Populists vs. Globalists: Who Represents the People?
Trump against Clinton, Farage and Ukip against the Remainers, Le Pen against Macron, and so on. The political system keeps churning political personae and their diabolical doubles, recycling politics and political parties, in a way that annihilates pre-existing positions and makes left and right ideologies homogeneous and repetitive. Whether a left-wing candidate is “faithful” to the working people or a right-wing one is committed to building a country that works for everyone, in the end of the day, when one of them finally occupies the place of power, s/he becomes the establishment and the elite, against which the will of the people is suppressed.
The French system of representative democracy
France is a representative democracy (also known as indirect democracy). Unlike direct democracy where people vote on initiatives—proposed statutes, constitutional amendments, or local ordinances—representative democracy, which is the most popular form of modern western democracies, is founded on the idea that elected officials represent the people. In representative democracy, a small number of politicians governs the majority of people. The system is considered efficient since a small group of selected legislators makes decisions without consulting the population.
In France, the executive branch is led by the President and the Prime Minister, who is appointed by the President and leads the Government. The President is elected directly by the citizens for a five-year term and serves as the Head of State. The President supervises the Cabinet, concludes treaties and is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The Prime Minister supervises and directs the Government, is responsible for the execution of laws and has the power to introduce bills in Parliament.
The executive branch also consists of the Cabinet which is a Council of Ministers appointed by the President following the PM’s recommendations.
The legislative branch is represented by the Parliament with its two chambers, the National Assembly and the Senate. The elected members pass statutes, vote on budget and monitor the executive branch’s decisions. The National Assembly and the Senate have the right to submit and change laws, and vote on the budget. Both chambers, the National Assembly and the Senate, have to pass a bill and, in case there is disagreement, then the Government decides to give the National Assembly the right to have the final say in the legislative procedure. The National Assembly has the power to stop a government by voting to censure it, forcing the President to form a new Government—a process that has only happened once and, thus, it’s very rare. The deputies in the National Assembly are voted every five years by direct suffrage in a two-round system of elections. Members of the Senate are elected by electoral colleges in their districts to serve for six years, but every three years, half of the Senate is re-elected.
The idea of a representative democracy gives the impression that people choose their own representatives. But, as the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, argued in an interview with Éric Aeschimann for the 9–15 March 2017 edition of L’Obs, published on the Verso Blog, France’s presidential election campaign has been strange because the French system gives all power to professional politicians, who are then claiming to offer the people the illusion of a “clean break.”
Not only is the term “representative democracy” “ambiguous and false, but also the idea of the people as a pre-existing group that comes together to vote their own representatives. Rancière explains that the “people” is the result of the political process and each political system creates its own kind of people. This is why the representative system is based on the idea that there is a class in society that can represent the general interests of that society. But what happens is that the system creates a group of people who identify their own representatives coming from within their class, which they then proceed to support at the ballot box. As he writes:
“The representative system gradually became an affair for professionals, who then reproduced themselves. But in so doing this system generated its own reverse, the mythical idea of a people not represented by these professionals and aspiring to provide itself with representatives who really do incarnate it. This is the piece of theatre — of constantly declining quality — that each election now reproduces.”
For Rancière, politicians don’t represent the people but the system itself, their own class or party’s interests. As the system reproduces itself, the majority party “represents only one-fifth of the electorate” something that reveals that the majority of people are not being represented. But “when the other parties take their own turns in power, they increasingly come to resemble one another. Hence the recurrent theme of the spat-upon and betrayed people.”
Because the majority party claims to represent the people, then this enables populists and supporters of Le Pen, for example, like the Brexiteers before them, to come forward and say “I am the candidate of the unrepresented people!” Last night (24/4/2017), Le Pen stepped down from the leadership of the National Front, claiming that she doesn’t represent just her own party’s interests, but those of the whole of France and its people. So, to each his own. As Rancière writes, “There is the niche for Le Pen, that of the suffering substantial people. There is the niche for Macron: the living forces of the nation opposed to the polarisation among the parties. And there are also overlaps, like in the case of Mélenchon, playing both the "faithful" Left and the suffering people.”
“The people” then is an invention to serve individual parties’ interests and strategies, a mere “figure forged by the system itself.” This is why today, we have a “terrific” and “fantastic” (Trump’s own favourite words) billionaire who represents “the people spat upon by the billionaires.” Isn’t this ironic? Everyone now can claim they are “against the system,” but when they are part of the system they become, inevitably, the diabolic oppressors.
The dilemma we face today, and this was evident in the US with Trump and Clinton and now in France, is voting for one corrupted politician, so that the more corrupted one isn’t elected. But voting for the “lesser of two evils” won’t save democracy. Rancière quotes the slogan from 2002, in the second round of elections when Jacques Chirac was pitted against Jean-Marie Le Pen: "Vote for the crook, not the fascist." For him, choosing the crook instead of the fascist isn’t the solution, but a bad choice that prepares the way to have both. Whatever the outcome, people usually vote for the politicians they deserve.