The antidotes to populism: stoicism and civil society

by Thomas R. Wells

ProtestThe politics of populist rage are on the ascendant in every democracy, even if thankfully not always triumphant. Authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, and cynics like John Gray, are relishing the collapse of the moral high ground and the return to good honest Machiavellianism. The old calumnies against democracy seem to be coming true. That the rule of the people is just the rule of the mob. That order, the uncontested rule of the powerful, is the best we can hope for. That there is no higher moral principle for a people to aspire to than their country's domination over others.

Something has certainly gone wrong in how we do democracy. We have forgotten what it is and how to do it. Specifically, we have gotten the idea that democracy consists in our right to command the government to give us what we want, when actually it is collective self-government. Democracy is not a reality TV-style contest in which the people are spectators and voters on who gets to win the prize of ultimate power. Rather, it is a relationship to ourselves and our fellow citizens that we develop and practise in our daily lives.


So how did we go so wrong?

We allowed the bonds between us to decay. The collapse of civic institutions outside work, well noted by Robert Putnam in ‘Bowling Alone', left more and more people isolated, unable to relate to each other as fellow citizens, unable to organise anything together.

Cable news and then social media came along to reorder us into bubbles of those we agree with. But worse, the economics of both cable news and social media depends on engagement – the more time we spend watching, or liking and sharing, the more of our attention these companies can chip off and sell to advertisers. And it turns out that outrage – besides cute cats – is extremely good at generating engagement. That's why Facebook's news feed algorithm has gotten so good at serving up the exact stories from around the world most likely to send us into paroxysms of anger, or the other dark emotions such as fear and disgust.

And that's where we are now. A society of millions of strangers, all alone together in front of our televisions and twitter feeds, shivering with indignant rage.

We react to events by demanding that politicians do something about our sense of powerlessness. We say, we have democracy and that means that the government has to do what we want.

But democracy is not a matter of adding up our desires and fulfilling them. We have something else for that: capitalism. Actually, there is something about shopping that may have inspired this consumocratic notion of democracy: the flattering idea that the customer is always right. Nevertheless, at least when we are spending our own money we are likely to consider our choices with some care. In contrast, unleashing our desires on democratic politics costs us nothing.

Translating our emotional states into electoral choices only requires us to consider how sincere our feelings are. Yet the feeling of anger (or fear, or disgust) does not prove that one has something to be justly angry about, let alone that one knows what to do about it. Anger is no more than an evolutionary threat-response switch. It can be flipped by all sorts of things, often entirely imaginary.

In any case, there are some things no elected government can give us no matter how much it spends or what draconian laws it passes to protect us from improbable refugee-terrorists. No matter what the populists promise, they cannot manage our own emotions for us. All they can do is stage a spectacle of control. But the very images they use to prove how seriously they take our dark emotions – the brown-skinned people weeping at airports; the missiles fired off at foreign countries; the bellicose threats to foreign governments – simultaneously validate those emotions and make them more real than ever. No government, even a populist one ‘willing to break the rules and give us back control', can give us freedom from fear, or satisfy our seething anger at the wrongness of the other moral tribes living in our country. Only we can do that.


Obviously there is a better way to do democracy. The right way.

Firstly, there is something we should stop using democracy for: managing our own emotions.

In the 1970s terrorists sometimes set off more than a thousand bombs a year in the USA. Of course that annoyed people. But they didn't fall into mass hysteria and beg the government to do whatever it took to make them feel safe again. They would have felt too silly.

A democracy requires a measure of such political stoicism among its citizens. That is, an ideal of self-command and self-awareness by which we discriminate those things that are under our control; those things that are within our government's rightful control; and those things that we cannot control at all and should not seek to. What goes on in our own heads is one of those things that falls under our control, and thus our responsibility. And that includes how we react to events and problems. Our dark and uncomfortable emotions are something we need to get to grips with, not a problem we can outsource to politics.

Democracy is not meant for children but for grown ups capable of managing our own emotions. We know how to act like grown ups in other contexts. At work for example we don't respond to a setback or a challenge to our wishes by rolling on the floor screaming until our face goes blue. So why do so many people suppose that this is an appropriate attitude to take into politics?

A democratic government is supposed to be our servant, but not our nanny. It doesn't do very well in the nanny role. If we insist on making it our nanny then it will be at the cost of our freedom.

Secondly, there is something we need to use democracy for: collective government. At the heart of democracy is a civil society that talks to each other and reasons together. We are not alone among strangers and enemy moral tribes, with just the government or our family to turn to.

A democracy is a whole society talking to itself about its values and the matters of the day. All that a mob can do is amplify an individual's emotional distress about something that hurts. A democracy has the power of collective reflection about what our real problems, to improve our opinions and correct our mistakes.

The last point is very important. Democracies are not wise because the wisdom of the crowds means that the majority view gets things right. They are wise because they are able to reflect on and learn from their mistakes. Civil debate – and civil dissent – in the space between the individual and the state is exactly what autocracies lack, and is the best explanation for why even the best managed ones eventually stumble and fall while democracies keep going and growing.


We need to rediscover these basic truths about democracy, about what it really means to say that the power of a state resides in its people. Democracy is the capacity for collective self-government: how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to our fellow citizens – including those who come from different moral tribes. If we don't get those relationships right, then elections will never be enough to solve our problems and heal our divisions. If we do get them right, then the governments we elect will be ones fit to serve a society of free people.