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Margaret Canovan

Autor:   •  March 10, 2019  •  Essay  •  1,430 Words (6 Pages)  •  1,977 Views

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Essay Question: Critically assess Margaret Canovan’s claim that populism follows democracy like a shadow: The question is basically asking if we can have democracy without populism.

Introduction: (250 words)

I agree with Margaret Canovan’s claim that populism follows democracy like a shadow.

Hypothesis (500 words)

Populism’s influence on different democratic institutions has exponentially increased in the past decades. It’s more than conspicuous that this influence has been able to bolster all around the globe, from upsurging democracies to well-established democracies. In Europe, this notion is not far from right. The sudden emersion of populist movements and parties has and is truly having a substantial repercussion on European democratic institutions and systems. In countries such as Spain and Greece, ‘established party systems are disintegrating with breath-taking speed’. ‘In Austria, a far-right candidate nearly won the country’s presidency’ and even those countries discerned as the strongest and steadiest economically and politically wise are experiencing populist development, showcased in Germany with the political party ‘AFD’ (Alternative for Germany). The enhancing upswing of populism worries some and charms others, and it’s this last affirmation that makes populism and its relationship to democracy a considerable polemical topic within political discourse.

I believe that before broaching the subject in question, it’s fundamental to provide a definition of ‘populism’, as attempts to find a definitive meaning of the ideology have been problematic. I will therefore proceed to quote Margaret Canovan’s definition of populism, who in my opinion presents the most clear and concise definition. According to Canovan, ‘populism in modern democratic societies is best seen as an appeal to ‘the people’ against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society’.

In her article, ‘trust the people’, Canovan claims that democracy is made up of two styles of politics. There is a ‘Pragmatic’ and a ‘Redemptive’ face, which both play a pivotal role in the constitution of democracy. She highlights how these aspects are opposite but interdependent, and that it’s precisely the gap between these two aspects of democracy that allows populism to step in the political scene. She correlates the concept of democracy with ‘two squabbling Siamese twins’, since it’s got two faces where one can’t live without the other and are constantly in tension.  

On the one hand, this ‘pragmatic’ face of democracy ‘’is essentially a way of coping peacefully with conflicting interests and views under conditions of mass mobilization and mass communication’’. This vision suggests that democracy is just a form of coexistence, a way of making decisions without killing each other and a way of changing government by election rather than bullets. Conflict is channelled into parliament by means of this view.

It’s great virtue is, as stated by Canovan: is that it’s an ‘alternative to civil war or repression’.

Other political theorists, such as Norberto Bobbio, have described a democratic state as a ‘state founded on a non-aggression pact among different political groups and on their stipulation of a set of rules permitting the peaceful solution of any conflict that may arise among them’. The ‘pragmatic’ face of democracy aims to ‘make power relatively accountable’, ‘widen the range of interests incorporated into the political arena’ and ‘binding more of the population into the political system’ by means of education (i.e. ‘the educative effect’).

It’s however onerous to believe in democratic legitimacy if only the ‘pragmatic’ face is taken into consideration, for it’s the ‘redemptive’ face of democracy that ‘promises a better world through action by the sovereign people’. There’s a clear need of impulse and mobilization of people in order to make democratic institutions more solid and reliable. The ‘redemptive’ face of democracy is key to awaken these feelings and commitment the electorate should exhibit when taking part in a voting procedure. It’s essential to understand that a well-functioning democracy will only perdure when a balance between the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘redemptive’ faces of democracy is achieved and when both sides remain in such balance. Canovan underlines the significance of the redemptive impulse by stating that ‘a general election is a nonviolent way of distributing political power and that, at the same time, it is also a ritual of democratic renewal, and unless that ritual is taken seriously by a substantial proportion of voters and politicians, democratic institutions are weakened’. The redemptive view offers us a vision of salvation. It promises us, the ‘demos’ that we can collectively control our own lives. It aims to take power back to the people and adopts the idea of popular control as one of its fundamental pillars.


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