Populism in the Age of Mediocracy and Mediacracy

In the prestigious Encyclopedia of Democracy, edited by Martin Seymour Lipset, populism is defined as a political movement that emphasizes the interests, cultural traits, and spontaneous feelings of the common people, as opposed to those of privileged elite. For legitimation, populist movements often appeal to the majority will directly—through mass gatherings, referendums or other forms of popular democracy—without much concern for checks and balances or the rights of minorities.

 The encyclopedia also examines the origins of populism in the Narodniki movement in Russia in the 1870s and describes various later forms of populist movements in the United States and Europe. According to the Encyclopedia, today the term populism generally refers to a third kind of political phenomenon, common in Latin America, and, in a different form in Asia and Africa. It refers to political parties that are not socialist but are based on the support of common people and are hostile to the dominant classes.


Such parties are usually based on a constituency that has little experience of associating for civic purposes—in sharp contrast to the basis of American populism. Because populist movements in developing countries are not based on autonomous self-organization, they need some other way of holding supporters together. That social cement is the presence of an undisputed leader, who establishes a charismatic relationship with followers.


The quotes are from the edition of the Encyclopedia published in 1995. The definition of populism in this particular edition is interesting for two reasons. First, virtually nothing is said about countries of Central Europe, which in 1995 were usually described as “emerging democracies” undergoing the process of democratic consolidation. Why is politics in Central Europe 12 years later almost a synonym for populism, despite the fact the countries of Central Europe have undergone an unprecedented institutional modernization under the guidance of the European Union, is a question as intriguing as is the question why even top political scientists in the West did not foresee this development 12 years ago.


Another interesting question is why so little was said in a prestigious political science publication about the relationship between populism and the modern media, which so visible today. One possible explanation is that there has been a real shift in the media since 1995.


The modern media seem to play an increasingly important role in the rise of populism, as both the media and modern populist politicians have one common denominator:   they speak supposedly in the name of vox populi. Their falling back on the vox populi, however, is not most of the time limited to just reacting passively to the majority will, but often involves efforts to manipulate the public with the help of sensitive issues that resonate well with the atavistic side of human nature, such as nationalist feelings, ethnic allegiances, or fear of foreigners.


Both populist politicians and the mass media are anti-elitist. Modern populism also does not need an active civil society; it appeals to masses. Both the mass culture and political populism are based on mediocracy as opposed to meritocracy. In other words, the mass media and populist politicians can thrive only if they are able to identify, and speak to, the lowest common denominator.


Some sociologists and political scientists have noted that in modern societies the public space is rapidly being privatized by individual and group interests that are not rooted in active civic engagement. In fact, active citizens and a civil society as a whole are often seen as enemies of such interests. Public space is becoming increasingly depopulated. We live in an era in which the media that work in the service of private interests, however, fill the public space with virtual stories that often have only one purpose—to manipulate public opinion and transform the civil society into an unstructured mass.


The mass democracy of the modern era is based on the conviction that people, understood as a mass, are politically as wise as politicians. Populist politicians, finding support in the anti-elitist attitudes of the mass media, therefore often use the majority public opinion as a reference framework for their policies, and often advocate referendums in place of making difficult decisions. One consequence of this trend is the disappearance of real political leadership in most Western democracies.


The notion of “elite” has increasingly negative connotations. Both populist politicians and the mainstream media claim to speak in the name of the people. They frequently criticize various political endeavors and projects as “elitist” and alienated from the people.


As everyday political affairs are increasingly influenced by an anonymous vox populi, it is supposedly the task of mass media to tell us what this vox populi actually says. In some ways, this is a vicious cycle: the majority mainstream media are increasingly engaged in the agenda setting for politics, actively promoting certain points of view and rejecting others. They do so by constantly referring to the supposed wishes of the public, changing public opinion trends in the process. Politicians then react to the public opinion. In other words, the mass media and populist politicians live in a strange sort of symbiosis.


The notion of the public, as defined by Jürgen Habermas or Charles Taylor (a rational discourse within the domain of public space, which is represented in the modern age by the media), is disappearing in front of our eyes. The public as a form of civil society, which is supposed to serve as a check on political power, has been replaced by the nebulous concept of the people, whose voice is represented by the media that predominantly serve private economic interests and often have, mainly due to efforts to increase their markets, their own political agenda.


Real political leaders, who offer their personal integrity as a guarantee of their political program, are increasingly being replaced by the vox populi—either in the form of anonymous public opinion or popular figures of mass culture. In other words, in today’s societies of mass culture, politicians are being replaced in the role of political authorities by show talk hosts, entertainers and moderators of mediocre discussion programs, which are held hostage to various surveys of audience shares and readership. The main work method of these new age substitutes for real politics is not rational analysis and informed discourse, but emotions and feelings.


The fact that politics has become a form of entertainment is an increasingly important phenomenon in the rise of populism in modern democracies. In order for the media to sell political events and developments as one of their products, the politics must be able to entertain. A populist politician is aware of this fact: he or she will say what the audience wants to hear, rather than trying to convince the audience that his or her opinions, although unpopular at the moment, make sense.


But even populist politicians face some risks in relying on the supposed majority opinions, as represented by the media, as it is increasingly more difficult to distinguish between the situations in which the media objectively represent the majority public and the situations in which the media substitute their own agenda for what they claim is the opinion of the public. Democracy is, indeed, in danger of being replaced by mediacracy or, to be more specific, telecracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the 19th century against the tyranny of majority. What he warned against was not only the abuse of the majority will against individual rights and minorities, but also the fact that if a democratic regime blindly follows the majority will of the so-called people, the very foundations of democracy may be undermined. This is why de Tocqueville saw as the basic pillar of any democracy the rule of law which is protected by constitutional liberalism. In other words, the rule by rules is more important than the rule by people.


The plurality of the modern media, on the one hand, seemingly makes the tyranny of majority problematic; on the other hand, the prevailing methods of media work often support it. Sociological surveys and various public opinion surveys, commissioned most often by the media and used to support their arguments, have contributed to the creation of a political environment in which there exists almost a constant non-personal relationship between politicians and the so-called public. In this environment, politicians can predict, or even test, public reactions to their decisions even before they officially make them.


This has significantly affected the ways in which politicians behave in all democracies. The ability of politicians to lead is decreasing, while efforts to pander to the supposed majority will of the public are increasing. In other words, populism is not just a result of some sudden change in the psychological makeup of politicians, but, among other things, a result of the fact that modern communication technologies, combined with the changing nature of the modern media, weaken the system of representative democracy.


The possibility to test the reactions of the public to the intended political decisions even before any official decision has been made has infiltrated the representative democracy with the elements of direct democracy—albeit in a distorted fashion.


Modern technologies have created a political environment in which democracies act as if elections were held permanently. Political parties can test their popularity almost permanently, and they do so. Political leaders who would like to advocate necessary but unpopular measures are, through media, exposed not only to public pressure but also  internal pressure from within their parties which constantly compete for better popularity ratings.


Politicians who despite all of this can still institute unpopular measures must not only be strong  in dealing both with their opponents and supporters, but also must have the ability to manipulate the public to some extent. In other words, the political leader of today is quite different from political leaders of only several decades ago. Any politician is now confronted with his/her voters virtually without any time lag. What is important is not only his or her message, but also how the message is conveyed. A politician’s media image may be more important than his or her policies.


It is not an accident that populism, as a political movement, has been on the rise in the age of modern communication technologies, which are used most widely by the media. In the environment, in which it is possible to instantly measure public moods and preferences, political leaders need to have the ability to feel the pulse of society. If they do, it is often easier for them to adjust their views to the public than advocate changes.


This new dynamic that determines much of what happens in modern democracies is further complicated by the fact that the above mentioned „pulse of society“ is in most cases represented by the media. However, as mentioned above, today’s mass media follow their own, usually business interests, which in societies of mass consumption can be the most effective only if they appeal to  mediocrity. The mediocracy and the mediacracy thus have much more in common than the fact the spelling of the two words is almost identical.


The mediacracy is most commonly defined as government, usually indirectly, by the popular media–a system in which politicians stop thinking on their own and begin listening exclusively to the media regarding what the important issues are and what they should do about them.  Since the media are increasingly in the hands of major corporations, the mediacracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the corporations and exercised by them or by their elected agents.


If that is true, perhaps we need to come up with an additional notion of sources of populism. The voice of the majority, which supposedly guides populist politicians, may in fact increasingly be identical with the voice of powerful cartels, in which political, economic a media power blend into one.


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