The future of democracy is triggering angst among political scientists and observers. As more right-wing populist parties are voted into office the world over, their anxiety continues to increase. Some think that this phenomenon is a corrective, a mere fork in the road, towards the realisation of a better-honed democracy. Others see at the end of this tunnel, a bigger tunnel.

In his paper—Democracy Devouring Itself: The Emancipation of the Incompetent Citizen and the Siren Call of Right Wing Populism, presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Libson, Portugal, July 15, 2019—Shawn W. Rosenberg, professor of political science and psychological science, University of California, Irvine, USA—argues why there is no future for democracy. He thinks it will ultimately most probably be replaced by right-wing populism.

Since his graduate days, Rosenberg has been interested in the interplay between who we are as individuals and how our life is structured. It led him back and forth between studying psychology at Harvard and political sociology at Oxford. He has continued to pursue this interdisciplinary approach throughout his career.

Recently he turned to the study of the rise of right-wing populism. In a detailed conversation, Rosenberg explains the structure of our thinking and its relationship with liberal democracy.


How does democracy devour itself?

Right-wing populism is on the rise in Europe and the US. It is unclear why this is the case or what its consequences will be. I analyse the basic nature of right-wing populism and the challenge it poses to liberal democracy. Introducing psychological and political considerations, I argue that liberal democracy, as it becomes more truly democratic, tends to undermine itself. To begin, I argue that liberal democracy is difficult.  It demands a great deal, both cognitively and emotionally, from its citizens. They are asked to recognise that social problems are complex, to view governance as a collaborative exercise requiring negotiation and compromise and to respect people who advocate views that may be very different than their own.

At the same time, they are asked to identify with a nation defined by abstract guiding principles and whose members are defined only by their legal citizenship. I argue that citizens are generally unable to meet these demands. Their thinking is concrete rather than abstract, piecemeal rather than integrative, and emotionally driven and biased rather than reflective and rational. They therefore find the core message of liberal democracy confusing, its values difficult to embrace and its practices difficult to perform. Compelled to live in a world defined in terms they cannot understand, they tend to feel anxious, alienated and, in the end, resentful of the elites who impose this vision on them. 

In contrast, populism offers a simpler, more concrete and congenial view.  Social and political problems have readily identifiable causes and straightforward solutions. Governance involves the authoritative exercise of power to act, by whatever means necessary, to solve these problems, to protect against threats and to achieve national goals. The nation is a people who share a land, a history and a culture. Its members are identified by the particular beliefs and values they all hold and the typical behaviours in which they all engage.

Because they are similar to one another, they naturally have a common, popular will. People who have different beliefs and values and therefore do not share in this common will cannot belong to the nation. They are regarded as wrong, immoral and potentially dangerous. This is a politics that people can readily understand, embrace and execute.  It offers clear direction and a sense of belonging in an otherwise confusing and alienating world. Consequently, liberal democracy is always fragile and right-wing populism always presents an alluring alternative.

The question then is: given democracy’s presumed fragility, why has democratic governance persisted for so long? To answer, I discuss two sets of factors. The first are social structural, forces identified by theorists of modernity such as capitalism, technological innovation and globalisation. They have worked together to undermine the influence of traditional authorities and practices in favour of whoever can offer what works or sells better in a world of ever more alternatives and accelerating change. In the process, people have been increasingly liberated to show initiative and make choices in a way that reinforces liberal democratic notions of the citizen as an independent, self-directing actor.

The second set of factors is political. Key here is the exercise of power by a democratically inclined, essentially oligarchic elite. They have acted to support existing democratic practices and to marginalise any challenges to the current system. They do so partly because they believe in liberal democracy as a fallible way of governing, but preferable to the alternatives. They also support liberal democracy because they are clear beneficiaries of the system as it is currently organised.

This leads to the final question. Given the support it is afforded and its ability to sustain itself for so long, why is democracy now vulnerable, perhaps fatally, to the populist challenge? To answer, I focus on the deepening of democracy and the commensurate decline in the power of supportive oligarchies. I argue that, as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, the structural weakness of democratic governance, its citizens, becomes more clearly exposed and consequential. They are freely choosing to reject the authoritative, but ill-understood cultural and political dictates of liberal democracy in favour of the no longer marginalised and more congenial understandings and values offered by right-wing populist alternatives. Hence the concern that democracy is likely to devour itself.


Could you talk about economic dissatisfaction and cultural anxiety contributing to this problem?

They are clearly important as triggers that enhance the attractiveness of right-wing populism. Both create a certain fear and uncertainty. But I would regard them as, in some sense, epi-phenomenal. More fundamental is the underlying reality of the fragility of democracy.

Given that people are prone to be confused, or alienated by the conditions of liberal democratic politics, if they are then confronted with specific issues like economic recession or immigration, this is likely to lead to a spike in populism. But what is more important to me is the general underlying trend with regard to the relationship between the deepening of democracy and the broader problem it creates in terms of citizen confusion and alienation.


You said populism demands less of people. Is it just that it appeals because it takes away the burden of (my) thinking? (Your point that ways of thinking—concrete and systems—is it basic cause of this.)

Populism is attractive because it offers an understanding of the world, structured in a particular way. Consider the way people think. It offers a definition of the world in which there is a kind of objective, authoritatively provided definition of right and wrong, true and false and it provides an understanding of the social world in terms of categories of homogenous peoples, government as hierarchical, and problems as having identifiable causes that can be readily addressed. All of this is consistent with the way in which people naturally think about the world. Therefore, the vision is comprehensible and attractive in their subjective terms. It’s not so much it takes away the burden of thinking; rather, it casts what you must think about in terms of what you can readily appreciate and understand.

 However, democracy continues to survive. As I see it, largely because it’s undemocratic. In fact, what has happened is we have an oligarchic elite—cultural, education, political, and economic—who for a variety of reasons have chosen to ensure that democracy survives. 

Are right-wing and populist terms that are interchangeable?

The terms are not interchangeable. They are forms of right-wing politics that are populist. Conservative politics are not populist in the sense that they typically tend to accept the liberal framework. They accept the value of basic institutions. Also unlike populists who are reform-minded and happy to wield the power of government, conservatives are sceptical of large scale reform and of the empowerment of any leadership... Also, of course, there is left wing populism.  I am not focusing on this but it is a form of populism also.


Democracy is the best means, however imperfect, of providing unity. You talk about structural weakness in terms of people not able to think and do things as democracy requires. Why and how did things come to such a pass as now?

There are two things going on: one, large-scale social-structural forces that are changing the way in which we live. These include capitalism, technological innovation, globalisation and migration. All of these undermine traditional structures. In doing so, they are kind of emancipating us, as individuals, telling us that we have capacity to self-direct. We can and should come to our own understanding of our situations, make our own choices. The problem is that the demand placed upon us is simply too great. We are largely unable to sit back and reflect on who we are as individuals, or to forge an integrative understanding of the circumstances in which we live, let alone begin to reflect on the nature of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, and come to our own perspective on these things. Consequently, the forces of modernity that I identified are creating a world of such ambiguity and uncertainty that most people find it difficult to understand. As a result they feel confused, and alienated. In the end they become resentful of the elites—cultural and political—who are imposing this vision of the world on them.

However, democracy continues to survive. As I see it, largely because it’s undemocratic. In fact, what has happened is we have an oligarchic elite—cultural, education, political, and economic—who for a variety of reasons have chosen to ensure that democracy survives. They prevent leaders who have illiberal visions from winning political office, or entering government, they control mass media messages to marginalise illiberal and antidemocratic points of view. They exercise power to sustain democracy in the face of the limited capacities and consequent alienation of its citizenry.


What paves the way for alienation? Marx said the product of our creative work gets separated and becomes separate from us and is alienated. So, in a democracy, what happens?

The way in which people get alienated is not so much as Marxists suggest. Alienation is broader and more subjective. The real problem is they are forced into a world that they don’t understand and they are asked to assume responsibilities that they know they cannot really execute. That’s confusing, frightening and, ultimately, alienating.

In response, they try to run for cover. Either they withdraw from politics and worry about their job and their family; or, they seek solace, direction and certainty in religion; or, alternatively, various kinds of populist political programmes and ideologies.


“Right-wing populism is comprised of loosely connected political attitudes that can be divided into three clusters: populism, nativism and authoritarianism...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.” Is collapse of the elite such a bad thing?

Well, that’s a little bit complicated. You could argue that, given people can’t really fend for themselves they look for direction or guidance from others. More authoritarian, right-wing government offers exactly what they desire. This is a part of the reason that, when given the opportunity to choose, people reject liberal democracy and opt for right-wing populist parties.

For example, in Hungary, under Victor Orban, Hungarians have enjoyed a fair amount of prosperity and social protection, part of the reason for his popularity. But the problem emerges when Orban is gone. It’s the classic problem of any authoritarian government. It readily falls into the hands of people who are not competent. As a consequence, people have no protection against the government, whereas democracy, with its rule of law, its independent judiciary, minority rights—liberal democracy—provides those protections.


Just as capitalism (government) adopted the welfare state—as a way to blunt the Left and also make it more palatable to people without appearing cut-throat—is it not a fact that democratic rulers adopted the rituals of democracy—elections,  referendums and so on in order to be in power? So what’s wrong with democracy devouring itself?

The problem is precisely that, adopting the rituals of democracy, while jettisoning their real meaning and purpose. Right-wing populists claim they are democratic. They are democratic in two senses: they reflect the will of people, the central claim; they achieve power through elections and referendums that allow for the majority of the people to express their will, and therefore, they are legitimately democratic.

The problem, of course, is that democratic participation in such regimes is extremely limited. The notion is you get to vote and decide whether we are in office or not. Once you vote, however, you, the people, are out of the game. The leadership must be able to act without interference. Any such interference is an obstruction to the realisation of the will of the people and therefore illegitimate, and ultimately, to be made illegal. This may include a constraining judiciary or an oppositional press.

With regard to the tools—referendums and elections, these get distorted in ways that  undermine the democratic nature. For example, if you limit a free press, that means those who are voting are not exposed to the full set of information and opinions that  may be relevant to an election or issue,.

Additionally, these elections tend to be unfair, because governments also are willing to manipulate the outcome. For example, in Hungary again, the government changed the electoral rules to benefit them, as the plurality party. They got more seats in the parliament than their proportion of the popular vote dictated. In the name of securing the power of the people and the realisation of their will, the rituals of democracy are eviscerated by the way in which a right-wing populist government defines and uses them.


How does nativism feed into undermining democracy?

It undermines because it essentially marginalises anyone who is not a native. Classic rights only apply to those born in the country. And democracy, particularly liberal democracy, is constituted in a different way. The notion is we are defined as individuals not by our particular culture, where we came from, or race. Rather, we are defined as individuals in so far as we have the capacity to think, reflect and cooperatively engage with others. And, in so far as we are able to do that, we are deserving of respect and rights as individuals.

In democratic politics, this gets institutionalised as law that defines rights in a way that apply to all people, regardless of who are citizens, regardless of cultural and racial background. Citizenship is defined legally and rather abstractly, with regards to basic capacities and not with regards to background.

The nativism of the right wing populist tends to be simplistic and homogenising. We, as a people, are largely the same. This leads to the erasing of differences among “natives”. Without differences, there is no need for democratic debate and the protection of individuals or minorities.

“Outsiders”, because they are different, cannot be regarded as native, as part of the bona fide people.


“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.” How is it possible for a leader to embody aspirations of such a mass of people?

This is possible because the leader claims to embody and uphold the will of the people. He accomplishes this partly by drawing on culturally common ideas of what most people think they are or what they believe in and want. This then is defined as the national cultural or national religion.  [Narendra] Modi uses Hinduism in this way.

Two moves being made here. One is this notion that we—the people—have a popular will; we are homogenous. And we want the same things. Kind of what we want is self-evident in a peculiar way. The leader knows it, expresses it; therefore, legitimises himself. He casts himself as the reflection of popular will. This gets accomplished partly, as I said, by selectively drawing on what most people believe. However, even in a relatively homogenous population, there are many significant differences. The way you obscure this reality is to speak about that popular will in very general terms.

Classic example is Trump. He doesn’t really articulate a programme; rather, he just stipulates that he is going to make America great again. He is going to make America stronger, he is going to get better deals for America. All of this is sufficiently vague that virtually any American can agree. What’s possibly wrong in making your country great? Or, getting better deals for your country, or protecting your country.

 The nativism of the right wing populist tends to be simplistic and homogenising. We, as a people, are largely the same. This leads to the erasing of differences among “natives”. Without differences, there is no need for democratic debate and the protection of individuals or minorities.


You mention psychological research and sociological research. Your approach—structural pragmatic perspective—what are its basic tenets and how do they inform day-to-day workings of politics?

My perspective essentially says everyday social and political life is defined in two overlapping and often partially incompatible ways. On the one hand, as sociologists suggest, we are the product of our cultural environments. We are exposed to cultural narratives. We engage in socially-structured actions. These constitute who we are and shape the ways in which we think. People who are exposed to different cultural definitions and social-structured patterns of interaction—come to be defined very differently and come to think in different ways.

On the other hand, psychology suggests people are not simply products of the influences to which they’re exposed. Rather, they have a way of thinking that has an inherent structure, biogenetically determined. This structured way of thinking mediates how people comprehend and assimilate the social influences and experiences to which they are exposed. We, as individuals, actively make sense of cultural messages and our social experiences in our own terms. In so doing, we distort them in the direction that makes sense to us, and we then believe and act accordingly.

An example of that could be schooling. It tries to present a way of talking, of considering issues intended to change the quality of how we think about things. At the same, how we think about things impacts what we do and say to one another and that may affect institutions.

An example of distortion is if you ask Americans, do they accept the principle of freedom of speech, 98  per cent or 100 per cent will say yes. But then, if you give them specific examples of different kinds of speech by people with beliefs different from their own, they are happy to deny them free speech.  Why allow free speech to people who are wrong?

So, atheists teaching in your schools? No. Should they have the right to give speeches in public spaces? No. These are very common responses, indicating that although the democratic narrative of free speech is accepted, it is misunderstood, and therefore, misapplied by the citizenry.


Its structural logic—cultural and institutional—keeps democracy working. “Power, defined as the capacity to compel the action of another individual, is always regarded as potentially problematic.” What are the other definitions of power? While, in democracy, exercising power is an inherent violation, it’s more of an abuse. Despite checks, this happens. Is it also the reason for democracy devouring itself?

Power, in a democratic context, is regarded with some suspicion. It’s too easily exercised at the expense of the relatively powerless. Consequently, liberal democratic institutions are constructed in ways intended to limit the power both of individuals and, more importantly, of government. That’s why you have the Bills of Rights. They limit what a government can do to us.

That’s why you have an independent judiciary. Its responsibility is to make sure that policies are made and executed in ways that do not interfere with peoples’ rights. Power is and should be constrained. In right-wing populist terms, this is nonsense.

Who is it you are constraining? The government, and, by implication, the people themselves. The government is the reflection of the people, it was chosen by them to act on their behalf. So why would you possibly want to constrain them? Here power is a very good thing, something to be nurtured and exercised.


Could you talk about how the public sphere in democracy changed historically?

Deliberative democratic conversation—a public sphere in which people reflect on their positions, listen to other people and reasons they offer, attempt to take the perspective of others and understand their claims in their terms, to criticise by offering reasons that speak to their reasons.  This is the ideal of communication in a liberal democratic public sphere. But how real is it? In my view, this kind of communicative exchange happens very rarely.

I have done research looking at deliberation in what might be considered the most conducive to good communicative exchange. It involved upper middle class parents talking about improving the schooling of their children.  These people were educated, empowered and very interested in the issue they were addressing. I recorded, transcribed and analysed their deliberations. In the seven hours of discussion I analysed for each deliberative group, a total of 17 minutes approximated the level of deliberative democratic exchange that liberal democracy requires.

So, I don’t think it happens very much. When it does it requires people with considerable cognitive capacities. They must be able to think integratively so that they can understand that they have a subjective point of view that is not only a matter of the particular preferences they hold, but is reflected in the general ways they think about and evaluate whatever they are considering.

This integrative way of thinking also leads to an understanding that others have different points of view which are products of their different ways of make sense of and interpreting things. Thus recognising the coherence and distinctiveness of both their own point of view and that of others, people can begin to think about how to bridge their differences. This is a very demanding cognitive task, one which most people cannot fulfil. When they do try, they find their effort obstructed by others who do not share their appreciation of the complexities of communicating fully. Most conversational settings are structured in such a way that talking in this elaborated way is regarded as inappropriate. Twitter, Instagram or orchestrated presidential debates hardly provide a more conducive venue.


Is it not too much to ask of individuals? Is it that all are endowed with them but not exercising them? Anyway, the elites took up the burden of thinking what’s good for common folk and perpetuated themselves, and the latter can see through it. Is that what is happening?

There are two answers to this: if one adopts the perspective of cognitive and social psychology, the answer is straight forward. We are asking too much of individuals. In this theory, all individuals cannot begin to meet the idealistic expectations of the liberal democratic order. Therefore, they will always need to be directed and herded by some sort of liberal-minded oligarchy. That’s one theory. That’s not my theory.

I come from a developmental psychological tradition that originates with the work of Jean Piaget (a Swiss psychologist who did seminal work on child cognitive development) and Lev Vygotsky (a Russian psychologist who did work on culture and child learning). In this view, we are born with certain potentialities. With time, these develop. This development progresses more or less depending on kind of environments to which we are exposed, and the kind of supports we’re given. Some environments are inherently complex and challenging. They demand more from us to successfully navigate everyday social life. They promote development.

Other environments are more simple. Small village environments where we interact with like-minded others in a geographical space we all share and know constitutes a less cognitively challenging environment than a culturally diverse urban environment in which we interact with strangers and often have to consider people who we have never met and have experiences very different than our own. This simple less demanding village environment is less likely to promote cognitive development.

Also very important is the emotional support that the social context provides. Very demanding environments, at least initially, are likely to lead to lots of mistakes on the part of the people attempting to adapt to them. If these mistakes are too costly, there is a major problem. People will attempt to withdraw from the circumstances being imposed. However, if there is sufficient emotional and social support, mistakes are rendered less costly. Indeed they may be regarded as something to be expected and new efforts are to be encouraged. This also facilitates development.

I believe that there is this developmental potential. Therefore, even if citizens don’t have the requisite capacities now, they might have in future…. if, and this is most important, the conditions facilitating that development are well established. The caveat is that liberal democracy, at this stage of its development, is quite likely to collapse into some kind of populist, authoritarian alternative because people don’t now have these capacities.

Now, the question is, can the liberal democracies, before it’s too late, marshal the requisite will and resources to transform citizenry in the direction that democratic governance requires? To do so, liberal democracies must first recognise that their educational institutions and practices have largely failed to produce the citizens they require. All this suggests the need for radically new policy. Similarly, citizen participation has to be rethought in fundamental ways, to facilitate adult development required.  But can liberal democratic governments muster the awareness, the will and the resources to make the changes required?


What are the effects of collapsed (collapsing) elites?

 Basically, they are no longer able to control the message. Social media have dramatically opened up and levelled the public sphere. Whether you are a farmer or professor, a scientist or hobbyist, you  can occupy the public stage and broadcast your views. With the collapse of authority, the view you are broadcasting is not necessarily more compelling just because you’re a Harvard or JNU academic who claims a certain expertise on a social issue or on climate change. Yours is just one opinion among many others, not necessarily more valuable, certainly no less questionable. In this world, people are choosing messages that are congenial, that feel good, that make immediate sense.

Not only have the elites lost control of the message, they have also lost the control of the corridors of power. In the established democracies, they used to be able to exclude people who advocated illiberal views. A classic example in the U.S. is the Nazi sympathiser Henry Ford in the 20s. Despite Ford’s enormous popularity, the elites were able to force Ford to give up his effort to win the presidency. 

As a result of collapse of elite power, right-wing populists have entered parliament and presidencies, have begun dismantling liberal institutions in such  a way that their message is embraced by the people.


“I suggest that a key weakness of democratic governance is it lacks the citizenry it requires.” Doesn’t this sound paternalistic?

Well, in some sense, of course. But it is a paternalism that it is not diminishing. It does not suggest that people necessarily need a caretaker. My view is a more pedagogical one, anchored in deep respect for the people for who I am talking about. As a professor when dealing with students, I believe their ability to think about things is limited. My job is not to attempt to control them by inculcating the information and preferences I hold. That would be diminishing of them.  Rather I view my job to be one of helping them to think better so that they can better construct their own views and preferences. In that sense, my job is to facilitate their independence. Do I regard them thinking less well than they should? Yes. Is this disrespectful? No.

It is important to recognise the limits of those with whom we deal, and at the same time, to recognise their potential.


Not only have the elites lost control of the message, they have also lost the control of the corridors of power. In the established democracies, they used to be able to exclude people who advocated illiberal views. A classic example in the U.S. is the Nazi sympathiser Henry Ford in the 20s. Despite Ford’s enormous popularity, the elites were able to force Ford to give up his effort to win the presidency. 

Could you talk about voting or electing leaders against peoples’ own self-interest? (Both in the US and India, we have this thing.)

It’s a complicated issue. Who gets to decide (who) what their interests are? Some would argue that those interests are evident in their choices. So, there is no possible inconsistency there. Others would argue people have a range of interests. Some will be served by how people vote but the others will not.

Finally, people are not thinking in an integrative systematic way. As a result, they don’t bring their whole set of concerns to bear when considering a choice. Arguably, this is what they should be doing. The entire political science and psychology literature suggests that this is not what they’re doing. It’s maddening only because we expect more from people. The problem here may be the expectations that are unduly inflated and therefore necessarily frustrated.


In your analysis of the structure of cognition, as in your 2002 paper on identity we see three qualitatively different ways—sequential, linear and systematic—in which people think about themselves, the nation and their relationship to it. Could you explain this?

Essentially, I am arguing that there is an underlying structure to how people think. As a result a given person will think about different things in the same manner. They may know more or less about various topics, but the logic whereby they address those topics will remain the same. I also argue that different people may think in very different ways. In my research, I have identified and explored three different ways of thinking: systematic, linear and sequential. 

The most advanced are those who think systematically. Typically (but not always) these are people who have advanced education and great opportunities to creatively control their work lives. Systematic thinking is integrative, reflective and abstract. It is able to meet the demands of liberal democratic politics. 

Those who think in a linear fashion, think more concretely, in terms of simple linearity and causality. Events are understood to have a particular cause and to lead in a particular direction—it’s all simple and identifiable. Linear thinkers also tend to think categorically. They find the message of liberal democracy difficult and ultimately incomprehensible. However, they find the message of right-wing populism to make absolute sense because it’s structured in their terms.

Sequential thinkers, the least sophisticated thinkers, constitute perhaps 20 per cent of the American public, perhaps more of the Indian public. This is a guess. Dealing with small numbers of people, I have speculated that sequential thinking is somewhat imperfectly associated with illiteracy and very limited economic opportunity. I say, partially, because there are enormous exceptions. Thinking here involves observing and remembering the routines in everyday life, what to do or say when and where. The focus is on what is immediate and present.

In these terms, politics is largely remote and irrelevant. They have no natural interest in it and so tend not be in political life unless they’re actively herded by people who people who are thinking in a systematic fashion.


Is it not counterintuitive that there is an ongoing attraction of right-wing authoritarianism rather than for democracy, which is supposed to foster better life for people? What gives?

Yes, if you believe in liberal democracy. But right-wing authoritarianism may also provide a better life for people. It certainly offers the clear direction, identity and belonging they crave, much in the same way that monotheistic religions do. Also right-wing populist governments can focus on social welfare in the way that liberal governments may not. This is certainly the case in Poland and Hungary.


You talk about broader structural forces such as capitalism and elites as dampeners to full-blown RWP. But these are entrenched, self-preserving structures. We can also say that these structures themselves (and people in them) have prompted aversion among people to the so-called democratic set-up.

The message of capitalism and tech innovation is that we live in a world of endless change and thus uncertainty.  It is a world that requires initiative, creativity and self-direction. This is a world that is difficult to comprehend and tough to navigate. Given how they think, in what I call a linear fashion, people prefer a world that is certain, where direction is clear and change slow. To this I would add globalisation because it operates to expand the sense of alternatives and possibilities. The world (or the vision of the world) these forces engender is difficult for people to deal with. They would prefer to reject it. Right-wing populism offers a vehicle for such a rejection. It suggests that world is a certain place. You need a direction, it will be given to you. Change will be change that is controlled and therefore you don’t have to worry. Globalisation and alternatives it represents is a bad thing. It undermines our national culture.

The structuring forces of capitalism, technological innovation and globalisation reinforce the conception of people and social practices that is consistent with liberal democracy. They help define us as free and equal individuals who are independent, can make our own choices, etc. However, it is just these definitions and others related to them that are the problem. They are too difficult for people to understand and too alien for them to embrace. So when empowered to truly choose on their own people will choose to reject these definitions and attempt to escape from the socially structured and politically institutionalised conditions associated with them.

It’s no accident that most diverse, most capitalist and arguably the most free society, the United states is also the most religious with church-going hovering around 80 per cent. In my view, this is a clear example of how people respond to the social and political conditions of modernity.


What makes you believe democracy cannot co-opt or absorb something of the things RWP facilitates and yet remain democratic?

In a limited way, democracy can. Many of my colleagues in political science suggest that the current surge in right-wing populism is a mere bump in the road of democratic progress, a corrective to some of the wrong turns taken in many of today’s liberal democracies. They argue that liberal democracy can respond by addressing the specific issues that have emerged in the last decade or two such as the economic insecurity produced by the recession by improving the economy, reducing inequality. Similarly, to the cultural anxieties provoked by immigration they can respond by restricting immigration. In this way, the problem can be solved.

I think this is incorrect. Yes, the current surge can be attenuated somewhat by moves such as these, but the fundamental problem remains. Liberal democracy demands understandings, values and practices that its citizens cannot understand, embrace and execute. Consequently they will be confused, dissatisfied and alienated. That is why right wing populism has always been lurking in the shadow of liberal democracy.