes the following:
….. majority of Americans are unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required. To the degree to which they are required to do so, they will interpret what is required in distorting and inadequate ways. As a result they will interact and communicate (in a manner) that undermines the functioning of democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and values. If their inadequacy is made apparent, they will be unable to correct in the necessary way. Instead, they will simply be left confused, uncertain and insecure. This may simply lead them to withdraw from the public sphere of democratic life. Retreating into private life or unconsidered economic pursuits they may ignore and/or reject politics and eschew any form of political participation. Alternatively or additionally, they may seek alternative, more comprehensible and satisfying political direction and modes of interaction. (sic)
Given the complexities of democratic politics and the demands made by it upon the citizens, Rosenberg argues that most citizens are incapable of fulfilling their role as cognitively, emotionally and rationally directed citizens. Consequently, in times of crisis, most citizens are likely to be attracted towards a politics or leadership that offers quick, easy and non-complicated solutions to complex issues. If one were to recall the pre-election campaign speeches of leaders such as Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Benjamin Netanyahu, the above arguments appear to prove right. This leads us to discuss the nature of right-wing populist politics.
Right-wing populist structuring of politics
As in democratic structuring of politics, right-wing populist governance also reflects a dual structuration of political life. This structuration manifests in “how political institutions and culture, the communicative engagement in the public sphere and the nature of individual citizens are organized and defined” (Rosenberg 2019) (sic).
However, in this case, the structuring logic“ revolves around concrete actions, simple categorization and hierarchy.” Here the nation is an undifferentiated collective where national will which is embodied in the leader and the power structure is supreme. The nation is defined by its functions and its supreme goal or agenda. The supreme agenda or the mission is to make the nation great as against others. This goal is achieved through collective effort and sacrifices made by the people to make it first among other nations. (Here one can recall how at the beginning of his premiership, Modi requested well-off people or the middle classes to give up voluntarily various subsidies they enjoyed. Also, one should remember how the Hindutva uses the sacrifice of the soldiers to build a national narrative of sacrifice by citizens to enable the soldiers fighting on the border).
Most of the time the sacrifice is directed towards building a powerful military. External and internal enemies are identified and targeted. In this instance, one should recall Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) rally cry to his base. His repeated declarations that America has the greatest military in the world and setting aside a record budget for military purposes is a great example. In the Indian context, one should recall Modi’s claim to make India “Vishwa Guru” (world leader); his claim to make India a $5-trillion economy by 2024, and many other capricious and disastrous decisions such as demonetisation, hasty implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, COVID-19 lockdown, Kashmir lockdown, etc, all the while demanding sacrifices from citizens to make India great.
Any criticism of Modi’s policies and his government’s corruption about Rafale Jet purchase, PMCARES Fund, his failure to face up to Chinese incursion into Indian territories of Ladakh, Doklam, Uttarakhand areas are projected as bringing bad name to the country. This behaviour of Modi-supporting media and party machinery should be treated as typical tactics of an RWAP leader and his politics.
In contrast to democratic structuring of politics, under right-wing populist conception, it is not the individual that is the source of value. It is the nation that is the embodiment of the people and the source of value for political life. Every institution and its purpose are valued based on the degree to which they serve and facilitate the realisation of the national will. Accordingly, they are either retained or dismantled. Here, the individuals have a secondary and a derived status. The secondary role of citizens is explained thus:
They are rendered meaningful and valued insofar as they are part of the collective, the people and the nation. Individuals are thus constituted as a mass who share a single common significant characteristic – they are members of the nation. Differences between individual members are thus ignored or diminished (Rosenberg 2019 p 11)
People are expected to share certain specific characteristics, especially, “of common appearance, common beliefs, common practices or rituals, common ancestry or common trajectory. In this conception, the individual and the nation are inextricably intertwined, the line between them blurred” where “the state is realised in people and the people are realised in the state.” Individuals have value to the extent that they participate in the nation’s mission and how they contribute to achieve the national will (Rosenberg 2019).
Their value, recognition and punishment are determined solely on this basis as is the case in China today where such values are determined by social credit system (Kobie 2019). Hence, to achieve the supreme national good anybody, any community, any institution and even a family member can be sacrificed or punished. One can recall how Modi locked down Jammu and Kashmir for over a year and decimated the economy of the state to make it fall in line with his “Hindu Rashtra” (a Brahminical theocratic dictatorship) project.
Under right-wing politics, institutions are structured to achieve the same objective of fulfilling the national will and maintaining the integrity of the people as a collective whole. Hence the political institutions are organised “to facilitate action and exercise guidance and control. They are authoritarian. The institutional structure that complements this understanding of nation and the pursuit of the national will is that of a simple hierarchy, something like a military structuring of power. Here control emanates from the top. Here the highest level of leadership that is assumed to best reflect the national will and give it specific expression and direction” (Rosenberg 2019, p 11).
The authority at this level rests on the supreme leader who is supposed to be the embodiment of the people and the nation. This supreme leader with unlimited power uses the institutions of the state to achieve the national purpose. Multiple hierarchies of power, that derive their authority from the highest level, carry out the administrative functions. The individual citizen belongs at the bottom of this hierarchy. “Their political role is defined by their bond to the people as incarnated in the nation and its leadership. This is expressed in the demand for their loyalty to the nation, their participation in the national will and their subordination of any falsely conceived independent self” (Rosenberg 2019, p 11-12). Citizen’s belonging is explained in terms of obligations rather than rights. If anyone dares to reject the authority, that would be construed as anti-national behaviour which could be punished accordingly.
The Indian case under Modi and Hindutva politics is a great example of this approach to the citizenry, institutions, and the public sphere. Colonial-era sedition laws are still used indiscriminately against those who oppose the government and criticise the ‘supreme leader’, Modi. Incarceration under sedition laws, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), anti-terrorism and criminal laws of social activists, journalists, opposition leaders, students and dissenters are common methods used to beat down dissent and criticism.
Here one can recall the famous activists such as Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumde, Gautam Navlaka, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Fereira, Rona Wilson and others. Most of them have been denied bail by courts and still languish in jails (The Wire, 2018). This amply proves Indian political trajectory under Modi and Hindutva which emphasise that individual loyalty is primarily towards the nation and its authority. Interpersonal connections and loyalties, dissent or opposition are suspect.
The state and institutions are there to serve the interests of the purported “Hindu Rashtra”–a majoritarian project. Accordingly, how citizens are expendable can be concluded in the manner how Modi announced demonetisation, GST regime, COVID-19 lockdown and many other capricious decisions that made the entire population stand in queues during demonetisation and die walking in the hot sun during the draconian lockdown period.
One should remember that Modi never apologised for those who suffered or the families of those who died due to these Tughlaqi decisions. Despite all these anti-human ways of ruling a nation, Modi still enjoys high popularity in the country. What explains this phenomenon? Why do people, despite their immense suffering and existential anxiety, are still mesmerised by such a flawed and incompetent leader? Some answers could be found in the third part of this article series.
Arzheimer, K. 2016. Electoral Sociology–who Votes for the Extreme Right and Why–and When? The Populist Radical Right: A Reader 277, pp. 277-289.
Bonikowski, B. 2017. Ethno‐nationalist populism and the mobilization of collective resentment. The British Journal of Sociology 68, pp. S181-S213.
Kobie, N. 2019. The complicated truth about China’s social credit system. www.wired.co.uk/. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained [Accessed: 14/02/2020].
Rosenberg, S. W. 2019. Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism. In: Hng Hur, D.U. et al. eds. Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremism. Irvine, USA: UC Irvine.
The Wire, S. 2018. In Nationwide Swoop, Five Rights Activists Arrested, Several More Raided. New Delhi: The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/rights/police-take-sudha-bharadwaj-into-custody-raid-homes-of-lawyers-activists-across-cities [Accessed: 27/07/2020].
Dr Samuel Sequeira is a Research Associate at Cardiff University, UK. A native of Karnataka, he had his MA at Mysore University (Karnataka) and had worked as an Editor of Konkani and Kannada newspapers. He has his PhD from Cardiff University where he researched on “South Asian Migrant Community living in Wales”. His current research is about the topic “Trauma of Civil War: Sri Lankan Tamil Experience”.