Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Recognizing the People

Christian F. Rostbøll

Democracy is about recognition of the people. But how exactly should a democracy recognize the people? The debate over populism is essentially about this question. Over the last two decades, voters around the world have increasingly turned toward populist politicians because they promise to respect “the people.” Supporters of populism feel resentment at the alleged disrespect displayed by “the elite.” Part of the appeal of populism is precisely that it provides the recognition that many people feel they have lost or never attained.

In my recent book, Democratic Respect: Populism, Resentment, and the Struggle for Recognition, I analyze and discuss populism as a struggle for recognition. As a political theorist, I offer a philosophical exploration of the normative issues involved in the demands for recognition involved in the rise of populism. To get to the principles, my book takes issue with the literature that regards populist resentment as unconnected to facts and principles. Drawing on Axel Honneth’s recognition theory, Peter Strawson’s discussion of resentment, and John Rawls’s idea of principle-dependent feelings, I argue instead that we should interpret the populist politics of resentment as a struggle for recognition based on distinctive moral experiences that are intimately connected to factual and normative beliefs. By associating populist resentment with alleged violations of democratic principles, we can discuss what citizens and governments owe one another in terms of recognition and respect.

Resentment is based on the feeling that one is regarded and treated wrongly by other people, and it is an incipient demand to be regarded and treated differently. Thus, my book provides an approach to populism and the politics of resentment that does not reduce them to ordinary citizens’ unthinking or automatic emotional reactions or political entrepreneurs’ manipulations of people. This approach entails that we presume a “participant attitude,” which means that we take people’s demands for recognition seriously by considering them on their merits. Are they demands that we should heed in a democracy understood as a society of free and equal participants?

Not all demands for recognition raised in contemporary politics are rooted in democratic norms, and my book examines their important moral and democratic differences. It promotes a notion of democratic respect that helps us to answer questions concerning what citizens owe to each other and what constitutes unreasonable demands for recognition in a democracy. Democratic respect does not require that we accept all demands equally, but it does require that we genuinely consider the validity of the claims people make on one another, rather than regarding them with an observer attitude as pathological cases in need of treatment.

Struggles for recognition have been central to the progress of modern democracy, but current conflicts over recognition and respect often threaten rather than deepen or widen democracy. Populism, with its demand for the recognition of the people, often seems to come into conflict with democratic norms. Why is that so? To answer this question, Democratic Respect analyzes the meaning and validity of different kinds of demand for recognition, as well as their connection to democratic ideals and institutions. “Recognition of the people” can mean many different things, and these different meanings connect to different interpretations of democracy. Thus, the debate over the meaning and value of populism is a debate both over how best to understand democracy and over what kind of recognition democratic citizens owe one another.

While equal respect is central to democracy, not all nominal demands for recognition and respect are compatible with democratic equality. Populist politicians, for example, make both valid and invalid demands for recognition and respect on behalf of their supporters, and it is important for our understanding and practice of democracy that we become better at distinguishing between these demands. The existing literature has highlighted the importance of recognition for supporters of populism and its prominence in populist rhetoric, but it fails to distinguish clearly between different kinds of recognition and their divergent democratic implications. Concepts such as respect, esteem, honor, dignity, and status are often used without clear definitions and differentiations. Therefore, my book offers an analysis of the meaning of these different concepts.

In particular, the type of respect that citizens and the government must mutually display should not be confused with esteem for people’s merits, identity, or way of life, but must consist in respect for people’s status as citizens. Demanding and granting esteem for particular traits or ways of life, as populists do, is incompatible with a pluralistic society of free and equal persons. Furthermore, it is crucial to note that “respect for status” can be used both in an egalitarian way, as respect for the equal standing of all citizens or all human beings (democratic “dignity respect”), and in an inegalitarian way, as respect for one’s status as a superior (aristocratic “honor respect”). My book shows how demands for respect among populists tend toward the inegalitarian idea of “honor respect.”

The question of what kind of recognition populism supplies to the people connects to the question of how populists understand democracy. And the question of which demands for recognition are democratically legitimate depends on what we think is the normatively best way to understand democracy. Thus, we must discuss and assess the populist understanding of democracy and its alternatives. My book regards populism as advocating a distinct conception of democracy, and it argues that part of the appeal of this conception of democracy lies in how it claims to recognize the people.

What is theoretically and philosophically interesting about populism is that in many ways it looks essentially democratic. Moreover, it claims to be committed to core democratic principles such as majority rule and popular sovereignty. Indeed, the populist conception of democracy is close to the understanding of democracy that we find not only among many ordinary people, but also among some political scientists. The populist demand for recognition of the people sounds like a democratic demand. Therefore, the spread of populist ideas challenges every democratically minded person to reflect on exactly how we understand our democratic ideals, institutions, and practices. Isn’t democracy defined by majority rule and responsiveness to the people’s preferences? Doesn’t this mean that democracy should recognize the people? And doesn’t it imply that populism has the true and best understanding of democracy? My book seeks to answer these difficult questions.

Democratic Respect by Christian F. Rostbøll

About The Author

Christian F. Rostbøll

Christian F. Rostbøll is Professor of Political Theory at University of Copenhagen and he holds a PhD from Columbia University. He is author of Deliberative Freedom (2008) and num...

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