“Sovereign” people and charismatic leader. Populist-demagogic illusion and liberal democracy downfall

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Which are the operative dynamics trhough populism states inside democratic systems and which are the elements among of the liberal-constitutional  ones mainly involved into the deconstructive spiral ignited by them?


When it is talked about “strumentalization” of the masses, or the “manipulation” of consensus, they could be esily reduced to the totalitarian issue only (in fact these two charachters had a strong presence inside the national-socialist and the fascist path), because of its focusing on constitution of a systematic-power (mainly trhough psicological control), standing as a main difference than a simple “dictatorship”.

To pursue this way, indispensable instruments are needed, first of all a basical ideology, spread widely trouhghout propaganda; then a charismatic leader, who is in direct relationship with his people (intended like a unique and uniformed mass); finally the use of terrorism, threathenig all who would contrast the pre-imposed standards.

Even if the point is well-known, a sort of undisclosed manipulation forces are founded by C.Schmitt’s “Verfassungslehre” as a menacing every democratic government, so that invisibly they could operate under the appearence of democracy.[1]

The democracy presence (even a “constitutional” one), does not prevent completely the totalitarian spirits, although the existence of a democratic-based system (necessarly pluralistic) will cause that the same principles tracing back to the totalitarian issue are in this case persecuted by a vast crowd of competitors, ever in demagogic style.

It is also important to fix those principles in antithesis of liberal-democracy ones: they are the anti-plurality and the rejection of all political intemediary institutions (especially that assolved by parties), as long as considered  “costrictions” to the illimitate people’s power ideal; all this observed lead to affirm that every demagogic regime hide a inner totalitarian vocation.

Demagogy however is not firstly perceived as authocratic, even better it appears like a government “devoted” to the people (from the exaltation of its historical origins) and also boosted to catch all its aspirations, passions and natural impulses, to really make that governants will be (or, will seem) a “mirror” for the voters: a perspective not correctly identified with “direct democracy” (descending from the “Ecclesìa” in ancient Athen, whose traits are still present in some constitutional instruments, like referendum), but, even using this path to pick up most of its supports, it is better portraited by the “plebiscitarian” formula[2]. The successful element of demagogy in fact is a still-lasting link kept directly with people, this last not rightly conceived as a combination of free citizens, (maybe voters, or not), but as well it is reduced in a “mass”, born oganically and athomistically.

The “degenereted” form of democracy has been fairly depicted in Aristotle speculation on that theme, when he sanctions the “all-togheter indistinguished” exercise of power[3], in spite of the people one-by-one sovereignity, since then the demagogues will have a simplified way to success, by assuming their role equally to that of “flatterers” in front of the tyrannous (the entire formula provides demagogue for the people like flatterers for the tyrannous). There will be a  lonely, but crucial difference between the two situations consists, considering that, while into tyranny flatterers are constrained by the tyrannous himself, in demagogy people is not able to stand as a macro-entity itself , so this will cause the demagogues stop flattering and begin to dominate it[4].

Once transformed in a mass, there will be no place among the people for those who could “corrupt” the homogeneity of “plebs”, this due to a different heritage (that provokes the discriminative and racial discourse take place underneath every form of populism); or to a bigger amount of economic potentialities (from that derives the disparaging discourse against upper-classes, what now has been traduced in a general attack to everything come from “economics”[5] sphere); or finally it is due to a higher cultural background, put apart as the “wise-caste” (as long it has been notably the main victim of populism, called the  intelligencjia[6] caste, actually named as “techno-empowered” caste and by similars). All these subjects are the object of accusation, as well indicated “people’s enemies”, placed in large cathegory, called “élite” or “establishment” or also of “greater powers” , whom assignment itself is valid to judge them a “pivileged-corrupted-inactive” caste, far from the struggled, “real” population.

The logic-consequential reasonment under this last conception of social life is best designed by combination of “enemy-allied”, easy and well comprehended dinamyc put into practice by demagogue’s rethoric: he effectly introduces himself as a “friend” of real people, arriving from the mass and agreeing with its ideas; his message is clear, pronounced in a perfect communicative style (whose sense is so different than a “dialogic” one), needing to be direct and captivating; his focus appears (safe and just, at first) reduced to “make his duty” (upon a sort of “predestination”, otherwise lack of electoral consensus), and to translate the will of the people, not by representing it, but by “embodying” it, personally.[7]

He is not a simple governant, he is a leader, often leading a political group, often not a “party”, but pretending to be more neutral and dynamic, it is called differently (as a mouvement, a front, or a block), and adopted to get away from traditional schemes of parliamentary system (the “unnecessary red”, exposed to lobbistic contamination) and to transform it by the target of direct call to the people.

Now the very scaring side of this perversed involution of democracy occurs: the mistrust in institutions finds its result when people fall-back and rely on second-best methods to communicate their ideas. That wants to be more direct and radical than weakened party-based political association, and it strongly depends on the effective instruments that in practice they have at disposition.

If populisms of the past had in fact only the available of the “word’s power” (emblemathically , it began with Pericle’s famous eloquence and prosecuted in the russian populism propaganda and so the paternalistic campaigns in Latin America), populism of today flourish because they live in a plenty-supporting reality: technologies and mass-media offer all potientialities to make the clever (and obscure) demagogue’s project as like it has been prophetized by C. Schmitt: that of taking control upon opinions and interests of the entire community[8]. Interests and demands will not be strained by intermediary corps, nor elaborated as part of a greater public “Good”[9], they will be essentially divulged (by institutional and non-institutional channels) and more facily exsposed to the manipulation and alteration processes[10].

However, in practice it’s difficult to demonstrate all these featured dynamics, as in addition they are not well perceived as they really are by society, who is living more and more indulged (not understood), enclosed by her desires (considered as equal for everyone)[11], accustomed by the myth of “middle” man who seems to be its “extraordinary leader”[12].


[1] Cit.from C.Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, p. 324.

[2] About it, S.Carloni, La dialettica tra democrazia rappresentativa e democrazia plebiscitaria,(a partire da un saggio di Ernst Fraenkel), p. 5 ss, : «Quasi specularmente, anche la forma di democrazia che Fraenkel chiama “plebiscitaria” non si identifica sic et simpliciter con la “democrazia diretta”(o immediata) […]: sebbene infatti il sistema di governo plebiscitario si sia sviluppato “sulla base della adunanza di tutti i cittadini attivi”, i suoi sostenitori non contestano, sia pure “per ragioni di opportunità, l’esigenza di organi rappresentativi”[…], ma essi vedono  “in una decisione parlamentare solamente il surrogato rispetto a un plebiscito”»

[3] The consideration comes from the masterpiece of Aristotele, Politica. (italian version: Costituzione degli Ateniesi, Laterza, Bari 1972, 1292a, p. 200)

[4] L.Ferrajoli, Democrazia e populismo, p. 516

[5] “Populists of all the times have particularly exploited the theme of economic disadvantages felt by commoners (they are the farmers in America during the People’s Party experience), or in other contexts already outside the rural ideology of the russian historic populism, even living in any transitory disadvantaged situation without protections (this was the experienced case of masses greatly concentrated during the urbanisation of Latin America at the beginnig of ‘900, due to the mobilitation system put up by leaders through social pervasive policies) .Today this theme is ever complicated by  overcoming of economics matters out of national space: letting the politics to be completely subordinated to economy, a generalized criticism to each other responsabilities and lacks is born and is getting worse bacause of the populism.  This sort of situation lead as ever to sacrifice human rights (from the labour system, to social services and less of control on taxation) in front of the upsetting conclusion : “there are no other chances”.

[6] The word was born in Russia in XVIII century, it stood for denominate the “wise” caste of society. Its sense is partially changed at the last decades of XIX century, standing for the socio-political cathegory of progressist intellectuals, linked to the liberal ideas (built by Western tradition) and to the constitutional reformism. In this way they were potentially destroying for “common people” ideas (mainly for the populists ones). Even from this cathegory the militants intellectuals will be genereted lately, in the russian socialism era (source, Enc. Treccani online).

[7] About, A.D’atena, Tensioni e sfide della democrazia, p. 13 ss : «[..] Max Weber, quando metteva in luce la elementarietà espressiva della democrazia diretta, la quale, potendo contare su sole due parole –Ja oder Nein- non è in condizione di concorrere a decisioni complesse [..] . è vero che i parlamentari, quando sono chiamati ad esprimere il proprio voto, dispongono del medesimo, elementarissimo vocabolario. Essi tuttavia, attraverso la discussione e attraverso la proposta i emendamenti, possono concorrere alla costruzione del testo normativo». And later, about the importance of representative issue  for the preservation of the responsability/trust relationship occuring between elected and elector: «Non può inoltre non considerarsi che la responsabilità politica postula la distinzione tra chi “risponde” e chi fa valere la responsabilità. Essa quindi senza istanze rappresentative non esiste; perché solo tali istanze rendono possibile al corpo elettorale sanzionare, con lo spostamento dei consensi, le maggioranze politiche che non abbiano soddisfatto le attese ».

[8] From C. Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, cited, p. 322, another evocative scene is given : «Potrebbe immaginarsi che un giorno, per mezzo di ingegnose invenzioni, ogni singolo uomo, senza lasciare la sua abitazione, con un apparecchio possa continuamente esprimere le sue opinioni sulle questioni politiche e che tutte queste opinioni vengano automaticamente registrate da una centrale, dove occorra solo darne lettura ».

[9] This value has instead an instrinsecally relational significance, identified on the same existance of a people, based on co-existence That’s why it is essential for the State-system to maintain all purposes of sociality Looking at  pastoral constitution of the Vaticano II Council , Gaudium et spes, n.26, that gave a definition of public “Good”, as : «l’insieme di quelle condizioni della vita sociale che permettono ai gruppi, come ai singoli membri, di raggiungere la propria perfezione più pienamente e più speditamente»

[10] A.Spadaro, Su alcuni rischi, forse mortali... , p. 19 : «[…] dall’attuale, enorme incremento della portata e diffusione dei mezzi di comunicazione e informazione di massa, che possono indurre a “emotivismo” perché operano in tempo reale (internet, social networks, blogs, smartphones..). Essi hanno reso centrale, oggi più che mai, il ruolo della c.d. opinione pubblica. Purtroppo la possibilità che- anche nei regimi democratico-costituzionali- l’opinione pubblica sia manipolata è altissimo. Il populismo è la più pericolosa – perché strisciante, subdola e impercettibile-forma di corruzione/manipolazione del processo democratico. […] anche quando assume le forme più accattivanti di “democrazia dei sondaggi” o addirittura “telematica”.»; added , A.D’Atena, Tensioni e sfide della democrazia, p. 15 : «è infatti noto che, in virtù delle tracce che lasciamo in rete, il “profilo” di ciascuno di noi è riducibile ad un algoritmo, che può circolare senza controllo e che consente che ci vengano indirizzati messaggi su misura, corrispondenti a ciò cui siamo maggiormente sensibili. Senza contare che il medesimo algoritmo rende possibile l’isolamento del cittadino elettore in una sorta di bolla informativa dalla quale sono esclusi tutti i contenuti che potrebbero metterne in discussione i pregiudizi».

[11] All long eye-opening A. De Tocqueville’ s considerations in La Democrazia in America , libro II, cap VI, p. 812 : «Vedo una folla innumerevole di uomini simili ed uguali che non fanno che ruotare su sé stessi per procurarsi piccoli e volgari piaceri con cui saziano il loro animo. […] quanto al resto dei cittadini, egli vive al loro fianco, ma non li vede, li tocca ma non li sente; non esiste che in sé stesso e per sé stesso, e se ancora possiede una famiglia, si può dire che non ha più patria. Al di sopra di costoro si erge un potere immenso e tutelare […]; è contento che i cittadini si svaghino, purchè non pensino che a svagarsi».

[12] About, A.Spadaro, Costituzionalismo vs. Populismo, p. 16 : «Il populismo si basa sull’esaltazione dell’uomo medio-melius mediocre- ed è “un concetto camaleontico che implica talvolta la denigrazione delle masse, ma che rinvia ormai a una convenzione in cui il popolo si configura quale entità indivisa ed omogenea, composta da uomini ordinari guidati da un capo straordinario”».(Cfr. R.Bodei, Stregati dall’uomo qualunque, Domenicale del Sole 24 Ore, 17 maggio 2009, p. 1).

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