Citizen Action Monitor

The case for the decline and failure of Western-style democracies, as predicted by Prof. Shawn Rosenberg

In an address to colleagues, Rosenberg discusses the rise of incompetent citizens, accompanied by the appeal of right-wing populism.

No 2631 Posted by fw, June 7, 2020 —

Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism by Shawn W. Rosenberg,, accessed June 7, 2020


In many of the established democracies of Europe and North America, populist alternatives to democratic governance are gaining popularity and political power. In attempting to make sense of these developments, I argue, unlike many, that the rise of populism is not simply a passing response to fluctuating circumstances such as economic recession or increased immigration and thus a momentary retreat in the progress toward ever greater democratization.  Instead I suggest current developments reflect an underlying structural weakness inherent in democratic governance, one that makes democracies always susceptible to the siren call of right wing populism.  The weakness is the relative inability of the citizens of the modern, multicultural democracies to meet the demands the polity imposes upon them. Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required.  Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill understood and frightening.  Populism offers an alternative view of politics and society which is more readily understood and more emotionally satisfying.  In this context, I suggest that as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential, and the vulnerability of democratic governance to populism becomes greater. The conclusion is that democracy is likely to devour itself. In the hope that it may not, I briefly consider the kinds of institutional changes that are necessary to facilitate the development of the citizenry democracy requires.  —Shawn Rosenberg

Shawn Rosenberg is a professor at UC Irvine in the Political Science and Psychology Science department. He is interested in political cognition, ideology and alternative democratic practices, especially deliberative democracy. Recently he has done research on the political psychology of right-wing populism . My approach to these questions reflects my background in psychology and political sociology and my desire to bridge empirical research and theoretical inquiry.

A copy of Rosenberg’s 30-page paper (excluding the above Abstract and References) follows Rick Shenkman’s account of the address by Professor Rosenberg of his paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychologists, which took place in Lisbon in the summer of 2019. Shenkman attended the event.

Rick Shenkman is an award-winning, investigative reporter, a best-selling author, an American historian, and a former editor of George Washington University’s History News Network, the only website on the Internet wholly devoted to putting news events into their historical perspective.

Reposted below is Shenkman’s account of Professor Rosenberg’s presentation of his highly controversial paper, Democracy Devouring Itself. My slightly abridged repost features added subheadings, text highlighting, some bulletted reformatting, added hyperlinks, and images. Alternatively, read the original piece on the website of the Information Clearing House by clicking on the following linked title.


The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy by Rick Shenkman, Information Clearing House, June 5, 2020

Human brains aren’t built for self-rule, says Shawn Rosenberg. That’s more evident than ever.

Rick Shenkman

Everything was unfolding as it usually does until Professor Shawn Rosenberg took the podium

Everything was unfolding as it usually does. The academics who gathered in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of Political Psychologists’ annual meeting had been politely listening for four days, nodding along as their peers took to the podium and delivered papers on everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to the rise of authoritarianism.

What did Rosenberg say that caused such a stir among the academics?

Then, the mood changed. As one of the lions of the profession, 68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, began delivering his paper, people in the crowd of about a hundred started shifting in their seats. They loudly whispered objections to their friends. Three women seated next to me near the back row grew so loud and heated I had difficulty hearing for a moment what Rosenberg was saying.

Rosenberg’s thesis: Democracy is devouring itself and it won’t last

What caused the stir? Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory? Democracy is devouring itself—his phrase — and it won’t last.

And “we the people” are to blame, not Trump

As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics might want to lay America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the cause of democracy’s fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant populist campaign may have been a symptom of democracy’s decline. We’re to blame, said Rosenberg. As in “we the people.

Why are we to blame?

  • Democracy is hard work.
  • And as society’s “elites”—experts and public figures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined,
  • citizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy.
  • As a consequence, the center has collapsed
  • and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.

Rosenberg’s prediction – democracies’ inexorable decline and failure

His prediction? “In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.

The golden age of democracy, 1950-2000

The last half of the 20th century was the golden age of democracy. In 1945, according to one survey, there were just 12 democracies in the entire world. By the end of the century there were 87.

The “great reversal begins” in 2010

But then came the great reversal: In the second decade of the 21st century, the shift to democracy rather suddenly and ominously stopped—and reversed.

Right-wing populist vote surged after the end of Great Recession and declining influx of immigrants

Right-wing populist politicians have taken power or threatened to in Poland, Hungary, France, Britain, Italy, Brazil and the United States. As Rosenberg notes, “by some metrics, the right wing populist share of the popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled from 4% in 1998 to approximately 13% in 2018.” In Germany, the right-wing populist vote increased even after the end of the Great Recession and after an influx of immigrants entering the country subsided.

When a pioneer social scientist like Rosenberg predicts the end of democracy, dare we ignore his thesis?

… it’s one of the establishment’s pioneer social scientists, who’s daring to actually predict the end of democracy as we know it. Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford and Harvard, may be the social scientist for our time if events play out as he suggests they will.

Rosenberg argues that right-wing leaders who offer simple answers to complicated questions appeal to voters

His theory is that over the next few decades,

  • the number of large Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink,
  • and those that remain will become shells of themselves.
  • Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.

And therein lies the core of his argument —

  • Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it.
  • It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs
  • and people who don’t look like them.
  • It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information
  • and process the good from the bad, the true from the false.
  • It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.

Rosenberg makes the case that human brains are not built for modern mass democracies

Unfortunately, evolution did not favor the exercise of these qualities in the context of a modern mass democracy. Citing reams of psychological research, findings that by now have become more or less familiar, Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think straight.

  • Biases of various kinds skew our brains at the most fundamental level.
  • For example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a black man wearing a hoodie.
  • We discount evidence when it doesn’t square up with our goals
  • while we embrace information that confirms our biases.
  • Sometimes hearing we’re wrong makes us double down. And so on and so forth.

Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it.

American democracy has survived for two centuries

People have been saying for two millennia that democracy is unworkable, going back to Plato. The Founding Fathers were sufficiently worried that they left only one half of one branch of the federal government in the hands of the people. And yet for two centuries democracy in America more or less proceeded apace without blowing itself up.

So why is Rosenberg predicting the end of democracy now?

So why is Rosenberg, who made his name back in the 1980s with a study that disturbingly showed that many voters select candidates on the basis of their looks, predicting the end of democracy now?

One reason is that people no longer have ruling elites to save them from “their most undemocratic impulses”

He has concluded that the reason for right-wing populists’ recent success is that “elites” are losing control of the institutions that have traditionally saved people from their most undemocratic impulses.

Without guidance, people drift toward right-wing populists’ simple solutions

When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.

Rosenberg defines ‘elites’ as “those holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid”

The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are 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.” In their roles as senators, journalists, professors, judges and government administrators, to name a few, the elites have traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S. institutions—and have in that role helped the populace understand the importance of democratic values.

Social media and new communication technologies now allow people to retreat into their own news bubbles

But today that is changing. Thanks to social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.

While the elites formerly might have successfully squashed conspiracy theories and called out populists for their inconsistencies, today fewer and fewer citizens take the elites seriously. Now that people get their news from social media rather than from established newspapers or the old three TV news networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), fake news proliferates. It’s surmised that 10 million people saw on Facebook the false claim that Pope Francis came out in favor of Trump’s election in 2016. Living in a news bubble of their own making many undoubtedly believed it. (This was the most-shared news story on Facebook in the three months leading up to the 2016 election, researchers report.)

Social media has effectively “unmoored our politics”, leading us towards authoritarianism

The irony is that more democracy—ushered in by social media and the Internet, where information flows more freely than ever before—is what has unmoored our politics, and is leading us towards authoritarianism. Rosenberg argues that the elites have traditionally prevented society from becoming a totally unfettered democracy; their “oligarchicdemocraticauthority” or “democratic control” has until now kept the authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.

Forget political correctness

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.

“Right-wing populists don’t have to make much sense” so long as they give followers a reason to blame others

Right-wing populists don’t have to make much sense. They can simultaneously blame immigrants for taking jobs away from Americans while claiming that these same people are lazy layabouts sponging off welfare. All the populist followers care is that they now have an enemy to blame for their feelings of ennui.

Populists make just one demand of their followers – loyalty to a vision [like Make American Great Again]

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 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.

“In sum, the majority of Americans are generally unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required,” Rosenberg has concluded. “To the degree to which they are required to do so, they will interpret what is demanded of them in distorting and inadequate ways. As a result they will interact and communicate in ways that undermine the functioning of democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and values.”

Attendees upset that Rosenberg believes democracy will remain under threat no matter who is president

What stirred the crowd was that Rosenberg has gone beyond pessimism into outright defeatism. What riled the crowd was that he’s seemingly embraced a kind of reverence for elitism no longer fashionable in the academy. When challenged on this front, he quickly insisted he didn’t mean to exempt himself from the claim that people suffer from cognitive and emotional limitations. He conceded that the psychological research shows everybody’s irrational, professors included! But it was unclear that he convinced the members of the audience he really meant it. And they apparently found this discomforting.

What is happening around the world shows that the far-right is on the march. And when it comes to the U.S., the problem might be larger than one man. Liberals have been praying for the end of the Trump presidency, but if Rosenberg is right, democracy will remain under threat no matter who is in power.

On a more optimistic note, there is a theory that human beings, by nature, adapt to match the world as it is and not as they’d like it to be—just as democracy requires

There were less discomforting moments in Lisbon. The convention gave an award to George Marcus, one of the founders of the discipline, who has dedicated his career to the optimistic theory that human beings by nature readjust their ideas to match the world as it is and not as they’d like it to be—just as democracy requires.



Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism by Shawn W. Rosenberg,, accessed June 7, 2020.

Shawn Rosenberg

For 60 years after the end of World War II, democratic governance has flourished and expanded its reach.  Now it appears this process has stalled and is even reversing in many of the established democracies of Europe and North America. Momentum appears to be with populist, particularly right wing populist, alternatives to democratic governance. In Western Europe, this is evident in the rise of the AfD in German, the success of the ‘leave’ vote in the UK, in the growing popularity of the Northern League in Italy, and in Marie Le Pen reaching the second stage of the French presidential elections.  In Eastern Europe it is apparent in among the newly established democracies of Eastern Europe as is exemplified by the rise to power of the Freedom and Justice Party in Poland and the Fidesz party in Hungary. By some metrics, the right wing populist share of the popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled from 4% in 1998 to approximately 13% in 2018, with the vote for populists of one stripe or another rising to 25% (Lewis et al., 2018).  Right wing populist parties have won enough votes to place their members in government in 10 European countries.  Also significant is the success of right wing populist movements in the United States with the emergence of the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016. Among advocates of democratic governance, this has raised serious concerns about the current well-being and future prospects of democracy (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018).

Here I focus on specifically liberal democratic governance, with its emphasis on rule of laws and individual and minority rights and on right wing populism because of its greater presence in North America and Europe (although not much additional is required to address to left wing populism as well.). In examining the rise of right wing populism, I argue that it is not the result of fluctuating circumstances, such as economic recession, income inequality or migration, nor can it be regarded as a momentary retreat in the progress toward ever greater democratization.  Instead I suggest it reflects a structural weakness inherent in democratic governance, one that renders democracies always susceptible to the siren call of populism. In making this argument, I begin by comparing the demands placed upon the citizenry by liberal democracy on the one hand and populism on the other.  Drawing on research in political science and psychology, I then consider the capability of citizens to play the roles required by each of these two competing visions of governance. I conclude that citizens lack the capacity to meet the requirements of liberal democratic governance and therefore will find its principles and practices incomprehensible, alien and difficult to enact.  However for most people, populism offers a vision, values and practices which can be more readily understood, embraced and executed.  In this light, I argue that, as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential.  In the process, the vulnerability of democratic governance to right wing populist alternatives becomes greater.  Hence the conclusion that democracy is likely to devour itself.

Right Wing Populism: A Preliminary Definition        

Right wing populism (RWP) is sometimes considered as point further to the right of conservatism and thus its ideological cousin. This view has been expressed both by some political scientists studying contemporary right wing parties (e.g. Dunn, 2015) and by advocates who have attempted to legitimate their cause to a conservative audience attract (e.g. Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, 2016).  In my view, this is misleading. The intellectual roots and underlying logic of RWP are better understood as a contemporary expression of the fascist ideologies of the early 20th century, one that reflects the dominance of the democratic environment in which it is currently emerging.  While accepting the democratic emphasis of the primacy of the people, its fascist leanings are suggested by its demand for strong leadership coupled with its explicit rejection of or discomfort with the legal conception of the nation as a polity and its members as citizens, the rights of minorities and the rule of law. That said, RWP, like all ideologies is not assimilated by mass publics (and even the majority of their leaders) as a coherent political vision, but rather as family of political attitudes.  It is viewed here accordingly, albeit in a manner informed by an appreciation of its neo-fascist underpinnings.

As suggested by Mudde (Mudde, 2007; Mudde & Kaltswasser, 2017) in his influential statement, RWP is comprised of political attitudes that can be divided into three clusters: populism, nativism and authoritarianism.  In its populism, RWP identifies its constituency as ‘we the people.’ The ‘people’ here are ill-defined but generally comprise the entirety of ordinary citizens.  The definition is given some clarity by what the people are not and to whom they are opposed.  This is typically the ‘elite,” political, economic and intellectual.  RWP advocates for the people in their struggle against this elite who are characterized as an alien entity harboring uncommon or beliefs and values that exercises unwarranted power over the people and unfairly benefits from the fruits of their labor. The power of the elite is seen to be exercised through their control of democratic processes like elections, dominant political discourses and core governmental institutions. Thus liberal democracy is regarded as providing the institutional subterfuge for what is in fact oligarchic control.

RWP also incorporates what Mudde calls ‘nativism’ or what is alternatively referred to as ‘ethno-nationalism.’  Here the people, as a nation, are given clear, substantive definition.  They are distinguished in a variety of concrete ways.  These include the specific core beliefs they all hold, the particular behaviors and rituals in which they all engage, the aspects of their physical appearance they share (e.g. race or style of dress) or the origins they have in common (e.g. a history or ancestry). This definition of ‘who we are’ typically also entails a depiction of who we are not.  This other fails to share our distinguishing characteristics, is often regarded negatively and is opposed to us as a matter of practice as well as definition. Constituted in these terms, the ethno-nationalism of RWP readily leads to a competitive view of international relations and an accompanying xenophobia. This typically extends to a rejection of the ‘aliens within,’ immigrants and their descendants who do not share the same ritual practices, religion, race and origins as the national people. As such, RWP rejects the liberal democratic conception of citizenship in which national membership is defined not by origins, appearance, or behavior, but by legal status.

The third defining component of RWP is its authoritarianism.  This has two core aspects.  One pertains to its conception of the leadership.  Guided by its roots in ideological fascism (e.g. Gentile, 1928) and its affinity to the fascist governments of 1930s Germany and Italy, RWP tends to delegate unusual power to its leadership, more specifically its key leader. This leader embodies of the will of the people, renders it clear for everyone else and executes accordingly.  Thus distinctions between the leadership, the people as a whole and individuals are blurred as their will is joined in a single purpose.  The authoritarianism of RWP is also evident in its hierarchical conception of power. In this view, society is naturally and necessarily organized in a way that involves a centralization of power at the top and then a delegation of different degrees of power at lower levels of governmental control. This enables right and effective governance of the nation in pursuit of the collective will.  From this perspective, democratic institutional arrangements designed to constrain governmental power are unwarrantedly complex and only serve to obstruct to the state’s ability to act on behalf of the people.

In each of its populist, ethno-nationalist and authoritarian aspects, RWP constitutes both a rejection of and challenge to the liberal democratic ethos and the structures of democratic governance which now prevalent in Europe and North America.  Sometimes regarded as pre-World War II relic, RWP now appears to be ascendant even in the most well-established democracies. In fact, the challenge of RWP has in fact a recurring factor in American and European democratic politics for the last 100 years (Molnar, 2016). The attempt to understand the appeal of RWP has spawned an interesting body of research. Focusing on individual differences in support for right wing parties or attitudes, the psychological research has established the impact of both stable personality characteristics such as right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation and also of somewhat more contingent characteristics such as insecurity, weak identity and mortality anxiety (e.g., Adorno, et al., 1950; Altemeyer, 1988; Jost, 2003).  With a focus on group differences, the sociological research has shown that some stable demographic characteristics such as being less educated, working class or a member of a dominant ethnic group tend to predict support for the right wing (e.g. Arzheimer, 2016).  Focusing on the resonance between more changeable social conditions such as increased economic inequality, general economic decline, increased immigration or demographic changes with persisting but latent right wing predispositions, others have attempted to discuss fluctuations in the prominence of right wing politics in terms of these changing conditions and how they have been appropriated by right wing populist leaders and mass media channels. (e.g. Bonikowski, 2017).

Adopting a structural pragmatic perspective

My aim here is to supplement these efforts by taking a broader, more structural and pragmatic conception of populism and liberal democracy. In so doing, I attempt to go beyond the more empirical conceptualization of ideological forms such as that offered by Mudde that depict populism as a thin ideology comprised by a loosely associated collection of observed attributes.  I offer an explication of the underlying structural logic of populism and liberal democracy such that it becomes clear why each ideology engenders the particular views of the people, power and leadership that it does.  At the same time, I attempt to broaden the understanding of the dynamics of both populist and liberal democratic governance by taking a political psychological view of the dynamic whereby each is realized.  In so doing, I focus on the interplay between the structuring forces of political institutions and culture on the one hand and citizen capacities on the other.

The theoretical perspective I adopt here is a structural pragmatic one (e.g. Rosenberg 2002, Ch. 2; 2003).  It draws on the sociologies of Jurgen Habermas (1984/7) and Anthony Giddens (1984), the social psychology of George Herbert Mead (1934) and the developmental psychologies of Jean Piaget (1970) and L.S. Vygotsky (1978). Viewed from this perspective, the politics of given society is understood to be dually structured, at a collective level by the terms of that society’s institutional arrangements and political culture, and at an individual level by the nature of citizen’s understandings and orientations. Both these levels of structuration operate upon everyday social and communicative interaction. In so doing, they delimit the basic nature of what may be permissible and valued, and meaningful and true. However these structuring forces are not simply determining.  While they shape how people act towards and talk to one another, they are also in turn affected by how these activities actually unfold in day to day life. Insofar as actual social interaction transpires in ways that deviate from the structural regulation imposed upon it, the underlying structuring forces, both personal and collective, will themselves be potentially altered.[i]  In the process, the qualities of individuals and/or those of their collective organization may be transformed.

When considering the disruption of patterns of social interaction and consequently their underlying structural regulation, the focus is not particular circumstances or events and the random deviation or perturbations they introduced.  Rather it is on the dynamics of how social interaction is dually structured, on how that interaction is simultaneously regulated both by the public meaning and norms of action imposed by the larger socio-political context and by the personal meanings and action strategies constructed subjectively by the individuals involved.  Particular social interactions and communicative exchanges, what people do and say to one another, are the concrete points of intersection between these two structuring forces of social and political life. As such, it is also the point where each level of structuration can penetrate and affect the other.  This is the critical point for our analysis here.  When these two levels of structuration, collective and individual, have the same basic form, each operates to validate and maintain the other.  When they do not, each will tend to regulate concrete practices in a way that undermines, destabilizes and possibly transforms the other.

In the following two sections, the structural forms of liberal democratic and RWP forms of governance will be analyzed and contrasted.  This will include a consideration of how each type of governance structures three dimensions of political life at three levels: the integration of the collectivity, the orchestration of communicative interaction, and the determination of individuality.  Here it is suggested that the same distinctive structural logic underlies the construction of meaning and organization of action at each of these levels, thereby insuring the coherence of the political system of which they are a part.  Following this discussion, we will consider the psychological structuring of politics by the citizens involved and how that intersects with these two forms of governance.

Liberal democratic structuring of politics

As elaborated below, I suggest liberal democratic governance has an underlying structuring logic. The logic is systematic: its focus is on interactions and relationships and how these are integrated into systems.  In social interaction, the system is manifest as an organization which determines the dynamic and function of the interactions it encompasses.  In social communication, these systems are manifest as frameworks of meaning which interrelate and thus define the claims made and values expressed.   The structuring force of this systematic logic is reflected in the institutional organization and cultural definitions of democratic governance.  At the level of social interaction, it is reflected in the quality of its communicative practices and the organization of the public sphere.  At the level of individuals, it is reflected in the definition of who people are and what they are capable of doing.

Political culture and institutions. The structuring logic of democracy is realized both in its cultural construction and its institutional organization. In both aspects, the polity is constituted as an artifice, a system of relationships that is organized according to abstract principles that reflect the qualities of the citizens involved its construction.  In its cultural conception, the polity is understood to be a mechanism created by its individual citizens to serve their individual and collective purposes.  These citizens are understood to be self-constituting and self-organizing entities.  They are reflective, rational and self-directing system of thought and action.  As such, they have an essential quality and integrity that is defined apart from their place and participation in the polity. The state apparatus these citizens construct is a rational legal apparatus, a set of institutions and rules that are constructed to serve the individuals’ purposes and individuals are connected to the state by a set of legally defined obligations and rights. The evaluative or normative dimension of political life is also defined in these terms. Insofar as the polity is a mechanism created by individuals for coordinating their action and realizing their interests, individuals is emerge as the only source of meaning and value in social life. As such they constitute ends unto themselves.  Political values and principles are derived accordingly.  In these terms, democracy defines as fundamental the values of individual freedom (as the expression of individuals’ personal integrity) and equality (the recognition that the maintenance of individuals’ integrity depends on their equal status and power).  In recognition of both these values, the decision-making and regulatory functioning of the state must be guided by a notion of justice as fairness (Rawls, 1993).

The structure of democracy as system of relationships among self-constituting individuals is realized in its institutions as well.  Some institutions are designed to translate individual claims and wants into collective judgments and decisions.  These include processes such as referendums on specific issues and elections of representatives in which there is free and equal participation by all individual citizens.  This is extended to the functioning of legislative bodies where the voting procedures are used to aggregate the preferences of elected representatives to make policies directing state action.  These collective decision-making institutions are supplemented by judiciary ones.  Their primary responsibility is to act as referees and adjudicate conflicts that arise between individuals and between individuals and the state.  In doing so, the mandate of these institutions is to protect the integrity and equality of citizens who are interdependent.  Typically this is embodied in codes that prioritize individual rights, private property and contracts between individuals. Thus the rule of law is a critical element of democratic institutions. In this context, power, defined as the capacity to compel the action of another individual, is regarded as potentially problematic. Democratic governance is structured to function with the voluntary agreement of its citizens and thus on the basis of cooperative decision-making.  In this light, the exercise of power always constitutes a potential violation and therefore must be carefully monitored, directed and constrained.

Communicative interaction in the public sphere. In a manner that parallels its determination of its political culture and institutions, the structural logic underlying democratic governance extends to the organization of how citizens engage one another in public sphere.  This is reflected in both the definition the aims of communicative engagement and the organization of the public sphere.  In this context, the orienting aim of communicative engagement is to construct a shared understanding of issues and circumstances so that the individuals involved can come to agreement on the actions they should collectively take. This entails recognizing that the interlocutors each have a subjective frame of reference, their own personal systemic construction of the issue at hand, and these may differ from one another. Consequently, their communicative task is to forge an intersubjective or common understanding that bridges their differing points of view.  This bridging activity requires that individuals actively reflect on others’ understandings so that they may offer reasons for their claims that their audience can comprehend and accept. At the same time this self-reflective activity must include a consideration of the relevant claims and justifications introduced by others and how they bear upon and may be incorporated into one’s own understandings and judgments.  In both aspects, this bridging effort entails recognizing the differing subjective perspectives of the individuals involved and integrating them in a way that creates a shared understanding.  Even if these aims are not always (or even frequently) realized, they still are nonetheless retained and orient communicative efforts.  As a result even when a communicative engagement ends in disagreement, it still tends to produce recognition, respect and some measure of understanding among the disagreeing parties.

The public sphere is structured accordingly.  The public sphere is constituted as an open and accessible space.  It is organized so as to encourage participation by all who might be interested.  The public sphere is also venue for the expression of personal freedom.  Those entering the public sphere are encouraged to speak openly and without impediment.  In addition the public sphere is egalitarian. All participants are given equal voice, both in speaking and being heard.  The public sphere is also deliberative.  It is organized so that it facilitates a respectful, cooperative exchange between citizens in which each can elaborate their own claims and constructively address the claims, reasons and justifications of others. And finally the public sphere is fluid.  The shared meanings and values constructed there are always regarded as tentative.  The reflect the current best attempt to reach a common understanding, but this is always regarded as open to further consideration and possible revision.

The qualities of citizens.  Finally democratic governance also extends to the structuring of the qualities of its individual citizens. Democratic citizens are constituted as independent, emancipated subject/agents.  They are the directors of their own action. As such, they are attributed certain cognitive capacities and emotional orientations.  To effectively self-direct, the individual must have the cognitive capacities for integration and abstraction.  They must be able to observe the particulars of a social or political situation including their position in it.  They then must be able to relate these elements of that situation to one another and to the larger context in which they may be embedded.  Armed this systemic understanding, individuals can discern the dynamics of a given situation in light of the various causal influences that are operating on it and the various effects that different interventions may have.  At the same time, the individual can self-reflectively hold their initial perceptions of a situation and their preferred response to it in abeyance and then consider their significance of in light of other relevant perceptions and beliefs about people and politics the individual may have. With these considerations in mind, the individual is able in a self-directed and effective way.

The self-direction democracy requires not only has a cognitive component, but an emotional one as well.  In order to be able to act, the individual has to be comfortable doing so.  The initiation of action requires self-confidence.  In order to initiate action on one’s own terms, one has to believe that one has the capacity to formulate what one wants to do and then to execute accordingly.  In a related manner, self-directed action requires a sense of security.  To initiate action, one must have the sense that one can do so without bearing too high a cost.  Insofar as individuals feel they are insufficiently able to act without failure or that taking action will necessarily expose themselves to humiliation or danger, they will not initiate action in their own terms.  Either they will not act at all or will limit themselves to action which is sanctioned or compelled by others.

The democratic person is not only constructed as an independent, self-directing actor, but also as social being who stands in relation to others and is connected to them.  Again there are cognitive and emotional dimensions to this status of a connected person. The cognitive dimension reflects a further elaboration of the systematic quality of thinking already discussed.  Here it extends to an understanding that individuals, even as subjects with personal perspectives and personalities, are interdependent.  This involves recognizing that individuals’ nature, that is their subjectivity and personality, is formed through and thus necessarily reflects how they are able to act and express themselves.  However this is never done in isolation. Personally directed action and statements are almost always an initiative directed toward others and or a response to them. Thus who individuals are and can become is in important part determined by the nature of their relationship with the people with whom they regularly interact.  This sense of interdependence importantly renders an individual’s action to be other oriented as well as self-directed.

The connected quality of the individual has an important emotional dimension as well (one that despite its practical importance is not well recognized in the democratic theory).  It consists of an affective bond between people who depend on one another.  It is evident in the feelings of sympathy and empathy whereby people have the capacity to feel things as others do.  As a result, individuals are able to go beyond respecting the integrity of other people to caring for them.  In caring for others, we come to value them in some of the same ways we value ourselves.  We consequently act toward others in a ways that both bring them closer to us and us closer to them.  Like their cognitive counterpart, the emotional dimensions of the independent and connected selves support each other.  The self-confidence and security of the independent self are more readily attained in an environment of sympathetic, caring connection and such an environment is more readily sustained by people who are confident and secure.

With these cognitive and emotional capacities, the individual is endowed with the competencies required of democratic citizenship.  For the purposes of contributing to collective decision-making, the individual has the capacity to understand issues and events by considering their position in the broader context of the structure and dynamics of political life.  Similarly the individual has the capacity to consider the importance or value of those issues and events relative to their impact on the system as whole and thus for the people as a group as well as for themselves as individuals.  Not only are individuals capable of thus formulating plans for action for the group or themselves individually, they are also equipped to try and execute those plans.  In the latter regard, they have the requisite self-confidence to initiate action or push the collective in the desired direction.  They also have the requisite sense of security, such that they can do so unfettered by any immobilizing or undermining sense of fear or threat. When entering the democratic public sphere, individuals also have the capacity to communicate with each other effectively for the purpose of cooperation.  They are able to reflect on their own perspective and thus on the reasoned bases of their own understanding and judgments.  They are also able to listen to the claims and judgments of others and to integrate them in a way that allows them to understand the subjective perspective that others are bringing to the discussion. Armed with this understanding, they are can communicate constructively by giving reasons and justifications in terms which their listeners can comprehend and potentially accept. Moreover they are able to do so in a way that is respectful of others and the views they express and is caring of those others and their well-being.  Thus not only are they able to understand the various perspectives that may be voiced on an issue and build bridges between them, but they are also motivated to do so.

In sum, we see the different levels of democratic governance, its institutional organization and culture, its communicative practices and its citizenry are all structured in a similar manner.  At each level, the focus is on interactions and relationships and how they are integrated in systems. These systems give these constitutive interactions their meaning and value, and define their dynamics.  As such these various levels of political life are integrated with and support one another and the larger political system of which they are part.

Right wing populist structuring of politics

Right wing populist governance may be viewed in similar terms.  It also reflects a dual structuration of political life that is manifest in how political institutions and culture, the communicative engagement in the public sphere and the nature of individual citizens are organized and defined.  There structuring logic here is, however, very different than in the case of democratic governance.  Rather than operating on interactions and relationships that are intertwined in organizing systems, it focuses on specific concrete actions and actors and how they are connected to one another.  Three types of connections are critical: causal, categorical and hierarchical. In thought and communication, these connections are expressed as narrative claims which directly reflect the form and content of the reality they represent.   The narrative claims are symbiotically tied to the reality they express.   As representations, narrative claims mirror reality and thus are objectively determined.  In its narrative expression, reality is given significance and is thus socially defined.

Political culture and institutions. From a RWP perspective, the polity is conceived in simple concrete categorical terms.  It is the nation, a categorical and unitary whole that is the collective embodiment, quite literally, of the people. As a categorical collective, the nation is defined in terms of the specific characteristics shared by the individuals who comprise the people. These defining characteristics are concrete, specific. They are normative in two senses: they both are common and desirable. For example, these national characteristics include the specific actions that all the people typically do and should perform, the specific things they typically do and should say, and the specific ways in which people typically do and should appear.  Thus the categorical quality of the nation has both a definitional and evaluative dimensions.

As a unitary, indivisible entity, a nation is also defined by its causal dynamic.  It has a national trajectory, one that is defined both by what moves it and by where it is going.  In the first respect, this trajectory has an identifiable cause. It is an expression of the popular will, one that reflects the common needs and aspirations of all the people.  In the second respect, the national trajectory is also defined by an identifiable goal, one of collective security and advancement.  In part these national goals are a matter of realizing the national will.  However and quite separately, national goals reflect the position of the nation relative to others, a relation which is typically understood in hierarchical terms.  The focus here is often the mission of making the nation great.  This involves both assuring its integrity, making it safe from others, and, in a related way, of making it powerful relative to others. This national trajectory and the direction it dictates, while expressed in general terms, is defined in particular, concrete ways.  Assuring the integrity of the nation is defined in terms of the specific efforts required to insure that the people increasingly embrace the essential national beliefs and practices. Typically these efforts may include specific educational practices or the public performance of ritual behaviors. Reflecting a hierarchical construction of the relation between nations, the national will is also defined in terms of concrete goals which position the nation in a superior relation to other nations.  Examples include wining in Olympic competition, making the national culture respected and achieving military superiority.

In all of this, the nation is an end unto itself.  The nation, and by implication the ‘people’ that it embodies, is the source of value in political life. Maintaining the categorical quality of the nation, its defining concrete characteristics, and pursuing the national trajectory are the ultimate ends. All political actions and subsidiary goals are judged accordingly.  This is also the case for specific institutions or laws.  They are all evaluated in terms of the degree to which they serve the national will or facilitate its realization and are consequently retained or dismantled accordingly.  Social, political and scientific claims are similarly judged by this standard.

In this political cultural conception, individuals have a secondary and somewhat derivative status.  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 categorical quality – they are nationals, members of the nation.  In this light, individuals are both assumed and encouraged to share certain defining concrete characteristics such as a common appearance, common beliefs, common practices or rituals, common ancestry or common trajectory.  Differences between individual members are thus ignored or diminished.  In this conception, the individual and the nation are inextricably intertwined, the line between them blurred.  As suggested by philosophers of fascism such as Gentile (1928), the state is realized in the people and the people are realized in the state. It is a symbiotic relation.  Individuals are realized in their manifestation of the national characteristics and by their participation in the national mission.  In so doing, individuals are at once defined and valued, recognized and glorified.

Political institutions of RWP are structured in similar terms.  The political state is the manifestation of the people.  As such it is tasked with maintaining the integrity of the nation, its national character and with accomplishing the national will.  Political institutions are thus crafted to exercise guidance and control and to facilitate action.  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, a military-like structuring of power.  Here control emanates from the top.  It is this highest level of leadership that is assumed both to best reflect the national will and to give it specific expression and direction.  Both derived from and defining of the national will, the authority at this highest level is supreme.  To accomplish its goals, the leadership uses the institutions of the state to address the many tasks that national action requires.  These are constituted as successively lower levels of authority and command that are assigned specific administrative functions.  Throughout the hierarchy, authority, and the legitimacy and control it confers, emanates from the highest level.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the individual citizens.  Their political role is defined by their bond to the people as incarnate 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.  The state regulates them accordingly.  Thus the political and legal status of individuals is constituted by a set of obligations, rather than one of rights.  To insure these are properly executed, there is a program of guidance and control in which identification with the nation and subordination to authoritative direction is encouraged.   Deviation is punished, often severely.  Indeed to reject the authority of the state is to reject the national will and consequently remove oneself from the people.  The individual at this point loses social and moral status and is treated accordingly.  Complementing this political regulation of individuals from above is a subtle, but powerful alienation of individuals from each other.  As a member of the nation, individuals are defined by and obligated to the nation and its authority, not to one another.  In this context, interpersonal connections and loyalties may be regarded as competitors to national ones and actively discouraged. Only if they are understood to further the national purpose will they be supported.  Thus family relations may be supported, but only insofar as they foster reproduction and encourage national identifications and loyalties.

In this politics of collective will and concrete action, power does not have the ambiguous and somewhat negative status accorded to it in democratic governance.  Here it is an unsullied good, the very lifeblood of the people and by implication its individual members. It is through the exercise of power as effective action that the national will is expressed and achieved.  As such power is to be embraced, both in its authoritative exercise and in filial submission to it. Moreover the authoritative and thus legitimate use of power has no limits.  In the realization of the individual in the people and the people in the nation, there is no meaningful divide between the social and the political or the public and the private.  The social and the political are united and there is the only the public and what is hidden, always inappropriately, from it.  Thus power in the service of the national will may be used ubiquitously and freely.

Of course in the context of a predominantly democratic system all of the above emerges as tendencies rather than imperatives.  Cultural emphasis is placed on advancing the nation and each individual’s obligation to serve that purpose.  This is tempered by recognition of the value of individualism.  However the associated freedoms are typically defined in ways that are politically irrelevant and thus do not interfere with the pursuit of national destiny.  Similarly the authoritarian and hierarchical understanding of collective organization is tempered by according symbolic value to political institutions of democracy.  However there is also recognition of the unworkability of those institutions and the willingness to compromise them when authoritative action for the national good requires it.

Communication in the public sphere. The structure of right wing populist governance also operates to delimit how individuals engage one another in the public sphere.  Again the focus is on maintaining the integrity of the national character and the realization of the national will.  Communication is structured to serve the demands of collective action.  To do so, it operates in two complementary ways.  On the one hand communication in the public sphere provides a means for the expression of authoritative dicta and broadcasting them to an accepting followership.  In this way, the collective identity is articulated and reinforced. On the other hand, it provides a means of individual self-realization through expressive participation in the whole.  In the spoken repetition of shared beliefs, one individual can identify with the nation and many individuals are able to speak in one voice.  In both aspects, communication is less about reasoned argument or reflection and is more about emotional connection and facilitating action, a means of bonding individuals to the people, the nation and their leadership.

In this RWP context, the knowledge that is communicated has a distinctive form.  It is focused on concrete actions, particular statements, actors and groups of actors.  These are as they are observed to be and thus are regarded as objective.  These objective entities are understood in two ways.  On the one hand, they may be understood in terms of their concrete categorical membership. Here a set of actions or actors may be identified as the same insofar as they are linked to the same cognitive anchor, the same action or actor.  Thus all people who do the same thing (such as perform a common ritual), appear the same way (they have the same skin color or wear the same uniform), are acted upon in the same way (are commonly victimized or treated in the same way) or come from the same origins are understood to be categorically the same.  Hence the importance ascribed to a common ethnic or racial identity or the performance of common rituals in the definition of the nation.  On the other hand, actions or actors may be linked in a linear causal way.  Thus a series of specific actions and actors may be combined to form a linear chain of activity in which a cause produces effect that then is cause to a subsequent effect and so on.  In a social or political context, this chain of causality provides a framework of understanding of the hierarchical structure of power as emanating from a source and filtering down.  These categorical, causal and hierarchical knowledge structures are concrete and specific.  Linkages are established among them only when concrete overlap is observed.  Consequently, understandings is piecemeal or fragmentary.

This kind of knowledge is constructed in two ways, either through direct experience of the objective facts or an accepted account of that experience.  In RWP communicative practice, the authoritative account takes precedence.  It trumps all other accounts and direct personal experience.  The leadership of the nation is thus the authoritative source of knowledge about all aspects of collective and personal experience.  For individuals, this knowledge is something to be learned and internalized.  It is passively received rather than actively constructed.  Here the construction of knowledge becomes yet another venue for the exercise of power.  Power defines knowledge and knowledge operates to sustain power.  Knowing is also very much a collective activity.  For the individuals involved, it therefore has a strongly emotional component.  To know something is to be joined to all those who also know it in the same way.

Structured in this way, the knowledge of right wing populism operates in a manner which eliminates, blurs or reconstitutes certain key distinctions characteristic of the more democratic forms of knowing described earlier. One is the distinction between the intersubjective and the subjective.  In the RWP conception, both are folded into a common field of what is authoritatively ascertained to be objective.  Thus a notion of differing cultural or personal perspectives gives way to the simple distinction of correct and incorrect beliefs.  Democratic concerns for authenticity are reduced to determinations of whether a person is telling the truth or lying. Moreover this last issue also takes on different meaning in a right wing populist context. Here the line between claims of truth (what is the case) and claims of right (what should be the case) are blurred.  Here both are subsumed under the authority of what serves the national will.  Like the duality of the meaning of the term ‘normal’ which suggests both what is the case and what should be the case, the authoritative dictates of a nation’s leadership describes the world as it is and should be.

The public sphere of right wing populist communication is structured accordingly.  It is centralized and hierarchical.  Statements of truth and right originate in the authoritative expression of the national will by the leadership.  Communicative structures and technologies are organized to communicate those messages through the institutional hierarchy and directly to the citizenry.  Political control is exercised over of all media of mass communication and favors the development of technologies which have a one-to-many form.  In this context, alternative communicative structures are proscribed.  Particularly lateral communication between individuals that does not entail the rehearsal of authoritatively sanctioned discourses is actively discouraged.

The RWP public sphere is also structured so as to create opportunities for the collective expression of the national will.  The aim here is to provide venues for individuals, through the performance of common rituals and the joint rehearsal of collective truths, to come together as one in a visceral realization of the ‘people.’  A good example is the mass rally.  It provides a multifaceted opportunity in which the people are physically present, their focus is on the authoritative leadership and the individuals there share in the experience of the spectacle that renders the many one. Something of this effect is also achieved in more local contexts through the creation of adult and youth clubs that are organized to forge a common identity (one that is joined with that of the nation) through the rehearsal of authoritative claims and shared ritual practices.  Throughout, the communicative practice is the public sphere is suffused with an emotional, often ecstatic, quality, one that reflects and promotes the symbiotic union of the leader and individuals in the nation or the people.

The qualities of individuals. RWP governance also entails the structuring of the qualities of individuals. Here the individual is constituted most importantly in two ways, as dependent and spontaneous.  To begin, this is reflected in how the quality of their cognition is understood.  The very way a person thinks renders him or dependent on others.  Here to understand something is to know how it is linked to other actions or actors.  This in turn depends on direct personal observation or others’ report of the linkages in question.  Typically everyday social life affords an individual multiple opportunities to directly observe what is happening and to hear others’ reports about it.  Where personal observations and others’ reports coincide, knowledges are constructed comfortably with certainty.  The problem arises, as is typically the case, where one’s own observations are inconsistent with each other or with the observations of others.  The result is confusion, because the individual lacks the requisite cognitive framework for placing these various conflicting claims or judgements relative to one another and then adjudicating among them on some reasoned basis.  Instead the individual must rely on others to determine the truth of the matter.  This can only occur when others largely agree.  Authoritative agents, particularly those who embody the judgment of the group and define its fact, values and desired practices, will be particularly influential. This does not entail submission to authority.  Such an act of submission implies an independent construction of knowledge which is reluctantly or at least self-consciously abandoned.  Instead, people naturally rely on authority figures to help them know how things really are and therefore how they must be. Consequently what individuals know is largely a product of social learning and thus a reflection of the social conventions and authoritative judgments to what they are exposed.

The individual of RWP is also an emotional being as well as a cognitive one.  Indeed, as it offers as degraded view of people’s cognitive abilities, RWP celebrates their emotionality.  With its focus on realizing the national will and the action it requires, the individuals’ feelings and their vigorous expression of those feelings are valued over and against their thoughts and useless contemplation.  The former is strong, alive and vigorous, the latter weak, decadent and diminishing.  A person is not so much a thinker, but a physically healthy, emotional and motivated actor.  The best of these emotions are those that bind the individual to the group like loyalty and lead the individual to act for the group like valor.  Another emotion, closely linked to the capacity to act, is aggression.  Marshalled in the service of the national will, it too is highly valued. In interpersonal relations, it is to be expected and is generally tolerated.

As in their cognitive activity, the individual’s emotionality renders them dependent.  In both cases, the satisfying expression of one’s individual nature depends on the reaction of others.  As individuals’ only know what is true and right when they are validated by others, so they can only feel secure and good about themselves when they approved by others. Alone the individual lacks the meaning, value, direction and strength needed to confront a dangerous world fraught with confusion and uncertainty.  As such their well-being depends on their incorporation in the group, particularly the nation. The nation gives them their knowledge of what is true and right.  It thus supplies certainty and direction. It endows them with a social position and thus imbues them with meaning and worth. The nation protects them and provides security.  In all of this, the connection forged is a deeply emotional one.  When dormant, it is a feeling of love and attachment.  When realized in collective expression or action it is self-transcendent, ecstatic.  As these positive feelings reflect what the individual has by virtue of this union with the nation, other feelings reflect the fact of the individual’s dependence and vulnerability.  Consequently the love, attachment and ecstasy are laced with a fear and anxiety attendant on the ever present possibility of rejection by authority and excommunication from the group.  Indeed this contributes to the intensity of the emotional bond of the individual to the group.  It also insures that in their symbiotic relation to the nation, the individual remains submissive.

Before leaving this topic of the dependent, conjoined individual, it should be noted how this person orients to others.  As suggested by the forgoing remarks, individuals are not led to orient to the group and authority, not to other individuals.  The connections are vertical, not lateral.  To the degree to which interpersonal connections acquire meaning or value, they do so in a derivative fashion.  They are prescribed by authority and operate in the service of the nation.  Thus the performance of family duties may be become a matter of national obligation and are valued accordingly.  In the process, husband, wife, parent and child are expected to become connected, but never in a way that replaces or takes precedence over the connection each has to the nation.

Having these cognitive, emotional and social qualities, the individual of RWP is well suited to competently execute their roles in social and political life.  As citizens, they are unable to divine the general nature of the national will. On their own, they understand little of politics, society or themselves as individuals.  However, they are ready and able to learn the particular things the authoritative expression of the will requires that they know and value.  They also recognize the need to rehearse what they have learned and take pride and pleasure in doing so publicly and together.  In so doing, they recognize themselves as part of the people and feel good about it and themselves. As citizens, they are also profoundly emotional beings.  They draw on that emotion to connect themselves to the people and to the authority that expresses and realizes their collective will.  They are ready to realize themselves by participating in realizing the nation. They are thus ready to act, not on their own initiative, but at the command of others.  As such they are loyal, valiant actors who are ready to perform as deemed necessary, thereby achieving honor and glory.

In sum, right wing populism, like the democratic alternative, is all of piece.  The various levels at which it is realized, the macro level of institutional structures and culture, the micro level of the cognitive and emotional of individuals, and the intermediary level of communication, are all structured in a similar way.  Each level has a logic and set of formal qualities which parallels the others.  As such, each level operates to support the others and is sustained by them.  The result is a coherent social and psychological system.

Diagnosis of our current times

            Informed by these theoretical preliminaries, we can address the recent ascent of right wing populism, particularly on the American national stage.  This ascent is evident in the rise of the evangelical right that began in the 1990s, the tea party that began in 2009 and more recently in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.  Of course, these various movements are complex and there is considerable variation of belief among the people involved in each case.  However in central and defining ways, they incorporate the signature tenets of right wing populism, particularly as it would emerge in a dominantly democratic environment, and reflect that populism’s structuring tendencies.

The structural weakness of democracy. While recognizing that the rise and fall of RWP movements reflect fluctuating social and economic circumstances, I want to suggest that recent developments are manifestations of something more fundamental. They reflect a basic structural weakness of liberal democracy, one that renders it ever more vulnerable to the threat of right wing populist alternatives.  Adopting more psychological considerations, I suggest that a key weakness of democratic governance is it lacks the citizenry it requires. Consequently it is subject to a people it empowers that lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities to assimilate liberal democracy’s cultural definitions and norms, to function in its institutional organizations and to participate in its public sphere. The claim I make here about the nature of the citizens in modern democracies, particularly the American one, is not new.  However a consideration of its structural underpinnings and implications is.

Even as democratic governance was first being institutionalized, democratic theorists began expressing concerns regarding the capacities of democratic citizens.  In the mid-19th century, J.S. Mill (1859/1956) clearly recognized that the mass of people did not understand the either the political issues of the day or the complexities of democratic governance. For Mill this was largely a problem of exposure.  People lacked the information they needed to expand their perspective and properly address political problems. He suggested two solutions to this problem: mass public education and free speech.  A century later, theorists, confronted with the apparent failure of either of these to produce the desired levels of informed judgment, have advocated for more participation in policymaking.  The assumption here is that that exposure to and responsibility for problems would insure that people gather the necessary information for informed decision-making (e.g., Pateman, 1970; Barber 1984).  More recently, theorists have suggested the problem of citizen capacity is deeper than that of insufficient information or motivation and extends to their ability to understand and productively engaged the perspective of others.  Rejecting Rawls’ (1971, 1993) faith in the capacity of individual’s to reflect on this on their own (even with the artifice of the veil of ignorance), these deliberative theorists have suggested the ‘enlarged mentality’ required for adequate understanding could be fostered if citizens were provided the opportunity to collaborate with one another directly in small groups for the purpose of recommending public policy (e.g. Guttman and Thompson, 2004; Benhabib, 1996).  Throughout these various theorists, while recognizing serious limitations regarding citizen capacity, retain their faith in the ready manner in which these limitations can be overcome and democracy can function in stable and normatively appropriate ways.

Others have been less sanguine in the judgment of people’s capabilities. This was clearly reflected in James Madison’s efforts to counter Jefferson’s optimism about what the people and to design American government in a more republican and less directly democratic way (1788/2015).  In the shadow of the collapse of democracy between the two world wars in Europe, other theorists, like Schopenhauer and Arendt, offered a very skeptical view of the present or potential capacities of democratic citizens.  They suggest that the vast majority of citizens do not have the cognitive capacity or emotional wherewithal to act as reflective, critical subjects or self-directing actors. Instead they are prone to thoughtlessness, insecurity and fear in a way that makes them dependent on external direction. Therefore the people are always susceptible to the influence of populist demagogues and approving of the authoritarian regimes they seek to create.  Despite the ascendance of democracy in the late 20th century and the attendant democratic ideological orthodoxy of political theory, this skeptical view has been echoed in recent calls for limited or selective mass political participation (e.g. Brennan, 2016).

Questions regarding capacities and consequent competence of democratic citizens have also emerged in the empirical research of political science and psychology.  The research on citizens’ levels of political information indicate that despite the public schooling of several generations of Americans through the age of 18 and the widespread availability of mass mediated political information, they still seem to have very little information regarding democratic institutions or contemporary political problems (Delli Carpini, 1997).  Not only are they not adequately informed, but they also do not seem to integrate the particular information they have into some broader understanding or perspective.  This is reflected in research on political ideology.  In work that began in the late 50’s and early 60s with the American Voter (e.g., Converse, 1964) and has been replicated through to the present, it is evident that people do not draw on some general understanding or perspective when formulating their attitudes.  Rather these attitudes seem independent of one another, the product of thinking which is in Lane’s terms ‘morselizing’ rather than integrative.  To the degree to which they are organized or integrated and thus subjectively integrated, this is the result of emotional needs and personality rather than rational reflection (e.g. Lane, 1962; Altemeyer 1996; Jost, et al., 2003).

This political research is complemented by social psychological studies of social cognition.  The cognitive dissonance research in the 1950s and 1960s showed that people were unable to set aside their prejudices when judging new situations (e.g., Abelson et al, 1968).  Instead their judgments of what happened and how it was to be evaluated was strongly influenced by their pre-existing evaluations and affective predispositions.  This was followed by two decades of research that focused on the cognitive side of this process, particularly how people constructed explanations and attributed causal responsibility for actions and events.  This work on causal attribution laid bare the myriad of ways in which people’s thinking was sub-rational and distorting, even when the situations being considered had no evaluative dimension or affective loading (e.g. Kelley, 1973).  Going beyond this negative account of cognition as not or sub-rational, more recent research has focused on how the pathways people’s thinking does follow.  Some research, like the work on cognitive heuristics, has attempted to map the subjective structure of reasoning.  It provides evidence of how, rather than engaging in reflection and rational processing, we rely on a variety of simplifying procedures and easy shortcuts to comprehend a situation and explain events (e.g. the seminal work of Tversky and Kahneman, 1982).  Other research has focused on how they quality of people’s thinking reflects their learning.  This research has demonstrated that people learn chunks of associations (of a categorical or causal kind) which are retained as mental templates or cognitive schemas.  Novel situations are then cognized by using a relevant schema to organize the elements of the new situation to be understood.  Finally a third approach has emphasized that people’s judgments are not importantly cognitive at all, but rather are an outcome of emotional reaction (e.g. Haidt, 2001, 2007).  This research suggests that people may give reasons and arguments for their judgments as thus make it appear as if they are the result of reasoning and rational consideration.  However this is really only ‘motivated reasoning’ or a post-judgment rationalization that is offered when one is called upon to explain their views (e.g. Liu and Ditto, 2013).

As developed in a more specifically political context, the themes prevalent in this work are nicely summarized in two relatively recent books, The Rationalizing Voter (Lodge and Taber, 2013) and Predisposed (Hibbing, et al., 2013) that survey much of the relevant research literature.   In both cases, the authors emphasize that citizens do not think in the rational, reflective, integrative way suggested by democratic theory and associated conceptions of governance.  Rather people’s thought is fragmentary, a matter of prejudices and prior bits of knowledge that are cued by present circumstances and then applied to them.  For the authors of The Rationalizing Voter, these circumstances are external and reflect what appear to people as the salient features of the context in which their reactions are being formed.  The authors of Predisposed complement this external orientation by focusing on cues that emerge from within and reflect what they refer to as people’s ‘biologically predetermined behavioral predispositions.’ These dispositions shape the emotional reactions which mediate people’s responses to social and political events. In sum, people’s social and political responses are not a product of considered decision. Rather they are unself-conscious reactions that are conditioned by immediate contexts and enduring biological predispositions. That is not to suggest that reasoned justifications cannot be offered to others or even oneself.  However, these will be nothing more than post facto and largely conventional rationalizations of what is in fact a non-rational, unreasoned process.

In my own work, I have explored the underlying logic or structural qualities of people’s thinking. In so doing, I have tried to offer a view of cognition which integrates the insights of the various strands of political and social psychological research outline above (e.g., Rosenberg 2002; Rosenberg and Beattie 2018).  Differentiating between three developmentally different forms or structures of cognition, I suggest that the vast majority of Americans think in what I term a ‘linear’ manner.  As such, when considering the world they live in, they focus on concrete actors and actions.  They make sense of these concrete objects by observing how they are similar to or follow on one another or by drawing on other people’s accounts of how the objects are thus connected.  Thinking in this way, people who think in a linear way understand the world by constructing simple concrete categories and linear causal relationships. The resulting understandings are specific to what has been observed or learned and consequently tend to be isolated from one another. When focused on political life, this thinking generates an understanding of action as governed by ‘natural’ and normatively right rules of behavior, of social groups or nations as categories of individuals who share the same characteristics, and of institutions as hierarchies of status and power.  Because people’s understandings are concrete and fragmentary, they are largely unable to step back from an issue or situation to be considered and reflect either on the broader socio-political context in which that situation is located or on the broader subjective context in which one’s initial response to that situation can be considered. As a result, their orientation to issues and events tends to be shaped by circumstantial factors.  Elements of the situation at hand operate as cues evoking a specific relevant categorical, causal, or normative knowledge or an emotional or affective predisposition.  In either case, the person’s response is less self-consciously considered and defined, but rather is more conditioned by factors beyond his or her full awareness or subjective control.

In sum, the existing research suggests that, for the most part, people lack the requisite cognitive capacities for integration and abstraction needed for the kind of systemic understanding, considered judgment and critical reflection that liberal democracy requires of its citizenry.  Consequently the understandings and evaluations they generate will be largely fragmentary, emotionally mediated, contextually conditioned, conventional and prejudicial.

Implications – Incompetent Democratic Citizens  

This last 60 years of social science research has been largely ignored by theorists of liberal democracy. Partly this may reflect the isolation of different lines of political science inquiry and the consequent relative inattention of theorists to empirical research. Additionally this may reflect the liberal commitments of much Anglo-American political theory. The result is a tendency to address the problematic evidence on non-liberal qualities of citizen knowledge, reasoning and preference as a product of circumstance rather than evidence of limited inherent capacity.  In this view, these apparent limitations are readily reversed by creating the kinds of participatory opportunities that enable citizen’s to realize their inherent capacities [e.g. the participatory democrats like Carol Pateman (1970)  and James David Barber through to the deliberative democrats like Amy Guttman and John Thompson (1996 , 2004)].  For their part, empirical political scientists have tended to shy away from considering the larger implications of their research for democratic theory. When they do so, these researchers have retained the resilient and ultimately prejudicial liberal optimism of their theory colleagues. Thus with no or very little grounding in evidence, they suggested that even though citizens may appear to be incompetent, this is a matter of circumstance rather than capacity.  Thus concluding comments on research that document citizen limitations often include speculative claims that, despite the evidence, people have the requisite capacity to be competent and this would be realized if they were better informed, more motivated, less consumed by the rest of their lives or more communicatively engaged with others. In this vein, there is little consideration of the possibility that these factors are the outcomes of limited competence rather than its precondition. In sum, there is an acknowledgment of the problem, but one that diminishes its significance and does not pursue its broader implications.

The psychological research is less forgiving.  For decades, the work on social cognition regarded the conception of the individual as a reflective, integrative, self-directing agent as a straw man, one that was contradicted by a large and ever growing body of evidence.  The result is a view of people as inherently fast and sub-rational (as opposed to slow and considered) thinkers who are heuristic, schema and emotionally driven processors of information.  How they think and react is thus not circumstantial and readily remedied, but is instead indicative of who people really are.  This is human nature and therefore something which is certainly not easily, and perhaps not even possibly, changed.  However political theory is not the business of psychology and psychologists have not considered the implications of these findings for the functioning of political institutions and the conduct of political practices.

If taken seriously, what are the implications of this social scientific evidence for democratic governance? To begin, it suggests that the vast majority of Americans will be unable to make sense of or understand a democratic form of politics and, therefore as citizens, they will be unable to participate in the manner required.  Liberal democracy presents its citizens with a cultural definition of their social and political world that they cannot comprehend. They are asked to understand the polity as a system of interdependent, potentially diverse set of citizens who engage one another in multiple ways all of which are regulated in a way that mostly do and certainly are supposed to meet the functional requirements of the political system and its underlying organizing principle of justice as fairness. In complementary fashion, citizens are asked to think of themselves and others as free and equal subject/agents who are the authors of their own meaning and directors of their own action.  \

The problem here is that the social science research suggests that most people do not think in these terms. Instead of considering interactive relationships, people focus on specific actions and actors. These concrete particular objects of thought are understood not as they are articulated in to a system of relationships, but rather as they are observed or are authoritatively and conventionally defined to be causally or categorically linked to one another. Consequently they naturally tend to think of the polity as a ethno-cultural nation and thus as a category of people who express the same beliefs, enact the same conventional practices, have a similar appearance and share common origins (come from the same geographical place or biological lineage). In this frame of reference, individuals (oneself or other people) are defined by their categorical membership, their social identity, and by the set of specific things they do or say.  As a political entity, the nation is constituted by the exercise of causal power wherein some control what others do. Political organization is therefore understood as a necessarily hierarchical ordering of individuals and groups.  In this context, morality and ethical values are not conceptualized as relative or subjectively constructed. Rather, they are objective in a way that is commonly recognized and thus conventionally defined. They are matter of authoritative dictates that are to be learned and followed.

Democratic institutional arrangements are thus difficult to understand.  For example in the American case, government is complexly organized system with a division of powers among somewhat equal branches of government, legislative, executive and judiciary, in which power and influence are exercised laterally as well as vertically.  This institutional structure is very difficult to comprehend for citizens who think of organizations as hierarchical entities in which power flows simply from the top down.  From their perspective, the arrangement is a confusing one which only seems to yield conflict within and between institutions and consequent inability of governmental institutions to act as required.  Similarly they do not understand the function of governance as regulator and referee oriented to maintaining just relations between citizens and the integrity of each of them.  In their understanding, the purpose of the government is to maintain social order and to act as situations require.  In this context, the law and the judiciary are and should be subordinate to the demands of effective executive action.  For most people, governance is a matter of authoritative decision-making and control, and citizenship is a matter of the loyal fulfillment of political obligations. All of this is in the service of the common good. When either government or citizens do not act accordingly, they will be regarded to be as confusing, wrong and evil.

As democratic governance confronts people with political context that is hard to comprehend or value, so it also asks them to participate in a public sphere in ways they cannot understand and in which they cannot appropriately act.  To enter the public sphere, they are asked to abandon their guiding assumptions about truth and right: that there are objectively true and moral claims, actions and ends and these are known by all.  Instead they are required to understand that people enter the public sphere with subjectively and culturally different understandings that lead them to reasonably make very different claims about what is good and true.  Moreover they are also asked to value these different claims out of respect for the integrity of the individuals who voice them. Finally they are told to collaborate with others to bridge differences with the aim of constructing a shared understanding of what is the truth and right of the situation they are considering and the goals to which they should be aspiring.

But this is not how most people naturally think.  In their terms, they are being asked to respect claims they know to be mistaken or immoral and to respect individuals, who by make those claims, reveal themselves to be incompetent or evil.  On top of this, they are asked to engage these incompetent or evil people and their mistaken and immoral claims to construct a shared view of things.  For the vast majority of Americans, not only are these demands incomprehensible and confusing, they also seem clearly wrong-minded.  Consequently, when confronted with the demands of participating in the public sphere, they will either withdraw or they will engage on their own terms. In the latter regard, they will voice what they know to be true and right, engaging with like-minded others to establish solidarity with those who share their view or to defeat those who do not.

Finally there is the issue of how individuals are supposed to understand and feel about themselves.  They are asked to be free and self-directing.  They are to reject the direction of conventional authority and tradition and instead ‘discover’ who they are in some essential underlying or overarching sense.  Additionally they are supposed to generate their own internal sense of their worth rather than rely on the approval conferred by others. Then equipped with the requisite understanding and the emotional wherewithal, they are supposed to act accordingly.  For most Americans this again makes no sense and creates an impossible demand.  What they know and value is constituted by that authority and convention they are supposed to reject.  Similarly they rely on others approval to know that they right and good.  They have no other resources to draw upon to make their judgments, ground their sense of self-worth or direct their action. Insofar as they attempt to be critical and self-directing, they will simply reject dominant conventions and authorities in favor of alternative ones, much like adolescents adhering to teenage fashion when rebelling against their parents.  And like adolescents who are unleashed from the certainties of parental control, people’s sense of identity and worth are likely to become less secure and the confidence they require for independent action is likely to be reduced.

At the same time, they are asked to regard themselves as independent subjects and self-directing actors, they are also asked to feel connected to those around them. However they are required not to do so in terms they can understand, that is on the basis of concrete commonalities of specific action and belief.  Instead, the desired connection must be predicated on their difference and relationships of mutual interdependence.  It is not a predetermined connection between defined persons, but a negotiated relationship between partners who are actively engaged in exploring who they are and who they can be for the other.  For the vast majority of Americans, this is an incomprehensible and impossible task.  To the degree to which they feel compelled to try, they will search for authoritative guidance, the need for which has been met by the marketplace with the proliferation of self-help books, such as Getting to Yes (Fisher, et al., 1991) or Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus (Gray, 1982), that provides concrete recipes for how to act to ‘realize’ oneself and ‘connect’ satisfactorily with others.  In general, confronted with the demand for a kind of social connection they cannot forge, people are left alone in a world with others who are as alienated and estranged as themselves.  In this context, the only relationship that emerges is one between isolated actors competing to realize selfish ends.  The result is loneliness, weak self-identity and insecurity.

In sum, the majority of Americans are generally 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 demanded of them in distorting and inadequate ways.  As a result they will interact and communicate in ways that undermine 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. Alternatively, they may seek alternative, more comprehensible and satisfying political direction and modes of interaction.

The Ongoing Attraction of Right Wing Authoritarianism

            It is in this light that we can best understand the tensions in the inherent in the realization of democratic governance.  It is asking the people to adopt a definition of the nation as a whole and themselves as individuals that they cannot comprehend and to internalize a set of orienting values that they cannot accept.  In so doing, democratic governance undermines its citizens as individuals and leaves them feeling inadequate, confused and insecure. In reciprocal fashion, those individuals operate in the public sphere in substandard or deviant ways that undermine the meaning and legitimacy of democratic cultural imperatives and the functioning of democratic institutions. In this light, it is easier to appreciate the enduring attraction of right wing populism and the potential for its realization in a structurally contradictory and thus unstable democratic state.

Right wing populism provides the lost, lonely, alienated and frightened souls of democracy with an alternative vision and practice that is readily comprehensible, morally sensible and personally satisfying.  In the place of the conceptual complexities of democratic cultural definitions and values, RWP offers a clear, simple definition of what is true and right. The facts are objective, certain and authoritatively defined and they are construed in a way that serves the national interest and therefore one’s own.  Individuals are not abandoned to the impossible task of understanding things and making judgments on their own, but are offered the necessary authoritative guidance and direction.  Codes of good behavior provide concrete direction of what one is to do when. Individuals are also not left alone.  Group conferred identities and conventional values such as loyalty bind individuals to the people. RWP also provides a simpler, more readily comprehensible understanding of politics life.  The largely incomprehensible complexities of democratic power sharing, fair regulation and proper representation are replaced with readily understood hierarchical structures of administrative control.  Power emanates from the top, a top which embodies and promotes the national interest, an interest that individual citizens, left to their own devices, cannot be expected to understand or know how to pursue.  RWP also offers the concrete definition of we, the people and nation (and who they, others, are not) in terms of shared characteristics and behaviors, the kind of definition that resonates with how people think and are readily comprehended.

Right wing populism also offers a public sphere in which most people can readily participate in appropriate and satisfying ways.  It expressly invalidates the difficult, incomprehensible task mandated in the democratic public sphere of perspective taking in order to collaborate with others in the construction of political meaning and value. In its place, RWP only requires that individuals attend to and internalize the authoritative dictates, the ones voiced by the leadership and reflecting the will of the people.  They are then asked to rehearse these learned beliefs and actions when engaging with others and during the occasional mass events. Alternative views and those who voice them are to be rejected.  The views are wrong or bad and their advocates are enemies of the people. This view of the public sphere is readily understood and demands for participation are readily met.  Moreover acting accordingly confers the approval and validation that secures individuals’ sense of the world, directs their action and binds them to one another in emotionally satisfying ways. They are no longer lost, confused, inadequate and alone.

At the same time, RWP also validates and addresses whatever existential dread, anxiety and insecurity people living in a democratic and globalizing world are feeling.  It also provides a solution.  RWP recognizes a world that is fragmented into nations or groups who differ in their understanding of the world and in the values they uphold.  But this is not the largely incomprehensible democratic world of differing interpretations, collaborative engagement and mutual benefit. Rather it is the easily understood world of us and them, where we are right and they are wrong.  It is a world where engagement is a zero sum game wherein interests necessarily collide and the result is some win as others necessarily lose. In this conflictual world, individuals are right to feel anxious and insecure.  However the solution is clear.  In ways people can readily comprehend, they can achieve a clear concrete identity and secure relationship to others through the twin processes of embracing the nation and accepting the authority of its leadership.  At the same time, the nation and its leadership will protect “us’ readily identified members of the nation from an also easily identified ‘them’ who are the source of the anxiety and insecurity ‘we’ feel.

In sum, democratic governance is structurally weak and thus undermined from within.  It lacks the citizenry to understand its culture, to operate in its institutions and to participate in its public sphere. The result is a distortion of the culture, institutions and civic life of democracy. Thus structural regulations of democratic governance are undermined by its own citizenry. At the same time, the citizens of this distorted democracy are undermined by the political system in which they are asked to participate but cannot understand.  They are left alienated, directionless and insecure. This defines the structural weakness of liberal democracy and constitutes its greatest vulnerability.  As a result, it is susceptible to the threat posed by a political ideology that offers the people of modern democracies an alternative vision they can understand and a direction they can follow.  As argued here, right wing populism offers just such vision and direction.

The persistence of democratic governance: Structural reinforcements and elite control

 We began with addressing the question of why right wing populism is on the rise in democratic countries, particularly the US.  Our answer to this question raises a prior one. Given its structural weakness, how have democratic governments been able to function for so long, even if in suboptimal ways? The answer lies with both the impact of broader structural forces and the particular role played by democratic elites.  Turning first to structural considerations, it is important to recognize how democratic governance is sustained by what have been termed the forces of modernity or post-modernity. Operating on arenas such as the economy and international relations, these forces are structuring these different domains of life in terms that are parallel to those of democratic governance. In so doing, they organizing and defining the economic, technological and international conditions of domestic political life in way that reinforces the democratic structuring of politics.

Perhaps most important is the effect of the capitalist organization of the economy. 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 defined to be rational, self-directing actors.  As such they are self-regulating entities that operate independently 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 in the economic system.  How they can interact with one another is regulated accordingly; their capacity for self-directed action is constrained by the rules of the field on which they are playing.  Consequently individual actors necessarily depend on one another and the economic system of which they are a part.  That system is multi-dimensional and complex. It is competitive in a way that reflects economic actors striving to meet their individual ends relationship where resources are limited.  It is also collaborative in a way that reflects the attempt of individual actor to work together to achieve goals they share in common. In both aspects, the standard of ‘good’ behavior is efficiency and productivity.  As such, the capitalist economy favors innovation and creativity over traditional practices and conformity.  In so doing it emancipates and empowers individuals to act on their own and with one another in a way that parallels and supports the democratic structuring of political life.

Globalization and mass migration also provided structural support for democratic governance. Both processes introduce foreign alternatives into the domestic scene in a way that they are attributed moral and cultural value.  In world politics of the post-WW II and especially post-Cold War era, the dominant ethos has been to recognize the integrity of nations and to respect their religious orientations and cultural values. In the world economy, enterprises not only compete with one another in both domestic and foreign markets, integrated chains of supply have led to collaboration and interdependence. People buy foreign products and business incorporate foreign products in their domestic production.  In the process, domestic and foreign entities have become co-equal participants in a global economy. These tendencies are reinforced by the mass migrations of both advantaged as well as disadvantaged populations.  The result is the incorporation of large numbers of migrants. In the western democracies, this includes according rights that demand respect for these migrants as individuals and by implication for the cultures and religions to which they adhere. Thus immigration and globalization both contribute to a questioning of the presumed superiority of the home culture and a consequent undermining of the authority of its definitions, values and traditions. Placed in a world of cultural choices rather than cultural dictates, the individual is increasingly liberated to self-direct in a way that parallels the opportunities provided by democratic citizenship.

The structuring forces of science and technology also complement and support democratic definitions and practice. Science for its part structures knowledge as something that is inter-subjectively constructed through communicative practices, the presentation of evidence and argument. By their nature, these communicative practices are explicitly protected from the prejudicial constraints of existing cultural definitions and claims and any exercise of power by groups or individuals.  In its practical application to technology, science further reinforces democratic practices. By its nature and particularly as it is articulated in a capitalist economic system, science driven technology prioritizes innovation. As such, it de-authorizes tradition and conformity.  At the same time, it recognizes and promotes individuals’ creativity and imagination.

In sum, economic, global and technological forces all operate to structure social relations in ways that are consistent with the requisites of democratic governance. They reinforce the conception of social reality and the modes of practice that democracy demands of its citizenry. However in the end, this is not enough to insure that the citizenry will be democratic.  Like the definitions and standards of democratic governance, those of the capitalist economy, globalization and immigration, and science and technology may not be adequately appreciated by the individuals who are exposed to them.  Therefore, insofar as individual citizens lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities, these favorable structural conditions will not be enough unto themselves to insure the requisite understanding of, commitment to and compliance with democratic institutions and practices.

Therefore even in thus favorable context, something additional is needed to address this citizen deficit.  Ironically, in democracies like the US, the something is dominant elite that supports democratic culture and institutions.  They are motivated to do so partly because a substantial of the elites have some understanding of the relative protection and functionality that democratic governance provides.  This is not to understate the issues of self-interest.  These elites, as evident in their status as elites, are evident beneficiaries of the system they are protecting.  Elites support democratic governance by insuring that the mass of people participate speak and act in ways that are at least appear consistent with the demands of democratic practice.  This involves providing authoritative interpretations of democratic institutions and culture that translate these more complex entities and abstract orientations into simpler, more concrete terms.  For example, an abstract, an abstract relational concept like justice is interpreted in more concrete terms as a cluster of specific imperatives that identify specific ‘disadvantaged’ groups and the particular ways to treat them equally way. In a similar fashion, the complex requirements of political participation are reconstructed in terms of specific action requirements. Thus collaboration in the public sphere for the purpose of collective decision-making is reduced to voicing your personal opinion and casting a ballot for one of several provided alternatives at the time of the occasional election. In the process, the need for individuals citizens to meet democracy’s demands for reflection, understanding the difference of others and collaborative deliberation is avoided while, at the same time, those citizens are given the requisite direction so that they appear (to themselves and to others) to understand their political context and to be performing their democratic role.

Elites exercise this oligarchic ‘democratic’ authority in several ways.  In part, this is accomplished through control of the institutions which orchestrate how individuals interact with one another.  These include political institutions like the Congress, the courts and the law, state and city administrations, and the police, and economic institutions like banks and corporations.  Via these institutions and the rewards and punishments that are administered by them, elites can manage citizen action so that it approximates, even if inadequately, democratic practices.  Elites also exercise ‘democratic control’ by managing the discourses that dominate the public sphere.  They can thus affect the pool of socially approved knowledges and preferences that are available to individuals draw upon as they seek to understand, evaluate and react to the circumstances of daily life. This cultural domination is secured through the control of the means by which these discourses are dispersed.  This includes the mass media and the institutions of socialization, such as schools and universities. Through these vehicles, the elite can disseminate the orienting beliefs and values of democratic culture.  Even if these are transformed into mere slogans rehearsed by citizenry that does not fully understand what they are saying, they are nonetheless reified and accepted as true and right.  At the same time, this cultural control also allows elites to exclude and delegitimize contrary or system threatening discourses (as stupid or evil) and derogate those who advocate them (as fanatics, ignorant, unbalanced and generally ‘deplorable’).  Again the citizenry may not understand why these alternative discourses are misguided or wrong, but they will nonetheless reject them. In these ways, democratic elites can manipulate the mass of citizens so that they mimic, even if inadequately, democratic understandings and practices. Thus even though democracy is burdened by an inadequate citizenry, the elite’s exercise of power can sustain the democratic system and hold potentially attractive alternatives, such as right wing populism, at bay.

Why democracy is faltering now: Undermined by its own success

Understanding both the structural weakness of democratic systems and the conditions of their persistence, we can now finally address our central question: Why are democracies faltering now in the face of the challenge of a right wing populism alternative?  As noted at the outset, political scientists and sociologists have suggested a number of the changing conditions of everyday life in the western democracies which may be contributing to this state of affairs.  They have pointed to economic decline, growing economic inequality and changing demographics as trends that have, in the eyes of the people, undermined the legitimacy of elites and with them, the institutions they run and the vision of economic, social and political life they advocate.  I think these factors are influential, but their effects must be understood as symptoms of the underlying structural condition I have described.  Emerging in the context of a structurally strong system of governance, these destabilizing fluctuations in its ability to deliver specific outcomes would not produce threats to the system itself.  A truly democratic citizenry would naturally regard the aforementioned developments as important problems to be addressed, but in a manner that is consistent with democratic understandings and practices. Alternatively, even where the citizenry is inadequately democratic, an authoritative and powerful democratic elite would be able to control people’s perceptions of those problems and the range of possible ways of dealing with them so that particular politicians or policies are rejected, rather than system of democratic governance.  Indeed in strong, well established democracies like the US, this has historically been the case.  So earlier, even more severe economic declines, equivalent levels of economic inequality and periods of large scale immigration, such as those of the first part of the 20th century, did not threaten the viability of democracy itself.

In the last several decades, something more basic or fundamental seems to be transpiring. In the advanced industrialized societies of the west and particularly in the US, the structural forces of modernity described earlier, such as those of the economy, science, technology and globalization along with that of democratic governance itself, have been increasingly successful in supplanting more traditional forms of organizing everyday social life. This has entailed an ever greater dismantling of hierarchical structures and a de-legitimation of conventional or traditional authority. One crucial aspect of this ongoing process is the increasingly loss of elite control over the public sphere.

Partly the diminution of elite cultural power is a practical matter of dismantling of the centralized technologies of mass communication that facilitated the elite control of the messages that circulated in the public sphere. Structured by capitalist and democratic forces, the internet, the computer and the smartphone have been developed in ways that give individuals both an increasing range of choices and a greater ability to express preferences in a very public way.  Now an alienated, uneducated, working class ranch hand living in east Texas has access not only to the information disseminated by the major television channels or the national newspapers controlled by elites, but also to a myriad of smaller, more varied and less culturally sanctioned sources. Consequently, he or she is now able to choose which messages he or she wants to receive.  Similarly that ‘ordinary’ American, who once had very little political voice, is now able to broadcast his or her beliefs about events and policies, potentially as widely as any senior correspondent for the New York Times or Yale professor of politics or environmental science. With this democratization of the public sphere, elites have become less able to control the messages that are disseminated and therefore they are less able to assert the dominance of democratic views and to exclude of anti-democratic alternatives.

This loss elite control is also a cultural matter, one which reflects how structures of modern life have diminished the legitimacy of those who have been conventionally allocated authority in the various spheres of everyday life. From the venues of formal governance to the market, the workplace, schools, universities and the home, power hierarchies have been increasingly flattened and communicative practices of command have increasingly given way to negotiation and collaboration among equals.  The institutionally conferred authority of political leaders, experts, employers and even parents has been undermined. In the process, expression has become increasingly free and all voices have been increasingly equalized.  Thus not only is our east Texan able to broadcast his beliefs as widely as those of senior journalists and professors, his views have an equal claim to validity as his more ‘institutionally advantaged’ counterparts.

Thus there is a confluence of similar and mutual reinforcing forces that are moving political life in the same direction.  The ever greater structural penetration of everyday life by the forces of capitalist markets, democratic politics and globalization have made the complexities of social life and the necessity of individuals to rely on themselves when negotiating those complexities increasingly apparent.  Given their inadequate cognitive and emotional abilities to participate in the ways required, the people living in this freer, more equal, more culturally diverse world are left more confused, directionless, alone and insecure.  They feel a commensurately increasing need for an authoritative definition of the world and themselves and authoritative direction of how they must act to secure their place, as individuals and a people, in that world.

At the same time, that this need for authoritative direction is heightened, the ability of democratic elites to provide the requisite direction is being diminished.  The messages they offer regarding democratic understandings and practices are not, in themselves, compelling. Partly this is because, even when reformulated in the simpler more concrete terms that people can better understand, this vision is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which most citizens think and feel.  The message offered does not resonate with the natural abilities and inclinations of those intended to accept it. At the same time, the ability of the elite to compel such an acceptance is being diminished. The changing technological structure of communicative technologies has made it practically more difficult for the elites to exercise the control over the messages that circulate widely in the public sphere. They can no longer insure the predominance of their message and the exclusion of alternatives.  Moreover in this more open playing field there has been a flattening of conventional authority and a commensurate equalizing of influence. Thus the democratic elite have progressively less ability simply, by virtue of their position or expertise, to confer legitimacy on their truths, values and practices they advocate.

In sum, the ever more democratic conditions of everyday life and the ever more democratic structuring of the public sphere, has undermined the essentially undemocratic power and authority of ‘democratic’ elites to manage that critical structural weakness of democratic governance, a citizenry that lacks the cognitive and emotional capacities to think, feel and act in ways required. Instead in the increasingly open, free and equal sphere of public life characteristic of the contemporary western democracies like the United States, democratic elites are forced to compete with opponents, most significantly right wing populists, who offer a message that is intrinsically more comprehensible and satisfying to a recipient public hungry for meaning, security and direction. The probable result is clear. In this ever more democratic context, the authoritarian, nationalist vision of the right wing populist is likely to triumph.  In this sense, democracy seems now poised, as it always potentially has been, to devour itself.

Post mortem

Considering the current conditions and trajectory of democratic politics, the conclusion is clear. Even, or perhaps particularly in well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail. The alternative that will supersede democracy, right wing populism, is also clear.  It offers the understandings the people can readily comprehend, the values they can readily appreciate and the direction of speech and action they can readily follow.  This triumph of right wing populism over democracy was averted in early 20th century because of a felicitous combination of a circumstantial distribution of power between nations and, ironically, the insufficiently democratized way of life of any one of them.  However such a happy result is unlikely now

To conclude, we can ask if this trajectory and the promised results are inevitable. I think the answer is probably yes.  However there is another possibility, if an unlikely one. Before it is too late, the democracies might directly address their own critical vulnerability, the inadequacy of their citizens.  For reasons outlined in this chapter, the Madisonian strategy of managing inadequate citizens with less democratic, more republican institutions is no longer a viable option. The alternative is to create the citizenry that has the cognitive and emotional capacities democracy requires. This would entail a massive educational initiative, one that would have to be premised on the recognizing the dramatic failure of prior efforts. Perhaps in this way, democratic forms of governance may yet prevail.

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