Illustrations by Felix Pawlyn

The 2010s saw various pillars of global liberal democracy being swept away by a wave of international populism.

America and Britain both fell prey to populist slogans appealing to emotion rather than logic, galvanizing voters to Take Back Control and Make America Great Again, orchestrating a crescendo of nationalistic chauvinism. If history tells us anything, it’s that populism is symptomatic of our political system suffering from an underlying disease.

If the root cause of populism’s support is left untreated, as it was in Ancient Greece and Rome, the illness is all but certain to be terminal for its democratic host.

Take the political establishment of Ancient Rome. They failed to address the root cause of populist politicians’ (populares) support and instead chose to meet them with violence. The murder of the populist Gracchi brothers by the Roman establishment and the subsequent executions of thousands of their followers marked the beginning of a of century of fratricidal blood as intensifying violence culminated in brutal civil wars. When elections began to be won through military intimidation, democracy was pronounced dead, signalling Rome’s transition from democracy to totalitarianism.

Although we are far from Rome’s darkest moments, we are already seeing the embryonic beginnings of such factional violence in our own society. The rising militancy of far-right extremists such as the Proud Boys, countered by the violence of Antifa on the left, suggests the existence of a similar political cancer on both sides of the ideological spectrum that is only treatable by addressing the root cause of the discontent. In our times, the populist disease stems from the unrest resulting from inequality.

Hear me out. The wealth gap is widening at the expense of the poor, with more billionaires in our society than ever before. As Jeff Bezos is set to become the world’s first trillionaire, America is witnessing its highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. The economic forecast for the aftermath of the pandemic is a bleak one. Politicians are repeatedly demonstrating their servitude to the interests of private donors rather than the needs of the ordinary people that elected them. Unless this changes quickly, populism’s allure is here to stay.

Contrary to an onslaught of articles, such as in the Economist and the BBC, that argue the Plague of Athens is proof of democracy’s timeless resilience, I would argue that the history paints a much bleaker picture.

Following the plague, Athens fell into the jaws of demagoguery. Populists like Cleon and Alcibiades[1] took advantage of public discontent to press their own agendas. They whipped up a frenzy of chauvinism that permanently banned immigrants from attaining citizenship and launched an asinine military campaign into Sicily.

Their inept leadership led to Athens permanent decline, leaving its democracy in a tug-of-war with oligarchic coups, until its decisive overthrow just shy of a century after the plague struck the city. Instead of romanticizing the annals of our democratic ancestors’ history, we should heed their stark lessons. The historical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that in times of crisis, democracy is vulnerable to erosion at the hands of populists.

As the maxim goes: those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.[2] History warns us that if politicians fail to address populism’s root cause and continue to bow to the needs of the wealthy few at the expense of ordinary people, the populist wave is sure to surge into a dictatorial tsunami, bolstered by the inevitable discontent that the economic consequences of the pandemic will bring. If ignored, this spells doom for democracy, as it did for our democratic ancestors. We must heed their warnings by addressing inequality now, or our democracy will suffer the same bleak fate as theirs.

[1] “In short, after the death of Pericles Athens fell into the hands of demagogues and was ruined.” (4) Finley, M.I. ‘Athenian Demagogues’, Past and Present, no. 21, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 3-24.

[2] Winston Churchill, from a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, paraphrasing from George Santayana’s original “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.