The Populist Cry of Pain: a Talk by Professor John McCormick

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John Cabot University welcomed John McCormick, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, as a guest speaker in the JCU Rome Political Theory Colloquium. The talk, Democracy, Plutocracy, and the Populist Cry of Pain, was co-sponsored by the Department of History and Humanities, and the Department of Political Science and International Affairs.

Professor John McCormick

Professor John McCormick

Populism rises when a democracy succumbs to plutocracy, which is a society ruled by the wealthy elite. Both populism and plutocracy are endemic to electoral democracy but they are not peculiar to this era. Both in Europe and America, people tend to find populism appealing because centrist politicians pursue broadly neoliberal agendas such as cutting pensions and relaxing financial regulations.

Inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli, Professor McCormick identified three components of an extra-electoral model of popular government. This ‘Machiavellian Democracy’ requires the exclusion of the wealthiest citizens from certain public offices or assemblies, the combined use of lottery and election as appointment procedures for high office, and finally political trials in which all, or a large part of, citizens act as judges over the prosecution of political crimes such as corruption.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that socialism was modern society’s ‘cry of pain.’ For Professor McCormick, populism is to modern representative democracy what socialism was to modern society. In representative governments, democratic majorities do not rule, they simply decide which elite rules over them for a limited time. Populism is not, however, an unmitigated good, as it tends to reproduce many deficiencies of representative or electoral democracies, that is, it empowers others, such as a charismatic populist leader to act on behalf of the people.

However, populism should not be entirely dismissed, since only the pressure of a populist movement can force elites to behave more responsively and bring about truly democratic institutions. What kind of populism should democrats embrace?

Populism is not an end in itself but it could serve democratic ends when it sets as an eventual goal the establishment of procedures and practices through which the people better and more directly rule themselves. A democracy in which people rule themselves is preferable to populism, paradoxically, the proper end goal of populist movements that are not themselves democratic (since they are controlled by a party or other elite).

Modern electoral or representative democracies are less democratic than ancient Greek democracies because they substitute representation for direct rule, election for lottery and professional judges for citizens who are political amateurs. Modern democracies have more demos but less kratos than their ancient counterparts, because although they include a larger proportion of citizens, those citizens are far less politically empowered. According to Niccolò Machiavelli, when the people are empowered to decide, they judge more responsibly and correctly than the elites.

Professor McCormick concluded the talk by saying that in a plutocratic age an institutional reform of electoral democracy does not seem possible without a populist movement mobilized behind the effort. Machiavelli, who advocated for popular government, thought that citizens sell cheaply their commitments to liberty and equality when they fail to defend such principles by recurring to the ultimate punishment (namely, the capital kind).