Politics, Pessimism and Populism

By Sheri Berman – Social democracy was the most idealistic, optimistic ideology of the modern era.

In contrast to liberals who believed “rule by the masses” would lead to the end of private property, tyranny of the majority and other horrors and thus favored limiting the reach of democratic politics, and communists who argued a better world could only emerge with the destruction of capitalism and “bourgeois” democracy, social democrats insisted on democracy’s immense transformative and progressive power: it could maximize capitalism’s upsides, minimize its downsides and create more prosperous and just societies.

Such appeals emerged clearly during the inter-war years, when democracy was threatened by populism’s more dangerous predecessor—fascism.

In the United States, for example, FDR recognized that he needed to deal not merely with the concrete economic fallout of the Great Depression, but also with the fear that democracy was headed for the “dust heap of history” and fascist and communist dictatorships were the wave of the future. This required practical solutions to contemporary problems as well as an ability to convince citizens that democracy remained the best system for creating a better future. As Roosevelt proclaimed in his first inaugural address:

‘Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for…. [Our problems are not insolvable, they exist] because rulers have failed…through their own stubbornness and… incompetence….This Nation asks for action, and action now….I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems….The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. more>

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