On October 9th, an auditorium packed to the rafters welcomed Mr. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, as he proceeded to give a thought-provoking lecture on his views on the state of democracy. Self-describing as not minding a radical position or two, he duly delivered. With an enthusiastic and at times controversial defence of populism, he provided a radically different take on one of the most pressing issues debated around the world today: the spread of populism.
Mr. Furedi didn’t waste much time launching his first zingers at the audience. Within the first fifteen minutes, the European Union and its “neo-colonial attitudes” had already been cast as the most prominent villains of the lecture.
Through a series of references and anecdotes, ranging from thoughts on Dutch Enlightenment thinker Spinoza to an afternoon browsing a New York bookstore, the professor painted a picture of an increasingly stark divide between the original ideas of modern democracy and the way it is popularly seen today.
In his view, politicians have gone from taking their duty to convince people of their positions seriously to claiming that many voters are no longer capable of understanding matters as complex as the multilateral deals required in a globalized world. He argues that it is this contempt of voters by the establishment that gave rise to the populists we see today. By no longer trusting in the public’s ability to vote in its own interests, they are giving up on democracy. According to Mr. Furedi, this is reflected by a growing criticism of the power of the media over voters, the increasingly popular Interbellum references and a consistent demonization of populists as “the enemy”.
While the remainder of the lecture was at times somewhat disjointed, these same ideas clearly kept shining through. In further explaining his support for the likes of Poland and Hungary he touched on the EU’s democratic deficit, inequality of education and income and national sovereignty.
However, whereas his more general observations on the state of democracy seemed to find their target with the audience, this defence of nationalist tendencies as an expression of democracy seemed to somewhat miss the mark if the following Q&A session was anything to go on. More than a few questioned how Mr. Furedi could support governments like Hungary’s Orban administration for standing up for national identity, while at the same time increasingly silencing political opponents. Where did he draw the line between the values of democracy and people who use them to undermine free speech rights for future generations? Straight answers to those questions were not to be found that night, unfortunately.
While plenty of people present disagreed with professor Furedi’s allies of choice, his radical defence of the people’s voice, no matter the message, undoubtedly resonated with many at a time when inequality seems to be growing faster than ever. People left, hotly debating what they had just heard. A suitable end to an evening that elevated the importance of a well-made argument above all else.