The structural weaknesses of democracies: Part III –elites
In the previous parts of this article (see part I here and part II here) when I discussed the politics of right-wing authoritarian populism (RWAP) I tried to identify the politics of the populist parties and their leaders. But more importantly, by citing the research by Shawn Rosenberg, I focused on the structural weaknesses of democracies that enable RWAP. Among the structural weaknesses, Rosenberg identified how two major pillars of democracy: the citizens and the elites, have failed democracy and thus enabled right-wing authoritarian populism to flourish in many, once democratic, nations.
In part I, it was discussed that “democratic governance is structurally weak” and thus it is undermined from within. Rosenberg’s claim in support of this is that democracies lack mature “citizenry to participate in its public sphere, operate in its institutions and understand its culture.” This results in the distortion of democratic culture, its institutions and the public sphere. These very citizens, being part of the democratic system, are expected to embrace “definitions, values and practices they cannot understand. Thus democratic functioning is undermined by its own citizenry.” It is at this juncture that right-wing populism presents itself with a vision and direction that people can understand, value and embrace (Rosenberg 2019).
However, one could ask: how did democracies sustain themselves for the last several decades and yet since the last decade many are falling victim to RWAP? This brings into focus the role played by the liberal elites within democracies. It was their ability and their role in mediating and maintaining democratic values and systems that had helped keep democracies functioning. The state of the elite power and how the erosion of their ability to mediate democracy has led to what we witness today is discussed in this part of the article.
Who are the elites in a democracy?
The dictionary definition of the word elite refers to “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” As an example, one could speak of a select group within the military that is chosen based on some special attributes or abilities to play a special role. In a democracy, its institutions, political class, the media, professional class, corporate class, civil servants and a host of others who are part of the ruling class or those who wield influence over power form this group.
Speaking generally, within a democracy, power revolves within and among this group of people. It is because of their special position within the society that they are entrusted with the responsibility and power. Also, they are trusted when they speak on various matters. They are trusted because they act as mediators of power and it is assumed that they do their duty with honesty. This trust is integral to the health of representative democracy (Davies 2018). It has been working for the past several decades and keeping democracies functional.
How democracies worked so far?
According to Rosenberg, democratic governments have been able to function, even though not in optimal ways, because of the “impact of broader structural forces and the particular role played by democratic elites.” Here broader structural forces refer to forces of modernity or post-modernity. These forces are economic, technical, and international conditions. By being parallel to those of democratic governance, they reinforce the domestic democratic structuring of politics.
The capitalist organisation of economy is structured on democratic principles with individual liberty, rationality, and maturity. In Rosenberg’s words:
Like democratic governance, capitalism also operates as a system, albeit an economic one, that both regulates and is responsive to individual economic actors. As participants in a capitalist economic system, individuals are constituted to be rational, self-directing actors. As such they are self-regulating systems that are independent of each other and the larger capitalist system of which they are a part. Although independent and self-directing, individuals are at that same time integrated into the economic system and how they can interact with one another is regulated by accordingly. Thus their capacity for self-directed action is constrained by the rules of the field on which they are playing (Rosenberg 2019 p 25).
The same holds good about globalisation which also assumes a world with “self-directing national actors” who participate in an international system inextricably intertwined and interdependent on one another’s cultures and economies. “It is a system of relationships which mirrors that of democratic governance.” Such external structures of capitalism and globalisation impact domestic conditions and foster structural changes from within.
In a similar fashion structuring forces of science and technology also contribute to “the objective context of political interaction that complements democratic definitions and practice.” All such modern practices parallel the construction of democratic governance and thus “reinforce the conception of reality and modes of practice that democracy imposes on its citizenry.”
Even though “democratic citizens may lack the cognitive and emotional wherewithal to understand and value the democratic vision being imposed upon them” these external structures and a nation’s interaction with them function as a training ground for citizens to imbibe democratic values (Rosenberg 2019 pp 26-27). It is in this sphere that the role of the elites within democracies stands out.
Role of the elite
One should note that the structural conditions such as capitalism, globalisation, and science and technology, though they help democratic structures to flourish, in themselves they are not a sufficient condition. Hence, in most democracies, democratic practices are accomplished through “elite control”. The elite, through their participation, not only maintain democratic structures but also through the exercise of their political power, ensure that “the mass of people participates in ways that at least appear adequate. This includes providing authoritative interpretations of democratic institutions and culture that translate these more complex entities and abstract orientations into simpler, more concrete terms.”
Hence, by giving citizens necessary direction to understand their political context and to be adequately performing their democratic role without feeling lost the elite reduce the burden for individual citizens to think on their own or direct their action (Rosenberg 2019 p 27). Hence, it was the elites, the people holding power at the top of the economic, political, and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively.” But in the current climate of rising populism, the elites are losing out.
The role of the elite and liberals in destroying democracy
What led to this situation? Joseph Stiglitz, an eminent economist, has this to say about what neoliberal capitalism did to the world:
After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History, as democracy and capitalism at last had triumphed. A new era of global prosperity, with faster-than-ever growth, was thought to be at hand, and America was supposed to be in the lead. By 2018, those soaring ideas seem finally to have crashed to Earth. The 2008 financial crisis showed that capitalism wasn’t all that it was supposed to be—it seemed neither efficient nor stable. Then came a rash of statistics showing that the main beneficiaries of the growth of the last quarter century were those at the very top (Stiglitz 2019).
Until recently, this group of elites mediated as keepers of democratic traditions and institutional culture. However, due to their overt association with globalism and neoliberalism that have wreaked economic havoc all over the world, these elite leaders have lost credibility. Even as the results of financialisation of world economies and neoliberal policies were evident through the market crash and the economic downturn that rendered many people homeless since 2008 the ruling elite decided to bail out the banks rather than those who are affected by the very recklessness of the banking sector.
Even though their support for globalisation, financialisation, and free trade agreements resulted in moving manufacturing to cheaper parts of the world while people lost jobs in their own countries they did not provide them with any alternative means of survival. Wealth moved into the hands of the 0.001% elite. Three individuals Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in the US own as much wealth as the bottom half of Americans, ie, 160m people (Stiglitz 2019). The story is same about India where a small group of crony capitalists own more than the bottom half of Indians, ie, 650m people. People all over the world are very angry about this unequal distribution of wealth.
Adding to this travesty there is the issue of the political elite indulging in corruption of various sorts. Whether in India or the USA, due to the corrupt practices of the elite, common citizens lost faith in these groups’ ability to govern fairly. Worse still, in most democracies, especially in the USA and India, powerful lobbies associated with business interests or foreign national interests own lawmakers through political funding.
These lawmakers hardly espouse the interests of the people whom they were elected to represent. Big money and lobbies get away with whatever they want while the citizens are losing out. In this abandoning of the people, the political, corporate, and intellectual elite have been together. Therefore, people have lost trust in the elites. As a result, people are left to make political decisions on their own. When they had to do it, they drifted toward the simple solutions offered by right-wing populists worldwide. These solutions are a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism, communalism, and authoritarianism.
Along with politicians, other professionals such as bankers, scientists, journalists and media houses and even religious leaders are found to be corrupt and partisan with what they say and do. This is because the opinions or facts they trot out are found to be done, very often, to espouse personal profit, political identity and/or to advance certain political or economic goals of those who fund them. This could happen in any area of professional expertise. This has special application in the field of media which forms part of the public sphere as well as an instrument to inform and educate people.
With corporatisation and consolidation of media ownership, along with their politicisation, there has arisen huge trust deficit with the established media. As noted in the previous part of the article, a free public sphere is essential for citizens to arrive at rational decisions regarding democratic practices to be engaged in. But, because of the nature of media ownership and their espousal of partisan (political, corporatist) interests, their credibility has come under suspicion. This lack of trust with the mainstream media has driven many to seek their information from alternate media. As the internet has become ubiquitous this possibility has increased. All in all, the old elite club has lost control over the narrative.
Elites’ loss of narrative control
One of the major means used by the elite to educate, inform, and control the people has been through their control over the media. Until the arrival of the internet and social media people’s access to information and opinion had been limited to mainstream media, which believed in mass dissemination of information. This is no more possible due to people’s ability to access alternative media, information, and education. This has resulted in elites losing narrative control.
How did this happen? According to Rosenberg: too much democracy by which he means too much access to social media where people are unhinged about what they watch, read, and believe. In other words, the traditional media’s hold over citizens through newspapers, TV channels, is gone. Fake news proliferates and ideological propagandists, IT Cells and WhatsApp groups have come to replace the traditional mainstream media. Conspiracy theories abound on social media platforms. People choose to read or view what suits their ideological preferences rendering the elite lose control over the narrative.
This, according to Rosenberg, is due to too much democracy. For Rosenberg, elites losing control over the narrative is the problem because it is leading us to authoritarianism. Ironically, Rosenberg argues that “elites have traditionally prevented society from becoming an unfettered democracy; their “oligarchic democratic authority” or “democratic control” has until now kept the authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.”
This comes handy for populists in their agenda to blame the elites as corrupt and the mainstream media as purveyors of fake news. Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other populists came to power by continuously firing salvo against the privilege and corruption of the elites and the established media. While Trump still fights the established media, due to the weaker laws and constitution protection other populists such as Modi and Erdogan could largely co-opt or bully most of the media to fall in line.
In India today, with most media houses owned by corporates that support and espouse Modi and his Hindutva ideology, their credibility is down in the dumps because it is neither free nor fair. However, the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party was not so lucky. During their rule between 2004 to 2014, the media was very critical of the government, its policies, and the purported corruption of the government.
However, since Modi’s rule commenced in 2014 Indian citizens have come to accept the fact that most Indian media are biased against the opposition parties and parrot pro-government propaganda. Such a situation only strengthens populist assault on the media and other institutions of democracy. Modi used this trick ascend to power, though once in power, he curtailed freedom of the press as do all right-wing authoritarian populists.
How the Indian elites failed India?
The first few decades after the Independence the successive governments in India had followed a socialist economic model where state participation, either as a monopoly player or in competition with the private sector, was the norm in most sectors of the economy. During this period the government, while being a major economic player, was also an important employment generator. This was also the period when the job reservations policy in the public sector for economically and socially disadvantaged groups was enacted.
Being a new democracy, this was the time when people had placed their faith in the state to effect changes in their lives by enacting various socio-economic programmes. Hence, as part of its planned development model, the government was intervening positively in the agricultural sector through land reforms and enabling modern ways of farming that had ushered in the famous “Green Revolution”.
However, because of aligning Indian economy with world capitalism, the successive governments since the 1990s opened the Indian economy to the private sector and international capital along with the privatisation of state assets. With this India was opened up to the forces of ‘globalisation’ or the neoliberal economic practices (Patnaik 2014). Also, with this, according to Radhika Desai (2011), India entered the realm of communitarian and nationalistic politics.
As part of the globalisation process the state retreated from its “economic functioning in the interests of society as a whole, even at the expense of the unbridled interests of finance capital (such as for instance the State in the era of Keynesian demand management), to being an entity acting exclusively to promote the interests of finance capital.” This requires the state jettison the needs of its people and embrace “privatization” and “disinvestment” benefitting especially finance capital and reduce spending on social projects such as education, employment generation, health care etc. (Patnaik 2007 p 4).
Instead, due to the free flow of capital and opening the market for big business the small producers, artisans and farmers are pushed out of their businesses, trades, and farms. This phenomenon generates a huge number of jobless people migrating to the cities, living on sustenance level wage earned through jobs without security and tenure. Lacking state support and social security they add to the already swelling numbers of the urban poor. With this surplus labour at their beck and call, the corporate world succeeds in entrenching its power against the workers’ collective bargaining power.
To make things worse for democracy, by financing state functionaries (corruption) in exchange for their policy support to help the corporate interests, the corporate world strengthens its stranglehold over the governments. This precisely what happened during the ten years of UPA rule (2004 to 2014). The real and purported corruption allegations skyrocketed during the last years of UPA rule (Patnaik 2014).
This new situation where the state becomes incapable of taking care of its people while at the same time being beholden to finance capital and multinational businesses results in people losing faith in the political system. The economic degeneration suffered by people engenders social anxiety which forces them to take shelter under the security of their archaic or traditional identities based on caste, religion, language, territory, race, gender, etc, and, in most cases, people choose religion and nationalism as their preferred response.
These two primordial identities offer them security and hope (Castells 2010). One of the main features of this “identity politics” is called “identity fascist” politics. In this category are included Hindutva in India, Zionism in Israel, White Supremacism in the USA and Europe. All of these campaign virulently against another target group such as Muslims, Palestinians, immigrants, minorities, etc.
Thus, one can conclude that with the political elite embracing globalisation and finance capitalism as state policy, neglecting the populace by letting them face the ravages of capital and corporate sweep, a fertile ground was laid for a populist to capitalise on people’s misery, anxieties and hopelessness.
Existential anxiety and Modi the harvester
Usually, in most media analyses and research, the rise of right-wing populism is imputed to the charisma and manipulation of people and media by leaders such as Modi. However, it is correct to say that the ground for the rise of such leaders is prepared already by the political, media and corporate elites as discussed above. When the people lost trust in these groups of elites, who had been mediating democracy among people, and the state, the trust deficit was harvested by populist leaders through their demagogic rhetoric of majoritarian identity politics. Hence, the liberal elite’s contribution towards this moment in the history of Indian democracy is noteworthy. Majoritarian forces have gained ground because the Indian elites, despite enjoying disproportionate access to education, resources, and opportunities in India, have let that happen. The liberal elites belonging to all castes and religious groups have largely remained apathetic to the predicament of the poor and minorities for decades. “They have failed not only to follow in the footsteps of India’s founding fathers and articulate an idea of Indian secularism that would take root, but also to counter the rampant bigotry in their own circles. This inaction on the part of the liberal elite has paved the way for hate speech to dominate the political discourse today and fuel attacks against minorities” (Tiwari 2019). All the so-called secular political parties used the Dalits, Lower Castes and minorities as vote bank. Most of their policies were mere tokenisms and ploys to remain in power without changing the status quo. All these and the corruption and nepotism had prepared the ground for a populist to manipulate and catapult himself to power. All they needed was to give voice to people’s anger and frustration and promise sky as the limit, and people who had seeped themselves already in mystical thinking through religious imagery are ready to accept a new messiah.
This is what Modi did in India, as did Trump in the US, Erdogan in Turkey and others elsewhere. For Indians Modi promised the end of corruption, banishment of the elite (Lutyen’s Delhi as he would put it), free India of Congress, bring back the loot by the elite hoarded in Swiss Banks, generate 20 million jobs per year, build one hundred “smart cities” and increase the nation’s GDP to double digits. But the most memorable populist promise was to deposit Rs 15 lakh into every Indian’s bank account. Promoting himself as a person with few needs because he had no family to worry about (but the fact is that he had abandoned his wife, who still lives in Gujarat, early in his marriage) and a media-constructed non-corrupt image he captured power. He was the perfect answer to a despondent peoples’ mystical thinking about an avatar of Ram who would vanquish all evil to usher in a Rama Rajya.
Why does the right-wing populism win?
At the current historical juncture while the right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise for the traditional parties led by the traditional elite it appears to be a herculean task to win against the rising tide. Modi’s landslide victory in May 2019 bears witness to this situation. The mainstream political parties have been devastated. So, why does RWAP win easily? Rick Shenkman writing in politico.com has the following answer:
Compared with the harsh demands made by democracy, which requires a tolerance for compromise and diversity, right-wing populism is like cotton candy. Whereas democracy requires us to accept the fact that we have to share our country with people who think and look differently than we do, right-wing populism offers a quick sugar high. Forget political correctness. You can feel exactly the way you really want about people who belong to other tribes.
People have become victims of mystical thinking and the right-wing populists do not need to make much sense. All their populist followers care is that they now have been presented with an enemy to blame for their feelings of misery. Hence, it makes them feel great when Modi punishes Muslims in India by locking down Kashmir, encroaching upon their food habits and worship rituals, enacting laws about Triple Talaq, or demonising Muslims as “termites”, etc. Mere bigotry or lynching of Muslims makes someone a hero overnight and even gives them eligibility to contest elections on a BJP ticket. No leader in India has ever tried to harvest Hindu identity and constructed anxiety to the extent as Modi has done. What is expected of people is become a “Bhakt”– a worshipper who never questions the authority of the leader. Hence, to conclude, once again, in Shenkman’s words:
And unlike democracy, which makes many demands, the populists make just one. They insist that people be loyal. Loyalty entails surrendering to the populist-nationalist vision. But this is less of a burden than an advantage. It’s easier to pledge allegiance to an authoritarian leader than to do the hard work of thinking for yourself demanded by democracy.
People who are battered by economic liberalisation and financialisation of national economies, people who have never seen their incomes rise for over three decades, people who are losing jobs in droves and standing on queues for dole have lost faith in the system that was dominated by the elites of democracy. They have no patience for democratic deliberations to produce anything good and hence they have embraced the messiah’s who promise them easy solutions to complex problems. Whether they will be satisfied with this pie in the sky economics and hate politics is only time will tell. If history is any guide such things are indicators of worse times to come. The world has seen such times under Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and other fascist dictators. The world, today, is on such a threshold. Modis, Trumps, Erdogans and Dutertes of the 21st century are ready with their solutions. Can the citizens of democracies see their real colours? Only time will tell.
Castells, M. 2010. The power of identity. 2nd ed., with a new preface. ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Davies, W. 2018. Why we stopped trusting elites. London: Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/nov/29/why-we-stopped-trusting-elites-the-new-populism [Accessed: 12/08/2020].
Patnaik, P. 2007. The state under neo-liberalism. Social Scientist, pp. 4-15.
Patnaik, P. 2014. Neo-liberalism and Democracy. Economic & Political Weekly 49(15), pp. 39-44.
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.
Stiglitz, J. 2019. People, power, and profits: Progressive capitalism for an age of discontent. Penguin UK.
Tiwari, P. 2019. The Indian elite and the erosion of democracy. AlJazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/indian-democracy-threat-modi-190530084556960.html [Accessed: 11/08/2020].
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”.