In democratic politics, it is a tough question how to utilize popular sentiment. Popular sentiment that tends to bully the weak and exclude the minority can be abused by a dictator who mobilizes people to create autocratic rule by the majority. On the other hand, popular criticism of the privileged elite may serve to fuel reforms to establish a fair and equal society. In this sense, populism is ambivalent.
In the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, popular sentiment was wisely incorporated into the political system as meaningful political energy under the leadership of politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette and President Theodore Roosevelt, contributing to the break from the rule by political party bosses and the establishment of anti-monopoly policies to oppose abuse by capitalist powers.
The primaries being held by the Republicans and Democrats to choose their nominees for the U.S. presidential election in November — and closely watched worldwide — date back to La Follette’s years. The system was created to end the oligarchy by party leaders and enable rank-and-file party members to choose the candidates they want. This year, billionaire Donald Trump and “social democrat” Bernie Sanders are each fighting their campaigns by utilizing popular sentiment in their own ways.
Trump taps into his vast personal wealth to promote himself as a candidate who can raise his own campaign funds without support from big business. He gets popular applause — particularly from white males — for his radical remarks that even overturn some of the principles associated with democracy, such as racial and gender equality. Sanders, for his part, lashes out at economic policies that give priority to the interests of big companies and his strong push for a welfare state policy line appeals to intellectuals, including university students. A recent newspaper report that Trump supporters and Sanders supporters partly overlap reminded me of the pent-up political dissatisfaction accumulating in American society.
Popular sentiment cannot be ignored in democratic politics. But leadership is needed to turn sentiment not into destructive energy such as hatred and discrimination but into constructive energy to fuel reform that reduces the gap between the rich and poor and protects human dignity. Now that it seems clear the Republican Party lacks a leader who can take on that task, it looks like American voters can only lay their hope on Hillary Clinton. She has no other choice but to expand on the Democratic Party’s traditional policies on medical care and education to address popular concerns.
In Japan, an anonymous blog post with the message “I couldn’t get day care, Japan die!” — apparently by a mother who could not secure a day care place for her child — has sent jitters through people in power. The episode has convinced me that popular sentiment spread by social networking services now directly influences politics. Popular sentiment that rouses lazy politicians from inaction to tackle serious policy problems is a healthy function of democratic politics.
It is not that the Abe administration claims support for the merits of its policies. A majority of the public opposes its policies concerning the Constitution and nuclear power generation. Many voters also feel that the benefits of Abenomics have not reached them. The strength of the Abe administration rather lies in the fact that it is not supported on account of logical reasoning. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded to a certain extent in tapping into people’s negative sentiments — such as their vague fears about neighboring countries and concern over the economy and the decline of the overall national power — and in presenting himself as their protector.
The opposition camp meanwhile remains unable to dispel people’s negative memory of the failures of the Democratic Party of Japan as a ruling party. All it is doing now is enumerating reasons to oppose the Abe administration’s policies. The DPJ and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) merged to form the Democratic Party late last month. Its Japanese name Minshin To, according to Ishin no To Lower House member Kenji Eda, who came up with it, means a “party to move forward with people.” While it is, of course, important for an opposition party to establish a set of logically constructed policies, it is also an important quality of opposition lawmakers to share with people their anger and indignation over social injustices.
The first test of the new opposition party will be whether it can address the sentiments of people whose interests have so far not been addressed by the Liberal Democratic Party — people who are cornered into such dire straits as to make a statement like “Japan, die!”
This applies in particular to young women who have to work for low wages and university students who have to look for jobs while paying costly tuition fees.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.
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