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Crisis of Democracy: Majority Domination and the Rise of Populism

 3 min read / 

“[G]overnment of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Abraham Lincoln

Different models of democracy have a different way of defining the nature of ‘by the people’. The most widely accepted model, the Majoritarian Model, holds that ‘the majority’ should has primacy when it comes to making decisions for society. Though this comes close to the ideal of democracy, this understanding has the potential to undermine its liberal logic when it creates a skewed compromise between the power of the majority and the power of minorities, by assigning the latter the role of an opposition group only and excluding a large group of people from participation in policymaking.

The support populist leaders have been able to accrue by building mass followings based solely on identity politics is an example of such a skewed compromise.  The governments formed as a result have implemented policies based on this perceived majority will and ended up assaulting some pillars of democracy including human rights, the right to participation, civil liberties, power-sharing and judicial independence. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has called this a culture of ‘unrestrained majoritarianism’ which has led to an increase in problems of nativism, xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia.

An Alternative

The Consensus Model of democracy is one possible alternative to the Majoritarian Model. It is premised on the acceptance of majority will as a minimum requirement only and broadening power-sharing beyond the grasp of this majority to minority groups. Its features of forming the government based on proportional representation of votes instead of a plurality of votes, multiparty system and judicial independence decrease the chances of such ‘unrestrained majoritarianism’ to arise by forming a government which is more inclusionary in nature.

The better performance of full democracies like Switzerland that follow the Consensus Model in comparison with the UK, which follows the Majoritarian Model can be evidenced by looking at the EIU Democracy Index as well as other measures like corruption, inequality, political, economic and legal culture.

 A Possible Solution?

A more proportional representation of votes would ensure that populist leaders are not given the latitude to assault basic human rights. Such a system would also ensure that the opinion of a large portion of the population is not completely disregarded, as it has been in the case of Brexit, where the opinion of 48% of the electorate seems to have been ignored. An increase in representation of minorities would decrease instances of discrimination against them in countries like Indonesia and India that claim to be secular but end up using Hindu or Muslim majoritarianism against minorities. Sufficient civil liberties would perhaps allow more tolerance towards pro-independence politicians and institutions that represent independent thought in countries like Spain and Hungary. A higher degree of judicial court independence would allow the courts to check on power, rather than meekly surrendering to political leaders like in the cases of Venezuela and Poland.

A ‘one fits all’ model does not exist, though the adoption of some features of the Consensus Model will make policies more inclusionary and restore peoples’ faith in democracy.

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