"Democracy versus populism. On the power of parties, history and media", Brian Milne (I/II)

Is democracy still evolving or has it been the victim of deliberate political idiocracy with the recent resurgence of populism around the world? Brain Milne gives a detailed examination of the current status of European democracy and how it is dealing with an apparent crisis of conscience.

Democracy is at a crossroads where one road leads straight over a cliff, another just goes in a circle back to where it is now and nobody knows where the other goes. The dilemma is that driving off the cliff may be no worse, indeed measurably better, than the road to somewhere unknown. That is how European politics look at this moment.


The problem with such metaphors is that one can play with them to make them say whatever one wants them to say. In other words, make them up. That is how it is easier to arrive at a crossroads metaphor than it is to describe what is happening. Thus, what is happening is compared to something with an element of the unknown, whereby the person making up the metaphor does not him or herself know the unpredictable outcome. It is how I feel when people use history to explain the present. Long before fake news became a much discussed topic, I was looking at history as a mass of fakery. Try to find two countries that share historic detail about any single event. Europe needs a complete European history, not a pot with mixed but not matching ingredients thrown in. History is a useful tool in some people’s hands that is as dependent on nationalism as populism is on the emphasis of the role of ‘the people’ and often juxtaposed against ‘the elite’. It is especially useful when the parts of history looked at are normally minor, quite obscure matters that are conveniently embellished and brought to the fore to rationalise matters that have no other means of explanation. Nationalism and populism are not the same things, although one has frequently combined with the other to blend the defence of nationhood and national identity with being a popular movement of the people, often irrespective of their origins. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf used that method to make a blustering outburst of overblown self-centred autobiography and faux ideology as the foundation of what became a mass movement. It is time to expose and correct that tendency on our continent. Far more important at present, is that if we are to pursue the kind of ‘ever closer union’ that will deliver us a federal future, we need to use history so that it is convergent, that means ‘warts and all’ honesty. By being honest we have a better chance of becoming a democratic union. That undoubtedly implies that what we have now is not really democratic. To call the present structure of the EU truly democratic is stretching the truth somewhat since it is made up of countries that are relatively democratic through to countries that are very clearly not. No matter how democratic any single country may be, not one of them can sincerely be called a true democracy. At present the wave of xenophobia across the EU that is mainly directed at refugees, particularly those of a particular religious background, at minorities who may have been among us for centuries, of foreigners generally but includes fellow Europeans. That xenophobia is also found and appears to be increasing in the most democratic countries. It is one of a number of symptoms of social unrest that populism feeds and thrives on.

It is a moment in time when populism is becoming politically fashionable. History that should advise us not to go down that road is left aside. Populists are cautiously exaggerating facts that work in their favour, thus avoid being shown to be liars, to achieve and retain extensive electoral support. If we examine their manifestos thoroughly it becomes very clear that once they have power they will maintain it by adopting a more autocratic approach than previous regimes. Some of the discontent they rely on and nurture will eventually be suppressed, whilst that which offers them the greatest support will be used to remind people what they have purportedly done for them, thus secure their rein on power.


Democracy is being undermined, at least the tattered fragments of what we considered to be democracy are. The word democracy is bandied about without people knowing what it actually means. That is part of the problem. What is far more depressing in a most curious way, is that very few people understand almost any political system and how it functions. Take the UK as an example where the population is largely without civic education that would at least tell people once in a classroom, but then talking to people who have had civic education in their curriculum here in France where I live I get much the same impression. That allows politics to continue without transparency. Thus the word ‘overturn’ that has some kind of revolutionary credentials has become linguistic currency at present, although without substance. Until that changes the rhetoric will remain the same, but the bridge between parliaments, the parties and those who elect them will never be built. I am lightly amused by how many people can recite the Greek etymology of democracy then come to a sharp halt when asked to put it into context in the contemporary. That it is a participatory ‘thing’ without actual form and that voting is the minimum participation comes as a complete surprise to some people.

The worst form of government

Winston Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947 in which he is quoted as saying: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” He appears to have been quoting an unknown predecessor whose aphorism is now viewed as a Churchillian original thought. It shows that he clearly knew at least a little political theory and was, as his command of history showed, well read. It also begs the question about what political democracy offers us in what are usually utilitarian systems that if looked at closely would offer little to believe in or hope based on those who represent us. That kind of democracy has never involved irreversible votes that shape the entire future, whether by plebiscite or within the parliamentary system through those who represent us. Decisions made through that kind of vote are how we define dictatorship.


Winston Churchill

The decision is an absolute, thus by democratically making a decision we make it undemocratic through it becoming immovable, something that can never be repealed or overturned. Thus, democratic systems do not allow such votes, accordingly allowing possible change. What is there in the first place or becomes unpopular will often be confronted with demands that it be overturned. In fact voting itself in a parliamentary system is about ‘overturning’ the previous democratic vote by the electorate when they elect a different party to govern. If the same party win the election that is ‘confirmation’ of their policies, decisions and actions. Even coalitions are formed to ensure a majority party gains the larger share of governing supported by a partner or partners or the ruling party takes on partners to remain in office. Thus little substantively changes. There is no actual compromise, other than in a situation in which all parties form a coalition during a national emergency such as during a war.  In the latter situation democracy tends to take the back seat. Therefore, democracy is itself a source of frustration.

On parties

Throughout this article I am using, and would highly recommend reading, French philosopher Simone Weil’s 32 page political essay Sur la suppression génerale des parties politiques (On the Abolition of All Political Parties) written a short time before she died in 1943 in which she wrote of parties that: ‘Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda.’ (p.15)

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place wanting more democracy in a world where it appears to be past its prime with no new alternative. Therefore, once small, often insignificant nationalist and secessionist parties have filled a space by offering what we now call populist manifestos. The demographics of frustration are probably where we find some of the answers to why this is happening. Too much emphasis is placed on older people who yearn for a glorified past or, at the other extreme, young people confronted with a grim future. The reality is that when we look at electorates supporting demagogues like Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right Lega in Italy, who wants to bring together ‘all the free and sovereign movements’ that are actually nationalists who want to defend their people and borders against outsiders, we find a lot of prime aged people who are usually in a range of low paid workers with no positive trajectory into the future down to the unemployed who have gone from dead end employment down to nothing with no real prospects. Somehow or other the politicians who ride on them have the ability to convince them that their country will rise again, phoenix like, from its present malaise to renewed glories. In Hungary Viktor Orbán is doing that by rubbing salt into old wounds using ‘immigration’ to make the pain worse. When it was not the East Bloc years but the collapse of the old empire at the end of WW1, then the slide into the not often enough mentioned second disaster of siding with national socialist Germany comes to the fore. We are so often told that the 20 century was shaped by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. As a consequence, at least conventional history informs us, on 4 August 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia and France and Belgium had been given an ultimatum by the Germans, who demanded they be allowed to enter Belgian territory to defend themselves against France; Belgium rejected that demand and then armies seriously began to move against each other.


Simone Weil

Populism – Hungary and Orbán

No doubt Orbán’s people are carefully reconstructing history (yet again) to prove that Serbia (one of their vassal states then) was entirely to blame. Looking at history neutrally tells us that Germany had been building up tensions with France since 1905, their closeness to the Austro Hungarian empire was a very good excuse for military action against Belgium, Luxembourg and into France. Russia was already politically very close to the Balkan states who were trying to free themselves from Austria-Hungary, thus Prussian expansionist ambitions were translated into military action. The 1903 revolution in Russia that is less well known than the 1917 one scared the German empire anyway, because it more or less ended the absolute power of the Romanovs who then became constitutional monarchs with a parliamentary system that was trying to make Russia into a modern state. British and French diplomats sat back watching until all was too late on 4 August and, as one might say, the balloon went up, Europe was thrust into a continental war. The assassination had been a single event with most of what happened already waiting to happen and would probably have happened sooner or later without Franz Ferdinand being assassinated. Now Orbán is playing the card that Hungary can again be a mighty state as it was before 1914, but better off without the people they can blame for the mess they are in right now. The assassination is always there in reserve to blame everybody else if it appears they are being treated badly by neighbours. At the moment they conveniently have immigrants although they have taken in far less refugees in both numbers and proportion than other European states.

Unravel all of that and there is absolutely no sense to any of it. That populism is made up of as much reconstructed history as it is of what it will achieve in their great future usually implies they have no actual plan for the future behind the rhetoric. Thus nationalism becomes a kind of shield to hide behind in Hungary, although it is now over a century since it had any traction whatsoever and was the beginning of the end of what was and will never be again. But the socioeconomic groups who support the populists have nothing else to hang onto, history lies to them by telling them their ancestors were part of a mighty empire that can rise again, just as the English right wing are doing with the whole UK, without any substance that includes the often bloody way empires have often ended. It is where the solidarity of Europe needs to be used to show people that we need to drop these reconstructions, old rivalries and consolidate against contemporary competition in the world. That consolidation also includes maintaining peace as we have, the Balkans excepted, since the civil uprisings in the wake of WW2 were over and both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ saw peace, albeit under the political shadow of conflict. That peace was in its way confirmed in 1989/90, but has been under-exploited because we still bear far too much reference to events like Sarajevo in 1914 ending a powerful empire that can be revived to live fully in today. As and when we see the downfall of the populists we need to use the full potential of history presented with all of its mistakes and failures instead of glories way back when to enforce our aim to be a peaceful level playing field. Now the countries who were the main players at the beginning of the 20 century need to concentrate on bringing on the countries that need to catch up which is not just a matter of throwing money at them.

Dumbing down

Populist movements are highly dependent on the lack of knowledge that is as often as not presented from childhood on as history in schools with curricula set by governments that no matter how liberal or progressive they may appear still put national interests first. That means upholding omissions and sometime outright lies that construct a history tailored to explain the importance of national interests as a traditional that must be upheld at any price. If that means disagreement with neighbours, even to the point of starting a war, such unscrupulous principles are swept aside by displays of overblown patriotism. Strong leaders carefully choose language that impresses rather than informs, whether those words are truthful or contrived does not interest the speaker. For them it is quintessentially that being believed strengthens their political message in order to achieve the outcome they desire. The consequence of that is that people are no longer able to ask themselves and others whether what they are being led to wish for is a good thing to aspire to without questioning whether the arguments for that aspiration by politicians are good or bad. In this situation of moral folly it is only bureaucrats and technocrats who hold on to reasons for retaining ‘truth’ and a duty to state them in the face of political downfall or defeat in war when the population they administer require explanations about how their nation arrived at that state of complete decline and ignominy. Even then the presentation and amount of how much truth is discretionary. Instead, it is usually the party in office which decides. Again, Weil described this as: ‘Political parties do profess, it is true, to educate those who come to them: supporters, young people, new members. But this is a lie: it is not an education, it is a conditioning, a preparation for the far more rigorous ideological control imposed by the party upon its members.’ (p.15)

This moral dumbing down of people is a deliberately constructed barrier to protect the political class, who have become increasing more like a privileged caste rather than simply a class in some respects, certainly the career politicians who even without a seat in parliament seem to be increasingly extra-parliamentary parts of that institution. The prime example at present must be Nigel Farage in the UK who has stood for election to the House of Commons seven times, in five general elections and two by-elections, has never won any of them, but is often more visible and heard than secretaries of state and senior ministers. Whilst not exclusively his idea, what is now known as Brexit has become closely associated with him. The irony is that Brexit is an experiment that requires a recreation of the past in which its advocates, who style themselves as patriots and conservatives who are the epitome of being English. They do so without appearing openly British, which would entails inclusion of the characteristics of being Scots, Welsh or choosing the appropriate part of being Northern Irish, although they will go out into the world proclaiming their ‘Britishness’ in order to give an impression of inclusion. In essence, they have either knowingly and unknowingly based their entire argument on tenets of French revolutionary thought by dismissing Edmund Burke’s thoughts that were the very foundation of Conservative ideology that demand justifications for attaining the best decisions that are conducive to liberty and civilisation itself and were then used to justify the UK’s involvement in at least three bloody continental wars that there was no absolute need to be involved in. That has led to the generally accepted and ill informed notion that WW2 was fought to preserve European democracy when in fact it was a competition to protect domination with one of the contenders, France, very quickly knocked out of the contest. From 1933 until Germany began to invade and lay claim on territories lost at the end of WW1 then into WW2 the actual problem was not fascism that was in fact very attractive for many people, but the fact that although national socialists obtained power legitimately, its claims that it was the ‘will of the people’ was too revolutionary for a parliamentary democracy that relied on its multi-party participation to justify legitimacy and, wherever necessary, to apportion blame for all that was ‘wrong’ to the previous government, especially if that had been a rival party.

In the case of Brexit, Theresa May has tried to propagate a ‘British’, but not universally accepted, pseudo-revolutionary version of Maximilien de Robespierre, later Napoleon Bonaparte and more recently Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, claiming to be representing the ‘will of the people’ in order to avoid being a ‘Menshevik’ thus adopt progressive change in collaboration with the EU by negotiating favourable (to the UK) change, by sidestepping parliament and claiming to know and embody that will of the people. Her attempt has simply accelerated the descent into the equivalent of pre-revolutionary chaos, by creating a standoff between two fronts, almost equal in size, neither of them any kind of majority, in which she is claiming to support the entire population, who in return are behind her, when actually it is a little over a quarter of a 65 million population. She has, even more blatantly than an Orbán or Salvini and on the way to a Goebbels, created a fiction of a democracy that exists on the basis of lies, constructions and reconstructions with unachievable promises that is designed to placate a faction of her party that is willing to walk over the grave of democracy in order to recreate the UK as a world power that has no substance other than in their nostalgia for an imagined past that all of them will be too young to have known. She is by no means unique in what claims to be an exemplary democracy. On the other side of the Atlantic the people of what the UK regards as its closest ally, even above commonwealth nations, Donald Trump was elected president in 2017.

Populism – USA and Trump

Trump has recreated a notion of a USA in which opposition to his post Burkean conservatism is now being called treasonous, even denouncing legitimate opposition by the Democrats and within his own Republican party. His demonisation of Hispanic people in a country that was once more Hispanic than Anglophone and inaction on obvious injustices against Afro-Americans whose origins in the USA are mainly the outcome of slavery, thus began with injustice, so has created an All American equivalent of Jews and Roma in Third Reich Germany that is as yet without a ‘final solution’. That is supported by aggressive evangelical Christians whose willingness to take up arms to even fight against forces for good that are not that, merely by their definition, and play right into the hands of populist politicians who play out the ‘good Christian’ role, but in reality are simply in it for themselves. What is perhaps most ironic is that when the 13 colonies fought the British for independence, one of the aims was to break away from the kind of governance that had been established in England over the centuries that was in part a conflict between monarchy and the political class but never of the people as a whole. The founding fathers wished to see an end to that that kind of political regime. The Constitution of the USA does not mention political parties. The founding fathers did not originally intend for American politics to become partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, both written in 1787, they wrote explicitly about the dangers of domestic political factions, thus political partisanship in the form of formal parties.

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Furthermore, George Washington, the first President of the USA, was neither a member of a political party when elected, nor throughout his period in office as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing the conflict and stagnation that he described in his farewell address in 1796. This was however at exactly the point in time political factions or informal parties began to form during the struggle over ratification of the federal constitution. Friction between factions increased as attention shifted from the formation of a new federal government on to the question of how authoritative it would be. The Federalists, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted strong central government, while the Anti-Federalists, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, advocated states’ rights instead of centralised power.  Federalists united around the commercial sector while their opponents drew strength from those in favour of a predominantly agrarian society. Madison, on the other hand, saw factions as inevitable due to the nature of mankind, which is to say that as long as men hold different opinions, have variable amounts of wealth and property, they will continue to form alliances with those people most similar to themselves and will sometimes work against the public interest, thus breach the rights of others. He questioned how to guard against those dangers. In effect he was arguing that a representative republic is most effective against partisanship and factionalism. The consequent partisan battles led George Washington to issue that warning in his Farewell Address: “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” The Federalists won, so that what was an open system of governance that was strongly influence by the Enlightenment, particularly through the thoughts and writings of Thomas Paine who is considered a founding father and hero despite dilution to the point of disappearance of his ideas, has now even surpassed the conservatism of Burke into something that bears closer resemblance to the resurgent populism in Europe at this point in time. It may be said that American politics deteriorated rapidly after the political party system was adopted, but now it is at risk of being attacked from within to force a single party rather than no party on the nation. It is unlikely to happen, but the possibility cannot be dismissed entirely. This in turn feeds back into Europe and what is happening now.

The emergence of parties