The current state of geopolitics has recently descended into a chaotic state of affairs with a nationalist/anti-political sentiment finding mainstream support across the western world. This trend has led to some observers to conclude that the globe is now facing a ‘crisis of democracy’ (Armingeon, 2013, 423). However, I argue that this perspective is a misunderstanding of events. I submit that the reason as to why such turmoil is occurring, is due to the world order undergoing a grand transition of the transformation of a world based on post-national liberalism to a return to realist-nationalism. This change has not been a spontaneous occurrence. It is the result of the citizenry of their respective countries, enacting their will via the democratic process, to support populist political parties, movements and individuals in response to global liberalism. In reaction to this development, I contend that this has resulted into two crises: the established norm of representative democracy has become a universal ideology that appears as the final eschatological movement in politics and yet verges on a universality that is technocratic and nearly totalitarian. In becoming an established norm an inversion of reality has taken place, leading to the second crisis, with populist democracy becoming viewed as authoritarian. The double crisis represents a paradox. Representative democracy has become the norm when in fact participatory democracy that has become maligned is the true democracy where the human being enact their democratic will not as a process but as a way of life.
In order to explain this paradox, the paper will be separated into three sections: Firstly, in order to understand the current rise of anti-establishment or anti-populist politics, the definitional foundations, development and dynamics of democracy along with the influences of geopolitics that shape the instantiation of democracy will be investigated. Secondly, the twin case studies of this phenomenon occurring will be examined, in the form of Donald Trump ascending to the White House and the 2017 French National Election, which saw two anti-establishment candidates advancing into the Final Round of the election. This will be achieved by investigating the history and political system of each nation and how each country experienced the phenomenon of mass support for populist-nationalism. And finally, by adopting a comparative analysis, it can be understood how two democratic-republics, each possessing their own unique political history, systems of government and culture have come to walk such similar paths and arrive to their respective political destinations. My thesis is that populist or participatory democracy is the real democracy and the double crisis or paradox is that true democracy is continually marginalized while representative democracy has become the standard when in fact it is driven by universalist and totalitarian ideologies which appears as ideologically sound but leaves no space for democracy.
The Clash of Democracy Defined
Due to the complexity of the democratic crisis, an understanding of its various theoretical aspects are required. Although democracy is not a monolithic concept, I submit that its foundation consists of two intellectual strains of Hellenic thought: Aristotelian philosophy and Platonic thought.
As reflected in Aristotle’s Politics, the concept of democracy was to assist in the Hellenic pursuit in achieving a societal order based on virtue and harmony that a people could achieve ‘the Good life’ (Aristotle 1.1.1a). This was to be articulated by Thucydides when he wrote:
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people…everyone is equal before the law…so long he is in service of the state, no one is kept in political obscurity because of poverty…our political life is free and open…we are tolerant in our private live…each individual is interested not only in his own affair but in the affairs of the state as well… (Hansen, 1992, 15)
The revealing aspects of this passage can be surmised that democracy was to be applied to all citizens of Athens, that the demos held sovereign power to engage in the destiny of their city-state by participating directly into the affairs of government. More specifically, it required civic virtue to be embraced as it would promote the dedication to the republican city-state and the sacrifice of personal power for the attainment of the public good (Held, 1987, 17). As indicated by Plato’s Republic, democracy treats ‘all men as equal, whether they are equal or not’ (Held, 1987, 29). It was argued that a life of freedom, inevitability results in anarchy and it is in that state of affairs, the people will demand order and thus will openly welcome the ushering in of a tyranny. Therefore, in order to govern society justly, democracy was best instituted when controlled by an elite minority in a form of a group of Philosopher Kings, for they are the only ones’ capable harmonizing humanity under the ‘rule of wisdom’ (Plato. 9.1.4a).
It was the legacy of Athenian democracy that inspired much of the political-thought of the modern Western world. Over time, many different interpretations of democracy have been developed, but the two basic forms are known as representative and direct and have been manifested in various electoral systems. For instance, representative democracy operates under the idea of a group of people will select a representative via elections (Held, 1987, 17). Direct democracy is an offshoot of representative democracy, where the citizenry can directly decide on the decisions of government, laws, electing representatives and usually takes place via referendum (Held, 1987, 17). Although these two systems both uphold the citizenry to be sovereign, they are subject to many different political influences, such as elitism and populism.
Echoing the words of Plato, elite theorists propose whenever there is a democratic system in place, the rule of nature would dictate that an elite minority would inevitably rule (Dryzek, 2009 57). This applies culturally and politically, as it defines the common masses as disorganized, generally uneducated and excluded from effective influence of government. And with unique individuals, who come to positions of power and control economic, social and political influences via their social status, intelligence, wealth and economic/political guile (Dryzek, 2009 58). The role of the ladder, as explained by Cas Mudde, operates as a philosophical instrument for other worldviews to operate under in order to gain public support (Mudde,2004, 543). Another common aspect of populism is the rise of the ‘charismatic leader’. These individuals are described by Max Weber as creative agents that possess extraordinary personal attributes and usually appear during times of great uncertainty to provide leadership and solutions. By doing so, they usually form new collectives that are in conflict with the prevailing order of the day. They usually view themselves as political conduit between the voiceless common people and the political establishment. However, in order to appeal to the many sections of society, populists tend to adopt simplistic language and offer simple solutions to complex problems (Pappas, 2016, 379). Interestingly regardless of which side of the political spectrum is being championed, when in combination with populism, a Manichean outlook is adopted that separates society into two antagonistic groups: the pure people versus the corrupt elite (Mudde, 2004, 543).
Although these notions have been simply regarded as details of democratic theory, the recent polarization of politics has forced the Aristotelian-Platonic democratic foundations to spilt and be adopted by the two main antagonistic worldviews that is being contested today: French representative democracy, which upholds the current world order of postnational liberalism versus American populist democracy, that champions the return to realist nationalism.
The End of History and the Return of the Nation State
It was due to the horrors the Great War that the old order of national-realism came to be rethought and the idea of liberal idealism onto the forefront of international affairs. It was President Woodrow Wilson that championed the concept of a world interdependently linked across economic, political and culturally lines, in the common goal of attaining world peace. It was to make nation states obsolete by binding them to international law and operate under transnational/global institutions and organizations (Quigley, 1966). For a time, this worldview was considered to be highly successful as the world seemed to have recovered and began to enjoy ‘the good life’ once again. However, when the Great Depression occurred, the idea of an interconnected world fell into dispute and the advocates of nationalism were eventually ushered into power and the world experienced another global war.
It was the rise of Hitlerite Nazism that provided the greatest warning of history for those advocating the worldview of liberalism, as it has acted not only as an example of how the democratic system could be abused by demagogues as a way to gain political legitimacy, but also the dangers of the populist-nationalism coming to power. For example, the German Weimar Republic was a champion of liberalism and representative democracy (Snyder, 1966 40). The political structure of the Republic dictated that the President was to be chosen via direct election, for a term of seven years with the possibility of re-election (Snyder, 1966 41). For a period of time, it looked like the Weimar system was a success, leading to a golden period of stability along with a bourgeoisie lifestyle (Kershaw, 1998 258). However, once the Great Depression occurred, the radical ultrarational populist Nazi Party, which argued the political class only represented liberalism and internationalism (Kershaw, 1998 136) and democracy only acted to divide society (Kershaw, 1998 136). But it was only when the charismatic leadership of Adolf Hitler was promoted, that the party was eventually elected into power (Kershaw, 1998 136). When in power he used direct-democracy to establish a dictatorial one-party state by using referendums to merge the two offices of President and Chancellor to into the supreme head-of-state of Führer (Kershaw, 1998 525).
It was with this historical lesson in mind that the world set out to avoid from ever happening again. When the Cold War ended with the victors being the liberal-democratic West, thus the liberal-capitalist system achieved the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1992). Therefore, it was believed that the world elite should readopt international liberalism and therefore multinational institutions such as International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU). It was due to the representatives of democratic states remembering the rise of Nazism and wishing to see world peace that contributed to them embracing the notion of post-national liberalism and ultimately developing a Platonic mindset, that they were the natural elite and could dictate the destiny of nations to ultimately reach the geopolitical equivalent of the good life: achieving of world peace.
It is my contention that it was the rise of Hitler that has provided the greatest argument for those who are currently upholding the liberal world order and representative democracy to combat the current rise of populism. However, by doing so, they have unintentionally transformed into representatives of totalitarian democracy and have actually contributed to the very creation and rise of its democratic-rival. Due to the global nature of liberalism, the phenomenon of the democratic principle being turned against itself, has transpired in many nations, but it was due to the historic national culture of each particular country that produced drastically different reactions. The two nations that best exemplify the results of the civil war of democracy has been the United States, where the populist-democracy have claimed victory and France where the representative democracy has been completely embraced by its people.
Making America Great Again
It was the ascent of Donald Trump to the White House has been viewed as a legitimatization of the fears of populist-nationalism attaining power. However, I disagree with this interpretation of events as I argue that the American Creed has always represented a form of exceptionalism. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the US would reject the ideals of international liberalism and rebel, ironically via the ballot box, against their newfound masters.
According to Seymour Lipset, American Exceptionalism can only be understood when a comparative analysis is implemented, as the United States becomes the exception to the rule when contrasted with other nations, especially Europe (Lipset, 1991 1). The Founding Fathers sought to create a New World and thereby rejected the worldview and thus political structures of the Old World. For example, unlike Europe that upheld the notions of feudalism, monarchy and imperialism (Lispset, 1996 39), the American Republic adopted the federal republicanism, democracy, a competitive two-party system, individualism, capitalism, nationalism and an isolationist foreign policy (Lispset, 1996 1).
Being that the American ethos based on a suspicion of concentrated power, the US electoral system was founded on checks-and-balances. For example, the American system operates under the separation of powers, where the President is held to account by the Senate and House of Representatives as well as an independent High Court (Us.gov, 2017). Furthermore, there is the aspect of dual federalism, where political power is separated between the federal and state level, where the local government hold their own autonomy and elections (Us.gov, 2017). In regard to the Presidential electoral system, the President is elected by the citizenry of each state via the first-past-the post system. This allows the person who win the most votes is declared the winner. These votes are to be processed through the Electoral College. This works by the member states will collectively send a representative to cast the vote of each state at the College and thus each state will be equalized in participating the in election (Us.gov, 2017). This type of system is usually used by two-party system and thus frustrates any third party or independent of ever attaining power. This is compounded by the issue of ballot access, where the two major parties can easily registration in all states, third parties often find it hard to equal national representation due to lack of funds or support (Us.gov, 2017). I would argue that this system has assisted from any radical political movement or party, such as the American Nazi Party of the Communist Party of the USA, from ever gaining a foothold in American politics.
It is due to the American Creed representing such humanitarian ideals, I argue that the fact that the US has spearheaded international liberalism is was the beginning of the inversion of democracy, as those who were of a nationalistic mindset were dismissed and more importantly the American political class that was elected during this period adopted a form of totalitarian democracy, which as defined by J.L. Talmon, that society’s elite grows to believe that they hold exclusive attainment of absolute truth and thus the right to power, regardless of a lack of support from the citizenry and thus the right to suppress dissent (Tamon, 1952). I would add that the two-party system has also played a hand in the support for populist parties and individuals of the public, for they have eventually realized that they enjoy representative democracy in name only due to the consensus of those who supposedly are supposedly representatives of the democratic decisions of the people. It was in reaction to this perception that Donald Trump came to be supported by the mass American populace and chose to filter his presidential campaign through the US Republican Party.
It was by declaring ‘Nationalism, not Globalism, will be our Credo’ (Trump 2016), Trump had made it known that his populist campaign will be a return to traditional Americana. By running on his ‘America First’ campaign, he stated that by adopting international liberalism, true American Exceptionalism is dead and therefore he intended to restore the nation’s greatness. However, although I concede the superficial similarities to Hitler, in wanting to restore his nations’ greatness and that Trump does possess charismatic leadership qualities, it is wrong to equate his brand of nationalistic populism as Hitlerian National Socialism, as his agenda has no bearing on the platform of Adolf Hitler. For instance, Trump had never spoken of transforming the structure of government itself into a highly centralized government. This was reflected in his inauguration speech, he openly spoke about returning that nation to its people (Trump 2017).
The history of modern France has been the attempt to re-establish their quest of pursuing Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Being of the Old World, the French nation have experienced many different forms of government and adopted many worldviews. However, as explained by Gordon Wright, it was not just the experience of battling Hitler that influenced their political class to uphold the notions of international liberalism, but also the fact that they were also under the collaborative, fascistic Vichy government (Wright, 1995, 396). In its pursuit to prohibit the opportunity of such a system from ever regaining power, postwar France embraced the worldview of its liberator, Charles de Gaulle, saw to rewriting their constitution and political system and is now living in its Fifth Republic (Wright, 1995 410).
The Gaullist Doctrine was an attempt to transcend partisan politics and attempt to simultaneously unify the nation and return it to the prestige of being a major power. This saw establishing a strong state and power executive branch of government (Hartley, 1971 2). However, there existed strong strain of liberalism present in its attempt to be ‘good neighbor’ by joining the European Union (Hartley,1971 213). In regard to its electoral system, the Fifth Republic adopted the ‘two-round system’, where the top two candidates are allowed to run on the second ballot. Under this concept, a multiparty system emerges, where many parties can compete in the first round. Although it is possible for a candidate to win the first round, it is highly unlikely given the level of competition that would take place. (Me ́ny, 2017 270).
The 2017 Presidential Election
The 2017 Presidential Election had become one of the most unprecedented in French history for a number of reasons. As Raymond Kuhn explains, the political instability began when the socialist Present Hollande decided not to seek re-election, making him the very first President refusing to run a second term (Kuhn, 2017 361). Furthermore, it was the first time in history where to Second Round was contested by two political outsiders: the pro-European liberal progressive Emmanuel Macron and the Eurosceptic populist-nationalist Marie-Le Pen of the National Front.
What was particularly interesting was the reconstituted National Front, that came under the leadership of Marie-Le Pen. According to Daniel Stockemer, the three main differences between the revamped National Front and its older model was: the state was elevated to protector of the common people against liberalism and immigration. The people of the lower/middle socio-economic class became the key target demographic. By adopting populism, Marie’s FN positions itself as the anti-party by opposing the established political, social and economic norms of the Fifth Republic. It appears that Marine Le Pen’s revival strategy, by mixing the traditional issues of immigration, security and national identity with her strong populist message of sovereignty and re-nationalization, proved to be successful both internally and electorally. For instance, during the 2012 National Election, the Front gained 18.03% of the vote and saw a total of 13.77% support in the Legislative elections and won two seats in the National Assembly (Stockemmer, 2017 24). By the 2014 European Elections the National Front winning 25% thus passing two moderate parties and sent 24 deputies to the European Parliament. (Stockemmer, 2017 5). It was with this momentum that Marine Le Pen’s National Front headed into the 2017 Presidential Election and had many contemplating the possibility of mimicking the upset victory of Donald Trump and actually see Le Pen enter the Élysée Palace.
Emmanuel Macron was also case of populism coming to the forefront of French politics. He was the personification of everything that populists loathed: possessing a background in finance, supported President Hollande, embraced of globalization and possessed a strong commitment to the European Union. It was as recent as 2014 that he began to form the foundations of his own political grouping known as En Marche! to be a people’s movement and reach voters the unpopular government would fail to do (Plowright 2017 107). When he announced his movement to the public, he described it as being a bit radical, full of positive energy but neither left nor right (Plowright 2017 109).
As for the actual election itself, the First-Round saw had a total of 11 candidates and unlike previous elections where it was clear who the realistic final candidates would be, this Round ended with distinct four leaders: Macron’s pro-European liberal progressivism, the Eurosceptic anti-liberal populist Le Pen, the conservative Fillon and the Eurosceptic progressivism of Mélenchon, with each scoring 20% in support (Kuhn 2017 362).
I would submit that this loss of faith of the establishment made many commentators fear that the parallels of Weimar Germany was beginning to take place, especially with the revamped National Front looking to fill the role of the re-established Nazi Party waiting in the wings. The Second Round of the Presidential Election was also unusual, as the electoral logical of the Fifth Republic would have produced the norm of a runoff between two representatives of the traditional Left and Right, but this time it ceased to function and concluded with the breakthrough of Macron, who triumphed over the socialists and the radical right of Le Pen (Kuhn 2017 368).
The result saw Emmanuel Macron win a divisive victory over Len Pen by winning the election by 66-33% and became the country’s youngest president ever. It was reported that by defeating the revamped National Front agenda, populist nationalism was defeated (2017).
The Comparison Analysis
Due to the global nature of liberalism, it is unsurprising that both countries are facing the same threat of erosion of national sovereignty and democratic legitimacy, regardless of their political system. However, the outcome of the US/French Presidential elections is an indicator of which civilization is willing to accept the belief that populism is authoritarian and ironically be willing to live under a form unofficial technocratic governance.
As mentioned above, American idealism was the antithesis of the worldview of ancient Europe and therefore it is unsurprising that populism have managed to become widespread and saw the election of an outsider to the Presidency. However, the fact that liberalism held bi-partisan support by the representative officials of the American government, the US had become seduced by globalism and thus its representative political class had turned towards platonic thought and therefore transformed American democracy into an aristocracy. However, with the American people by choosing to support the Trump agenda, which represented a return to the worldview of the Founding Fathers by advocating economic nationalism, isolationism and the national republican system of government, they had instinctively remembered their founding principles and therefore decided to elect Donald Trump to the Presidency. I argue that by embracing populism, they were essentially restoring American exceptionalism.
In contrast with the American experience, it would appear that the French people are more comfortable in living under a system of democratic elitism. By rejecting the superficial populist-nationalism of Le Pen, the French people have decided that they may be content in living under an end of history. This entails support for the notion that populist-nationalism equates creeping authoritarianism and the liberal idealism that is shared by the majority of their elected officials is the correct action to take. The reason of this decision could be found in the fact that France is of the Old World and thus possesses the natural affinity for a centralized government. This statement is supported by their political history of living under royalty, possessing a tendency to gravitate towards collectivist ideologies such as Jacobinism and socialism, Emperors and the creation of Vichy France. Furthermore, even under Gaullist republicanism, the Fifth Republic possess a centralized government and an extremely strong executive branch. Although this may appear unfair, I submit that the 2017 Presidential Election results has confirmed this perception. By electing Macron, a creature of the establishment and thus a founder of a pseudo-populist movement, the democratic model of France is no longer about upholding the Athenian ideal of participatory action. For instance, since coming to power, Macron has spoke of himself as a ‘Sun King’ and holds direct correspondence with the transnational European Union, thus further ingraining the totalitarian brand of democracy into French politics.
The pattern that emerges from comparing the Franco-American case study has been that democracy is not a static concept, the geopolitics force of international liberalism has dictated the course of action that elected officials will take. By this happening, both countries have experienced the same phenomena of having their elected political class dictate the course of the nation. However, the reaction of both countries has been radically different, with the US citizenry embracing populism and the French equating it with another rise of authoritarianism and thus rejecting it. This indicates that, although both systems allow populism to emerge, it is dependent on the culture on whether it will flourish. It is the American system that allows populism to be accepted and therefore the true democratic will of the people to be reflected in their politics. This is a reminder that there is a limit to platonic thought and the inevitable pushback of Aristotelian democracy will eventually occur. I would argue that it was the formation of totalitarian democracy worked to remind the American people of that they possess the power to vote and therefore can change the destiny of their nation.
However, due to France being plagued with the memory of living under its own brand of fascism, has become willing to participate in the ritual of democracy and have become content in living under a technocratic government.
The true crisis is not that populism is rising in support, but it is the pretense of allowing it to occur, but then demonize it as authoritarian and thus allow further erosion of true democracy under the pretense of uphold its principles.
In conclusion, it appears that the crisis of democracy thesis is an inaccurate position to uphold as it is an inversion of reality. By examining the multi-dimensional concept of democracy, I have come to understand that although there are many variants, the two dominate versions that have emerged are the representative and populist variety. However, the true crisis that has been manifested in modern international affairs is when representative democracy comes to dominate the system of government. As seen in the Franco-American case study, depending on the culture of a society, it is possible for populism to be a factor in deciding the destiny of the nation. However, the true crisis emerges when the political class interpret populism, not as a reflection of the will of the people, but as a form of creeping authoritarianism that it ironically turning into a totalitarian form of democracy.
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