What it means to live in a dumbocracy – and why I prefer a pretentious elitist to a dangerous populist

US presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a campaign stop and speech in Los Angeles, California, earlier this month. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

US presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a campaign stop and speech in Los Angeles, California, earlier this month. (Mike Blake/Reuters)


I have a pretty good understanding of politics for someone with absolutely no interest in the subject – but when an analyst recently called Donald Trump a populist instead of just saying he was popular, I had to look it up.

Google told me a populist was someone who sought the interest of ordinary people and that it formed part of a bigger concept called populism. The world’s biggest search engine went on to explain that populism had absolutely nothing to do with the ridiculous number of seasons Pop Idol has been on the air and everything to do with ordinary people voting for change.

The term populism seemed to be very popular and Google also revealed a number of related articles, including one from the Washington   Post that told the tragic tale of how the ordinary people of Britain frantically googled the European Union straight after voting emphatically to leave the EU.

Based on the article – and the fact that I have a pretty good understanding of politics – it seemed to me that populism had a much stronger connection with stupidity than simply being ordinary, and that the real definition of populism should be: when   dumb people vote. Google didn’t have anything of substance under “when dumb people vote” and we agreed to disagree.

Invigorated by all the new knowledge, I decided to look up another concept I’m struggling with – democracy – to see how it compared with populism.
Google defined a democracy as a system of government by the whole population, which sounded similar to populism in every sense and didn’t give me any new knowledge.

The internet clearly didn’t have a clue and I decided to stick it to the nerds at Google and turned my focus to the scholars of Leiden and Princeton universities instead.

In an unfinished draft of a chapter of his paper titled Populist   Democracy vs Party Democracy Peter Mair, a political scientist at Leiden University, quoted Philip Pettit, professor of politics and human values at Princeton University, as saying he prefers the benefits of institutional pluralism and deliberation against a more populist model in which the demos rules about without constraint.

The sentence didn’t immediately slot into my political frame of reference, but after considerable delib- eration of my own, I decided Pettit meant that, for a democracy to function properly, all the clever people should drown out all the dumb people with sound arguments to make sure the dumb people don’t run amok.

It didn’t sound very democratic, but based on what’s happening in Britain and the United States right now, Pettit might be spot on, albeit blatantly elitist – and if I had to choose between a pretentious elitist and a dangerous populist I’d go for the elitist every day of the week.

I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton has the pipes to drown out Trump or whether her supporters have enough Mace to stop his.

I don’t know how Britain could have left the EU when the world is becoming more connected. And I don’t want to say people who vote without thinking are dumb, but they are.

In his latest paper, titled   Democracy, What is it Good For?, Peter Mair’s cousin, Carl Mair, concluded the whole democratic system is flawed because some people are simply smarter than others, which means the outcome of every referendum will hinge on how many people went to the trouble of googling EU before voting to leave the EU.

Mair also expressed regret at having entered the field of political science in the first place and outlined his plans to emigrate to China where politics still seemed to make sense.

JS Smit

JS Smit

JS Smit is a Cape Town-based freelance writer. Formally trained as a copywriter, he took a break from ads in 2010 to write a blog for the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader and since 2015 has written for the Mail & Guardian. Read more from JS Smit

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