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Living With Populism

MADRID – “We must educate our masters,” Robert Lowe, a British statesman, told colleagues after the passage of the Second Reform Act of 1867, a law that added over a million voters to the Parliamentary Register. For Lowe, an educated populace was the best means to secure participatory governance in Britain.

But 150 years later, the educated “masters” of liberal democracy have apparently learned little. Lowe, one may assume, would not be impressed with the populist trends pulling the wool over their eyes.

As the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States demonstrated, voters are too easily fooled by prejudice and false promises. Critical thought is increasingly dismissed as an elitist endeavor, while unaccountable social media, “fake news,” and “alternative facts” dominate public discussion. In an environment of ignorance, populist politicians make willing prey of those who feel ignored.

But because those politicians are so appealing to so many, they, no less than easily swayed voters, must be scrutinized. The question is whether a brand of politics that threatens liberal democracy can also be reformulated to save it.