Populist discourse in democratic countries lately started to expand its territory at the expense of individualism, one of the most important values of democracy. Populism of our day makes use of a simplified version of conservatism loaded with bigotry. Individualism on the other hand embodies pluralism, a hard-won element of contemporary secular democracy, which ensures the protection of differences in ethnic, racial, sexual, political and religious sense.
The nature of a political regime and its ideological devices make their impact on the development of individualism. In countries where individualism and secularism are highly developed (i.e. Scandinavian countries), the danger is less, but nevertheless exists.
A structural dichotomy is present in every political system: The private realm of the individual with freedoms and rights, interacting with the boundaries, duties and obligations of the public realm. Naturally, there is a tension between the two realms both trying to expand at the expense of the other. In authoritarian regimes, the public sphere surrounds and eventually invades the private sphere. “The positioning of private and public realms with respect to each other reveals the nature of the political regime and its distance to democracy” as Prof. Faruk Birtek asserted in his book Enlightenment, Citizenship and Political Regimes. Therefore, we must be careful not to let the private realm of the individual be invaded by the public realm through the surge of a populist wave looming in the dark corners of the contemporary democracies.
The growing influence of populist right wing parties in recent years seems to be based on the fascination of the masses with ready-made identity constructs that aim to manufacture their consent. This is helped by the disappointment caused by the failure of socialist promises in some European countries like France and Italy. Also, as the backlash of global capitalism, the exploited workforce and consumers with shrinking buying power are attracted by protectionist, introverted and nationalist conservatism. This kind of ideology makes a vicious attack on the individual diversity which aims to make individual powerless and paves the way for fascism. As Erich Fromm says in his book Escape from Freedom: “Fertile soil for the rise of fascism anywhere is the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual”. He described how submission to the authority of a higher power to escape the complexities of personal freedom would ultimately lead to destruction as the painful events in the European history displayed.
The immunity of liberal democracies seem to be weakened from within, as the effects of globalization coupled with the refuge crisis and terrorist threats.
These events started to channel discontent and fears of the masses into xenophobic responses which were effectively used by populist right wing parties in Europe. On top of this, they are emboldened by the victory of Donald Trump. The vitality of liberal democracy with its positive freedoms for the human welfare came immediately under attack with the discriminatory, prejudiced, sexist practices of the new president of the world’s most influential democracy. These practices are a direct assault on the diversity, free speech, freedom to circulate and free choice which are important assets of individualism. With its multiplying effect, media power and role model positioning, it is likely to spread into the rest of the free world with the likes of him having a ball with great expectations to set up their own dystopia.
According to Economist Intelligence Unit, only 8.9% of the world population live in fully democratic countries. Democratic freedom of the individual is an inalienable right and took ages of costly struggle to attain, therefore too precious to be lost. The purpose of the totalitarian ideologies and forces is the disintegration of democratic societies and supranational organizations as the EU. It is no surprise that discriminatory and isolationist rhetoric helps the objectives of the radicals (Islamist jihadists and authoritarian countries) who target the western civilization. Democratic forces should find a formula to offset the appeal of the populism for the masses who look for a solution to escape from their fears and insecurities before it is too late to lose the hard won liberties.
*Nurten Özkoray, sociologist, lecturer, author of “Individualism and Democracy in Turkey” 2012, co-author of “Gezi Fenomeni” 2013 by Idea Politika Publications.