Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Michael Ignatieff explains populism in a talk that he gave at the London School of Economics.

Liberal democracy is there to regulate and manage conflict, and keep us this side of violence.

In a liberal democracy, majority rule is limited by the rule of law. Democratic legitimacy comes from two sources:

  • The will of the people.
  • Conformity to law.
These two sources of legitimacy are supposed to be complementary, but they are almost always in conflict. There is a contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy that consistently resurfaces. A populist movement exposes the conflict between these two sources of legitimacy.
The problem is that conformity to law has changed significantly.
A highly complex modern society cannot be governed unless it is governed by a highly trained bureaucracy, which is held to account by the people’s representatives.

Ignatieff’s outline explains the widespread disillusionment with modern liberal democracy.

  • The people have lost faith in their elected representatives. Even if they are like them, they feel that once the representative gets to Washington, London or Brussels, they sell out and stop protecting the people that elected them.

  • Elected representatives discover that they have very little influence. They feel powerless and subservient to the executive and before a faceless bureaucracy.

  • In modern societies, the bureaucracy of government has become incredibly large and massively powerful. These bureaucracies are elitist, believing that they know better than the population that they govern. They seem themselves as different and better than the rest.

  • Ordinary people see these bureaucracies as distant elities. That is why they no longer trust them. In the US, they fear the Deep State. In the UK, they distrust the bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels.

These changes are the fuel that feeds populist movements, like MAGA and Brexit.

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