Why is it that populism props up the ruling elite, while the individualist dream of the enlightenment has gone by the wayside, except as a ridiculous caricature? What does this mean for the possibility of democracy?
We can no longer afford to think in terms of the original "social contract" among rational consenting individuals because, clearly, individuals maintain their identities in terms of their relationship to a real or idealized group, not by means of some inborn identity and a capacity for individual reasoning. Also, people are born into and conditioned into an existing culture, with its history, its images, and its language . Speech is always historically and culturally conditioned and most people welcome that conditioning, although they may tell you otherwise by way of some fantasy "lone cowboy" image of individualism or something along those lines, equally culturally conditioned.
We are members of real or idealized tribes and in times of rapid change in technology, the precursor to a change in ideology, there is a culture lag. Today we see cultural regression. In some years, this will pass, hopefully with less pain than we might anticipate.
The message, though, is that politics is not about rational choices. It's about tribal allegiances and, in uncertain times, it's the ancient archetype of the alpha male tribal leader, perhaps updated to the archetype of a valiant king, that keeps the lines of power organized and most people aligned to the interests of the oligarchy that directs our economy, regardless of what government regulators may want to do about it. Although our contemporary stories still indicate some deformed attempts to escape some vestigial projection of feudalism, the instinct to submit to the "divine right of kings" across many domains of human endeavour doesn't seem to have abated much.
What is an economy? It is a combination of our technologies, how we are socially organized to make the best use of them (or not) to produce what we need (and much, much more) from nature, and the institutions and stories that sustain that arrangement, and the powers of those who dominate the economy, in whom our powers are vested. We, more often than not, work against our personal advantage (usually unwittingly) and instead maintain the structures that in turn maintain our investment in the powers that sanction the rules and rituals that organize our lives and public relationships. For example, mothers in certain countries make sure that their daughters are "circumcised" in order to ensure their marriageability.
Today though if you dare to dream that reason, morality, art and respect for evidence (science) will help see us through to a more just arrangement, you may be called "elitist". This label is vestige of the hatred of the privileges of the feudal lords. It has nothing to do with today's world. Populism is the vehicle that most acutely and continually sustains the elite today. The next question is, what does that mean for democracy, if the dream of the enlightenment has become something "elitist"?
Of course, it's much more complicated than dreamers of the enlightenment may care to think. There is a deep seated sense that enlightenment dreams represent a kind of hubris on the part of human beings, as if we could rationally organize ourselves or submit our wills to a rational economy (invisible hand, "free"enterprise) to best achieve our increasingly empty ends. Of course we can't. The the complexity of the world would prevent our being able to do it - although frighteningly, the recent rediscovery of the complexity of nature doesn't prevent our ability to think it.
What is the alternative? As many are voicing today, the solution is in being adaptive, in our responsiveness and resilience. Rather than fixed universal truths of "human nature" or visions of true science, the just beneficence of some "invisible hand" economics, or various ideological diseases that afflict us today, I think we should rediscover what it means to understand, in all its dimensions, with the proviso that human understanding is ever-provisional.
Today more than ever we need to understand our relationship to the world we burden with the polluting byproducts of our Promethean dreams and our unrelenting, culturally conditioned searches for a better life. We will never arrive at a perfect solution but we can find our way to a more harmonious one, I hope.