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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.”
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.