There is an abundance of theorizing on populism. This abundance is symptomatic of an intellectual confusion about this rising phenomenon. If we examined it carefully, we would find that the discussion today on populism, whether in politics, theory, and the media, associates it to the word return, i.e., the return of populism.
Bringing up this idea of return, especially by politicians and journalists, is likely to carry the historical significance of the populism that Europe knew early on and overcame. The impression of populism that has persisted in peoples' minds is that it is a movement that was based on a clear and explicit idea that is based on sanctifying people and victory and enthusiastically following what is popular.
In his supposedly outdated book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon, the main characteristic of the crowd is that individuals melt into one spirit and common emotion that eliminates distinctions between them and dulls their mental faculties. Le Bon suggested a new explanation for populism associating it with hypnotism. Le Bon considers that changes that happen to an individual in a crowd are similar to that in hypnotism.
The question worth asking in this crucial historical moment is: Is populism reproducing itself as it is or differently?
Before trying to answer that question, there seems to be a problem that warrants quick reflection. The broader acceptance of democracy as a means to reach power and the rotation of elites in power have both contributed to the rise of populism in some countries and its return in countries where it did not exist. There are common aspects of democracy and populism. Is democracy, in its simplest definition, not the rule of the people? Or, more so, the rule of the majority?
Raising such questions for the sake of contemplation and inquiry is important. They allow us to dig into the right places, especially that this encounter between democracy and populism in some Arab countries, such as Tunisia, produces a multi-dimensional tension and a collision with rationalism and its commitments. Of course, this space does not allow us to dig deep enough, and perhaps it would be better to put forth some critical comments that may stimulate thinking and discussion. First, a mismanaged democracy, despite transparency in elections, pushes people to make the wrong choices. A governor mistakenly chosen will resort to populism as they do not have a political action plan to produce tangible and realistic solutions that can be measured and examined.
Democracy as the best way of rule historically is not fruitful or distinct if those competing over power have clear political identities and action plans that are ready to be implemented.
The weakness of the political field affects democracy negatively and tarnishes its name. It becomes a curse, such as the case among large sections of the Tunisian people. The problem is not democracy itself but the fragility of the political field. Democracy, according to the Italian sociologist Pareto, allows the elite to take turns. The political elite has certain characteristics, capabilities, and competences, and if lacking, it would damage democracy and fuel populism. The fragility of the political domain leads to a transition from the rule of the majority to a populism that is the product of electoral dysfunction that produces a deformed situation.
Second, new populism is distinguished from old populism. The people in new populism have material demands and expectations that are of an economic persuasion. This turns it into a rational populism with clear goals. According to Max Weber, an act is rational when a clear purpose guides it.
What does this mean? And how will the populist politician, in this situation, express their sanctification of the people and follow their tendencies like a spoiled child? In this instance, yesterday's illusory populism falls, and a materialist populism with its direct and indirect negative consequences rises, putting pressure on populist politicians to realize their fragility. They do so by either sanctifying the people's economic and material demands or resorting to democracy. The populist politician is punished, and the people mature more and learn the differences between political elites, their ways, keys, and characteristics.
This is how democracy becomes gradually consecrated. It is true that populism wastes time and accumulates frustrations, but it is this fire that will cook democracy and take it from its embryonic phase into its youth. This is also how we will gain valuable knowledge that will cost money, time, and mental energy in the study of elites that run the democratic process and that gradually secure its immunity without unexpected crises.