Democracy, or the idea of democracy, is often lauded as the centerpiece of modern states. Democracy is worshipped, and its presence is regarded as irreplaceable. But how often are democracy’s core ideas, such as free discussion, emphasized in that praise? Can we call it democracy if it has become a mere headcount — as if we were counting sheep?
Although preferable to autocracy or theocracy, democracy in many countries has unfortunately become a disappointing mechanism, comparable to what Aristotle introduced as the corrupted version of the politeia, “perfect governance,” a situation where the democracy seeks out the best interest of only a group of people and not of all citizens. The source of this malfunction is embedded within the idea of democracy itself, making it all the more difficult to distinguish. Among its founding ideals, the practical one — the one associated with voting — has gradually become more essential to people for no logical reason.
Look no further: The culprit we are searching for is populism, a phenomenon that has become so widespread that we look right through it. A more common definition of populism would be something that appeals to the working class, as the historical background of the word in the U.S. would suggest, but I will use another definition in this column, a definition more similar to the concept of “direct democracy.” Populism in this sense assumes that something matters only when it is experienced or believed or supported by a majority. It is the prioritization of numbers, not ideals. Percentages over flesh and bone. Because of it, many people’s voices remain unheard, and their struggles remain unspoken.
When you have masses following a populist leader, even the objectivity and legitimacy of elections are ignored, as it happened during the April referendum in Turkey. During elections, if your candidate (who already represents you and many others through many issues) loses by 49 to 51, that would mean that your voice, your arguments and views would mean exclusively one thing: nothing. This is where the core principle of having a two-sided discussion has become an antique concept. Can the partisan voting at the congressional or parliamentary or assembly level make up for the rigorous decisions of actually exchanging ideas? Of course not. Until we reintroduce the dialogue back into the almighty democracy, democracy will remain a populist system of favoring percentages and an unjust mechanism of governance.
However, through actual dialogue, which is essentially an exchange, it would not matter how many people support an idea: It would be the idea itself put forth that would matter. In present parliaments, this essence of dialogue is much more disregarded and instead interpreted as a necessary “foreplay” before a predictable voting occurs — the dialogue itself is not thought to have an effect on the outcome or maybe even produce a third alternative to a two-sided debate. Thus an ideal democracy would include incorporating the dialogue into the decision-making process.
To look at it practically, I could approach the example of Stanford: Stanford treats its populous student body as equally as possible. Sounds lovely and supportive, does it not? Most of us probably do not even know that Stanford has explicitly welcomed all of its incoming new students on their move-in day on every media platform possible — the only exception being all international students and Leland Scholars Program participants, reading heartwarming welcomes and contemplating whether or not they were in fact already on campus for the past three days or weeks. This welcome was followed by a congenial “hug your parents” announcement at the dorms and a convocation where said parents occupied nine out of 10 seats, leaving students who couldn’t afford for their parents to come and international students looking at each other, shrugging.
Perhaps we would not have to try hard to tie this to the fact that only 180 students out of 1,700 incoming freshmen are international students, and that there are more students from the top 1 percent of the income level than there are FLI students. Therefore, as Stanford approaches every student “equally,” the numbers end up dominating the outcome of the policies.
Thus, what populism does to our society is it gets rid of the humanity of people, such as students feeling the lack of their parents and feeling alone, upset, excluded or ignored by the community, and reduces them to numbers and whatever side they are closest to, whatever their own competences are. For example, because of numbers, people of certain beliefs, however insightful they may be and amenable to constructive dialogue, remain off the boundaries of decision-making mechanisms. To combat this, we should let brainstorming be the first step, rather than assuming the needs of the community based on populist assumptions. Preferably, we should not let our own backgrounds and numbers fool ourselves, and we should be more perceptive to various realities in the world as opposed to what is presented to us. When this is not the case, we become a self-applauding community.
Another example for self-applauding: When one’s party is in control, and one’s “side” is winning, the system is praised and affirmed. Even when ruling governments receive denunciations (for example, for human rights violations) from international organizations, those governments dramatize how they were elected rightfully and how they represent their people, underscoring how much they stand up for democracy. It has evolved into a system of enforcing power through the masses instead of enforcing ideals.
As a top academic community, what actions should Stanford take? We should be the first ones to abolish populism and reintroduce the democracy that everyone on campus unknowingly cherishes. We could start by acknowledging that an idea is much more than how much support it gets.
Contact Gülin Ustabaş at gulinu ‘at’ stanford.edu.