Center for Transcultural Studies: Publications/Calhoun 1987

working papers

No. 16. "Populist Politics, Communications Media and Large Scale Social Integration," Craig Calhoun, 1987.

Observations of public apathy in today's electoral democracies are commonplace (Neumann, 1986). For many social scientists, low voter turnout and similar indicators are simply reasons for believing that liberal democracies will always be governed by elites, though these may shift over time. Recently, a number of authors have argued against this view, and indeed against the presumption that representative institutions are the only form of participation workable in modern, large-scale polities. Characterizing representation as a form of "thin democracy," for example, Barber (1984) has called for a move towards a "strong democracy" based on new or revitalized forms of popular participation. His proposals stress two dimensions of such participation: the renewal of community level institutions of self-rule and the development of more frequent national referenda....

My argument in this paper is that the theoretical grounds on which most discussion of these issues takes place are doubly deficient. In the first place, numerical size, while a central variable, does not adequately grasp the transformation in social organization wrought during the modern era. We need to address contrasting forms of social integration as well as sizes of population. I shall adopt Habermas's (1984) distinction of system world/system integration from lifeworld/social integration for this purpose. I will argue that the current efflorescence of populist politics (of both left and right) simultaneously is a response to the split between system world and lifeworld, and is limited in an often poorly recognized way by the implications of large scale system integration. Secondly, academic discussion of representative vs. direct democracy has tended to focus on mechanisms of decision-making at the expense of attention to public discourse and the educational functions of politics. Communitarian populists (though generally not plebiscitarians) are sensitive to this, and offer proposals for improved settings for local discourse and political language less prejudicial to the values of community and tradition (Barber, 1984; Bellah, et al., 1985; Evans and Boyte, 1986). Most, however, approach this predominantly in cultural rather than social structural terms, and underestimate the limits imposed by large scale system integration. Above all, both communitarian and plebiscitarian visions tend to neglect the structural difficulties which social change has put in the way of public discourse among people significantly different from each other. Changes in cities and community patterns on the one hand, and in communications systems on the other, make it likely that no extension of community level discourse or mobilization will constitute a public discourse at the level of the state. This is a limit to communitarian politics, but not an argument against them. At the same time, the issues presented here do argue against most proposals for extensive reliance on referenda.

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Working Papers