The Powerlessness of the Powerful

NEW YORK – Elites are under siege in every corner of the world. “Tea Party” activists in exurban America rant and rage against the so-called liberal elites of New York, Washington, and Hollywood. In Europe, populist demagogues, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, rant and rage against the elitist “appeasers” of Islam. In Thailand, red-shirted demonstrators from the country’s rural northeast rant and rage against the military, social, and political elites of Bangkok.

The first principle of democracy is that government must be based on popular consent, even if the government is made up of parties for which many people did not vote. It is clear from the worldwide rage against elected governments that this consent is becoming dangerously threadbare. More and more people in democratic countries feel unrepresented, anxious, and angry. And they blame the elites.

The phenomenon is worldwide, but its causes differ from country to country. American populism is not the same as Thai populism. Culture and race play important roles in the United States – the culture of carrying guns, for example, and the discomfort at having a black, Harvard-educated president who talks like a law professor.

In Thailand, the rage stems from the perceived neglect of the rural poor by the ruling class, backed by big business, the army, and the king. The populist billionaire and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, appeared to be different. He used some of his vast wealth to shower money on rural areas. Rural people, grateful for his largesse, voted for him twice.