A Morbid Democracy

Old and New Populisms

by Monica Simeoni (Author)
©2014 Monographs 154 Pages
Series: Human Right Studies, Volume 3


The crisis of democracy in Europe and the inability of the political parties and élites to adequately meet the challenges of globalisation exposes the increasingly fragmented middle classes to the temptations of Euroscepticism, and, in some cases, xenophobia. This appears to be a portrait of contemporary reality, but the current crisis has deep roots. The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset described the pathologies of the mass man and of the nascent democratic system as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, in a significant text entitled Una democracia morbosa, which appears to foreshadow the present state of affairs. The crisis of the average man, the degradation and devaluation of culture appear to be the distinctive traits of the new, post-ideological democracy of our times, known as «audience democracy». The political parties, faced with this profound crisis, in some cases seek dangerous shortcuts through demagogic and rhetorical use of the term «people», while the charismatic figure of the leader gains in prestige as a reference model. Resentment, caused by lack of representation of the just demands of the citizens, can turn to anger and destabilise the institutions of democracy. There is therefore an urgent need for an inclusive Europe with a renewed welfare system, based around the citizenry and not the masses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I. A Morbid Democracy
  • 1. Ortega y Gasset’s Mass-man
  • 1.1. Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses and the mass-man
  • 1.2. Ortega’s aristocracy and elitism
  • 1.3. Morbid Democracy
  • 1.4. Ortega’s State, Nation and Europe
  • 1.5. Ortega and Simmel
  • 2. The Hetero-direction of Crowds
  • 2.1. Gustave Le Bon: The Psychology of Crowds
  • 2.2. Beliefs and opinions of the crowd
  • 2.3. Riesman: The Lonely Crowd
  • 2.4. Canetti: The Masses and Power
  • Part II. Right Wing and Left Wing Populisms
  • 3. Democracy: Evolution or Involution?
  • 3.1. A “totalitarian democracy”?
  • 3.2. The Origin of Democracy
  • 3.3. “Audience Democracy”
  • 3.4. A Populism that comes from Afar
  • 3.5. Modes of Populism
  • 4. Populism: From the Origins to Post-modern Times
  • 4.1. Russian Populism
  • 4.2. American Populism
  • 4.3. Argentinian Populism
  • 4.4. A Populist Europe?
  • 4.5. A Populist Italy?
  • 4.6. The Second Italian Republic and a number of populist features
  • 4.7. The Movimento 5 Stelle [the Five Star Movement]
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography


A book is never a solitary effort. For this one the reflections, ideas and opinions of friends and scholars who helped me on my way have proven extremely significant.

I am particularly grateful to Professors Roberto Cipriani, Ilvo Diamanti, Luigi Gui, Alfio Mastropaolo, Enzo Pace and Franco Vespasiano.

I am indebted to Pietro Biscuso for the research he carried out for me on the web.

I am particularly grateful to the Università degli Studi del Sannio for having contributed towards funding the original publication. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →


The English-language edition of this book comes out almost two years after the original one in Italian. In the course of these twenty-four months “the situation of democracy” does not seem to have improved. On the 1st March 2014, the title on the cover of the Economist recited, significantly, What’s gone wrong with democracy and how to revive it. The recession which struck the USA first, Europe later, has aggravated the problems affecting western political systems more than ever. The recent European elections of spring 2014 have confirmed the advance (more evident in some countries than in others) of the Euro-skeptical and xenophobic parties. The economic crisis, for example that of Italy and of the southern European nations who are finding it very hard to recover, has been further exacerbated by the overall European political scenario. To the East, in Crimea and the Ukraine, certain areas have become the theatre of armed strife, by no means easy to resolve. To the West, the democratic states are questioning welfare policies no longer seen as acquired rights, on the grounds that Europe and its institutions are the main cause of the present crisis. Nationalism and claims of independence (the cases of Scotland and Catalonia are emblematic) are impacting on the international political scene which seems less and less capable of fostering the unity of political and democratic institutions.

Analyses of populism, from its origins in nineteenth-century Russia and USA to its numerous Latin-American variants, are still topical. In actual fact, over the years, the political debate regarding twenty-first-century democracy, and the changes that populist modalities are undergoing, continues to be of vital importance when seeking to understand society and its actors1.

Democracy is a relentlessly fluctuating system, very difficult to represent statistically. It regards real people who experience more and more complex, varied and rapidly altering situations. The decisions and procedures required to apply the system and the very bases of democracy itself are undergoing a profound sea-change. The political parties and other agencies of intermediation, the backbone of the traditional democratic model: the trade unions, movements and associations; are all in a state of crisis. The hegemony of the “homo videns”, the medialization ← 11 | 12 → of the public and private lives of the élites (and not only those in government), are generating a kind of “hybrid democracy”: less and less representational and direct, where old and new alternate2. Internet, the new technologies and the social networks, have contributed to the birth, in Italy for example, of new political movements, difficult to interpret according to the traditional political categories. Public opinion is one of their mainstays, but not in the positive, pluralist and independent sense envisaged by the sociologist Jürgen Habermas3. The contemporary reality risks descending gradually into forms of plebiscitarianism with strong claims of executive power. This would mean the defeat of democracy, and politics would experience a verticalisation of consensus4.

Public opinion is increasingly distrustful of democracy as shown by the European Social Survey (involving 29 member countries), carried out periodically since 20015.

In minimal terms, democracy is a government with institutional checks and balances chosen freely by the citizens: this from a liberal perspective. An important characteristic, and one of its fundamental constituent traits, is the welfare system, born of the development of the modern state in Europe and aimed at protecting and integrating citizens. This system is experiencing a grave crisis at present, due to a lack not only of resources but also of planning. Furthermore, research confirms the existence of an enormous gap between the northern and southern countries of Europe, the latter especially weary of democracy: Italy more so than Kosovo or Albania. But what is common to almost all the nations of the Old Continent is dissatisfaction with social policies, which have undergone cuts practically everywhere. And so we witness the advance of anti-politics and anti-democracy, ambiguous and ambivalent terms described by the French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon6. And so, power is put on trial, on flimsy simplistic and demagogic grounds, that tend to weaken rather than salvage democracy. The line of demarcation is thin; this state of affairs requires true vigilance on the part of a public opinion free from political conditioning.

Furthermore, contemporary representational democracy is moving more and more in the direction of charismatic leaderism, which seeks to monopolize proposals and decisions: a tendency requiring further study and in-depth analysis. ← 12 | 13 →

These topical issues are closely associated with considerations regarding the European project, which needs to be re-motivated and rewritten so as to overcome the increasingly grave national dramas and divisions that are taking place at present7. Europe appears to be ensnared; its salvation might well save the democratic institutions of the member countries that determine it too8.

All these questions will be addressed in another volume, departing from an in-depth study of the project for political (not merely monetary) union, which has backfired to date, but which may revive and overcome the present dramatic crisis. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →


  1  Urbinati (2014), Democrazia sfigurata. Il popolo fra opinione e verità, Egea, Università Bocconi Editore, Milan.

  2  Diamanti (2014), Democrazia ibrida, Laterza la Repubblica, Rome-Bari.

  3  Habermas (1971), Storia e critica dell’opinione pubblica, Laterza, Bari.

  4  Urbinati, op. cit., pp. 6-9.

  5  Archibugi (2014), La democrazia in Europa. Italiani sempre più sfiduciati dietro il Kosovo e l’Albania, in La Repubblica, 15th September 2014.

  6  Diamanti, op. cit., pp. 63-68.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Euroscepticism crisis xenophobia globalisation
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 154 p.

Biographical notes

Monica Simeoni (Author)

Monica Simeoni is Assistant Professor of Sociology, at the Sannio University (Benevento, Italy) and Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Ecclesia Mater Higher Institute of Religious Sciences, Pontifical Lateran University (Vatican City, Rome). Her most recent publications include Una democrazia morbosa. Vecchi e nuovi populismi, 2013; Big Society. Contenuti e critiche, co-authored with Franco Vespasiano, 2013; Europa/Europe, Conversations with Alberto Martinelli, Nadia Urbinati, Vittorio Cotesta, 2014.


Title: A Morbid Democracy
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156 pages