Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights, and Populism: Ethical Consideration

Antonius Widhi Pramudianto, Undergraduate Student of Faculty of Philosophy, Widya Mandala Catholic University Surabaya, Indonesia

Democracy, in its broadest sense of meaning, is a system of governance based on the people’s decision. Democracy has always been a part of the world history: from the ancient Greek and Rome until nowadays, it has obtained many forms, sophistication, advancement, but have also been facing challenges and drawbacks. The dynamics of this system throughout the course of history have changed a lot of aspects of democracy – this is something we can track and recognize. Based on that recognition, then, we can ask ourselves: is democracy – and its possibility of dynamics – still relevant and important in this kind of world we live in?
The essence of democracy – as it is understood and used by many countries – is the power of people. This was the only idea that is compatible with the concept of freedom and human rights. Why freedom and human rights? Actually these two things are intertwined so closely that it is almost impossible to separate those two things: freedom provides the basis for the exercise of human rights, and human rights, in turns, enhance the said basis so that human will be able to be really free. This concept saw its rise in the Modern Era.
The Modern Era (marked with the Reformation and the American and French Revolution) saw efforts of breaking free from the grasps of absolutism. Because of that, when the people saw how they were failed to achieve common good, they were enraged and formed a movement to overthrow the existing rulers. The overthrew of the existing ruler marked the triumph of freedom and rights of the people, concluded by the acclamation of the democracy system into the governance system of the nation.
From the Modern Era, we can conclude that democracy is a triumph over oppression. But, it was different in the Ancient Greek era. At that time, there was no guiding value (for there wasn’t any circumstance that enables it to be); it was really “people’s power”. This proved dangerous: there were some instances when the people decided against other party not out of rational discernment based on the freedom and rights but merely on partial preference. The result was not good: no less than Socrates, the great philosopher, were sentenced to death as a result of so-called democracy. Democracy was seen merely as the exercise of rhetoric and persuasive capability, not as an exercise of power toward a highest regard to freedom and human rights.
In our era, most of the countries are democratic countries. Of course, though, we can be sure that those democratic countries are closer essentially to the ideas of Modern democracy than to the Ancient Greek’s. The main difference between those two eras is the recognition, acknowledgment, and respect of freedom and human rights. That is very important and distinctive, that it is not an exaggeration to conclude that those two aspects are the main constituent of modern (and even contemporary) democracy.
Based on this fact and phenomenon, then, a modern democracy is a system of governance based on people’s decision in which freedom and human rights are the main concern and focus. In other words, without freedom and human rights as the main concern and focus, a system of governance will not be apt to be called a democracy, even though it is based mainly on people’s decision. It is the concern towards freedom and human rights that makes a democracy, at least, the modern one, true to itself. People’s decision is supposed to reflect those said concern.
Nowadays, though, things change. Modern democracy as we know it – a supposed triumph of freedom and human rights over oppression – is taking sure steps towards mere “people’s power”-style democracy of Ancient Greek – proven by the rises of such leaders in many countries, even those who are traditionally known as puritan democratic. This “people’s power”-style is called populism.
Populism is a new name given for the primitive form of democracy: it involves the spotlighting of sensitive issues by some powerful and influencing parties that leads to “demonization” of some groups to turn them into “enemies”, and attacks, political or even physical, towards the said “enemies”. The “enemies” are needed so that the powerful and influencing figures can gather masses and direct their attention (and, often, aggression) towards those “enemies” (those who are threatening the common good aimed by the people). This way, the said figures will be known as the unifier and leader of the people; consequently, those figures will have more chance to gather more support – votes and/ political opportunity. Those – votes and/ political opportunity – are very pragmatic indeed; it is not to say that every populist leader aim for such mere goals, but, generally, it is harder not to find those who don’t.
Populism, when it is used as a mere practical tool toward power and influence, hurts the very constituents of democracy (from which it is supposedly derived): freedom and human rights, especially when it comes to demonization. It drives the people from the real issues: the sufferers of the said issue might still be suffering, because energy and efforts are directed not to really help them coping their hardships, but rather to attacks “enemies” and made-up “foes”. This is obviously a case in which freedom and human rights are not the main concern – at the very least, they are merely used as trigger and, even worse, objectified.
Second, the “enemies” are also hindered from their freedom and human rights – for the things the might’ve never thought of doing. They are not free to move, speak, and to express their thoughts anymore, because the people – “the common” – will accuse them and barring them from doing so. The worst point of this kind of hindrance is persecution. The “enemies” – as it is shown in various parts of the world – are caught, jailed, beaten up, and even murdered. It is noteworthy that this doesn’t happen in a totalitarian country, in which people have no power to reprove such acts; this happens in countries led by populist figures, who moved the people not only to approve, but to take parts in such acts.
Being a “rogue” and degressive subordinate of democracy, populism precisely highlighted the importance of freedom and human rights because it hurts them the most. Logically speaking, to drastically change something, it is the pillars one have to deconstruct. The same goes with democracy: because the modern form of democracy doesn’t seem fit to the obtainment of the pragmatic goals of the leading figures, they decided to commence attacks against the very pillars of democracy. Covertly, of course, because the last and least thing these people need would be instability and chaos – which will happen if they try to change the whole structure abruptly.
It is obvious that populism hurts not only the democracy as a system of governance, but rather democracy as an actualization of the very basics of humanity. If that’s the case, then, it is an utmost necessity to respond accordingly. One of the means for responding this threat is through ethical considerations. It fits the task of ethics itself: ethics is meant to constantly criticize morality. In that sense, thus, it can be safely said that ethics is the mediator between what is and what is supposed to be.
Populism, in terms of ethical considerations, can be said as over-implementation of duty-based ethics. Pragmatic frame of mind presupposes the utilization of every means useful for achieving its goal; thus, it is justifiable, according to pragmatism, to use every means to achieve, in this case, majority support through populist stance. Simply said, pragmatic frame of mind that populists use makes it is dutiful for all related aspects to place their vision solely on the goal: to be popular, and thus abandon other considerations.
If this is the case, then, in terms of ethical considerations as a response towards populism, it is necessary to place virtue-based ethics as a counterbalance. By putting that, duty-based ethics get their vision fixed not only on concrete goals and objective, but, rather, on the virtues and values set higher than mere concrete goals and objective. As an implication, the said balance will directly obtain also the common good, because of the fact that while it still has its feet planted firmly on reality (the duty-based ethics), its vision is fixed firmly on ideals and goodness as the most sought-after things in the society.
That way, democracy will not turn into its old monstrous form. Democracy will remain faithful as a triumph of oppression of the authority; victory of utmost respect towards humanity against the wicked strains of slavery and dehumanization. By applying ethical considerations, we can guarantee that democracy will always be relevant and able to respond any threat of the time.

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