Wednesday, 29 June, 2022
HomeWorldDemocracy devouring itself, people too stupid to sustain it — academic paper...

Democracy devouring itself, people too stupid to sustain it — academic paper creates furore

UC Irvine professor Shawn Rosenberg’s paper explains the rise of Right-wing populists the world over by saying it’s part of the process of democracy failing.

Text Size:

New Delhi: A new research paper by political psychologist Shawn Rosenberg predicts that democracy will eventually devour itself, burdened by its own structural constraints.

“In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail,” contends Rosenberg, making some controversial arguments and questioning some long-standing assumptions in democratic theory.

Since the paper was made public, several democratic theorists and political scientists have objected to his gloomy prediction. However, Rosenberg commands respect as one of the biggest names in political psychology, given his degrees from Oxford and Harvard, and his current position as professor at University of California, Irvine.

He rose to fame in the 1980s, when he came up with a highly depressing finding that several American citizens vote based on the looks of the candidates.

Also read: Impeaching President Trump could be perilous for US democracy

People are too stupid for democracy

There is a long held belief among politicians, citizens and even political scientists that regardless of all their fallacies, people as a whole are capable of successfully participating in a democracy. Rosenberg questions that assumption.

In essence, he argues that democracy requires hard work, and citizens are not capable of performing those complex functions. In such a scenario, democracy had thrived because of certain structural factors and elite control over institutions. These elites made it possible for the public to navigate through complex democratic functions and helped sustain a mass-based support for democracy.

Now, with the rapid delegitimisation of the elite, the world is increasingly seeing the rise of Right-wing populists, who provide “simple solutions to complex problems”.

Rosenberg contends that there is sufficient literature to prove that humans are “inherently fast (as opposed to slow and considered) and sub-rational thinkers who are heuristic, schema and emotionally driven processors of information”. As a consequence, he says “the majority of Americans are unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner required”.

His argument is that participating in a democracy requires a lot of hard work, which goes much beyond the simple act of voting. But the issue is that most democratic processes — such as understanding institutional procedures, comprehending complicated policy decisions and recognising the space for opposing voices — are too complex for the average citizen.

Also read: Amit Shah raises questions about India’s multi-party democracy

How was democracy sustained for so long?

Given that citizens don’t possess the “cognitive capabilities” to meaningfully participate in a democracy, the question arises that how have democracies thrived for so long? Rosenberg argues that structural forces and elite control have been responsible for democracy’s continued success.

According to him, “economic, global and technological forces” have worked in a way so as to structure all the interpersonal relationships in a society that force individuals to act as rational and self-driven. These forces “reinforce the conception of reality and modes of practice that democracy imposes on its citizenry”.

Thus, while citizens might lack the cognitive capacity to understand complex democratic ideas, these structural forces end up making them abide to those ideas nevertheless.

In terms of elites, they not only participate in democratic institutions, but also use their power to make the mass of people participate in it, he argues.

“This includes providing authoritative interpretations of democratic institutions and culture that translate this more complex entities and abstract orientations into simpler, more concrete terms,” writes Rosenberg.

Elite power has various facets, according to Rosenberg. Elites use institutions to manage citizen interactions. They apply their cultural domination to make citizens echo the same pro-democracy ideas, even if it’s just slogans. And this power also allows them to delegitimise the fanatics and radicals.

The elite have also helped reduce the level of citizen participation in democracies, as voicing your opinion and voting is all that is required, and all complex modes of engagement are left to the elites.

Also read: Women voters in Indian democracy: A silent revolution

Rise of Right-wing populists

Over the past few years, the world has witnessed the election of one Right-wing populist leader after the other. And in cases such as Germany, France, and the UK, which have not elected Right-wing populists, there is growing support for such parties.

“[…] 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,” writes Rosenberg.

In this environment, where the elite control is declining and people are anyway incapable of comprehending complex functions of democracies, Right-wing populists have a special appeal. They provide “simpler, more readily understood organization of political life”.

These Right-wing populists often provide an “us versus them” rationale, where “us” are inherently right about everything. This, according to Rosenberg, is the anti-thesis of a well-functioning democracy, which allows space for opposing opinions to exist.

Also, as elites lose control and legitimacy, they also lose the ability to either sustain democracy through institutions or keep radicals and their conspiracy theories at bay.

Also read: From India to Israel, laws are chipping away at democracy around the world

‘Democratic governance…will eventually fail’

Rosenberg further contends that “the ever greater structural penetration of everyday life by the forces of capitalist markets, democratic politics and globalisation have made the complexities of social life and the necessity of individuals to rely on themselves when negotiating those complexities increasingly apparent”.

And given the average citizen’s lack of appropriate cognitive capabilities, “the people living in this freer, more equal, more culturally diverse world are left more confused, directionless, alone and insecure”.

Realising this problem, the Right-populists provide simpler and authoritative definition of the world, its problems and solutions to them.

In essence, the same structural factors that helped sustain democracy, regardless of limited human cognitive capability, are now undermining it.

Rosenberg concludes by saying that the emergence of Right-wing populism as a more credible alternative to democracy is likely to continue. He writes: “Democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”

Also read: Indira Gandhi to Modi — India’s secular democracy has been dying for a while now


Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. I haven’t read the original paper and may never read it. However, if this review is anything to go by, I get a feeling that the paper was written to prove a pre drawn conclusion. First of all, the belief that democracy remains democracy only if it toes a certain line (the contours of which are, well, totally subjective) is erroneous. The “of-for-by” test determines whether a specific government is democracy or not. By applying this test one can definitively say that Pakistan is NOT a democracy as the government is clearly not by the people. India, which passes the test on all three counts is very much a democracy. Democracy and all its variants have some or the other form of built in self correcting mechanism. If right wing populism becomes a menace, people will reject it during the next hustings. BTW, populism is not the sole preserve of the right wing. In fact, it’s the left wing that has taken populism to the status of a fine art (pun intended). Indeed the Left’s primary building block is populism.
    Based on the above review, I’d describe this paper (which I have not read – and likely will never read) as scare mongering, along side papers predicting climate driven impending doom.

  2. The words of an elite snob! The author and those like him live in a bubble. The U. S. Has survived because it was focused on the efforts, drive and morals of the every day worker who did not look to the politician for guidance. Post WWII nanny state policies have winnowed their way into the machinations of every day life exposing the failure inherent in government overreach. We don’t need pin heads like this author. We need LESS government and more individual responsibility.

  3. 85 year old father asked “what’s this Brexit mess? What’s wrong with the UK?” I replied: It is not about UK, but about democracy showing its ugly side.

  4. How about this counter-hypothesis: It’s not the people who are too stupid for democracy, but the elites who are distached from reality because they only talk to others in the bubble and don’t know anymore what is really important. It makes perfect sense and much more so than the opposite. If you assume incompetence, but it’s not possible to get rid of the elites by elections, you need other means to drive them out of their positions, hence “populist uprises”. Perhaps Mr Rosenberg should read “de re publica” by Cicero, in which this process has been sufficiently described some 2000 years ago. But perhaps and in difference to many “far-righters” in the “mob that destroys democracy” like myself, Mr Rosenberg simpy doesn’t speak Latin. Perhaps that’s the underlying problem and with that the lack of understanding the past and therefore constants in the human condition.

  5. I tend to agree with this finding. People are inherently biased and prejudiced. How else will you explain the Modi and Trump phenomenon in such well-established democracies? These people are swaying public opinion and making people believe in obscurantism and abominable prejudices. How is it possible? My explanation as of this professor and Dr. Ambedkar, who was behind the Indian Constitution, is MAN IS VILE.

  6. I would trust the people infinitely more than the right wing populist leaders. They will get a fair shot at power. If they fail to deliver, people will see through them, vote them out. Unless, as in Russia, the process of free and fair elections breaks down. Then people will come out on to the streets.

  7. I partly,agree with his research.
    When the psyche of common people are corrupted,the democracy cant survive.
    Its upto our hard working leaders,how they take a country forwards.
    We need to pull our democracy out of superficial glitz and glamour of democracy created by corrupt media,influencing people to isolate themselves from eachother.

Comments are closed.

Most Popular