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A Morbid Democracy

Old and New Populisms


Monica Simeoni

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.
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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...

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