Populist politics, communications media and large scale societal integration

Sociological Theory 6 (2):219-241 (1988)
Abstract
Faced with a minimally participatory democracy, a variety of populists have sought to revitalize popular political participation by strengthening local community mobilizations. Others have called for reliance on frequent referenda. Assessing the limits of these proposals requires theoretical attention to two key issues. The first is the growing importance of very large scale patterns of societal integration which depend on indirect social relationships achieved through communications media, markets and bureaucracies. This split of system world from lifeworld, in Habermas's terms, poses a challenge to democratic theories which assume that the lessons of local social life and political participation are directly translatable into the necessary knowledge for state level (let alone international) activity. Secondly, changes in patterns of community formation and communications media have transformed the basis for democracy. In particular, socio-spatial segmentation by life-style choice, market position and other factors limits direct relationships increasingly to similar individuals. Mass media become increasingly predominant sources of information about people different from oneself, and indirect social relationships form the structural basis for the social integration of most politics. The present paper revised and adapts Habermas's conceptualization of system world and lifeworld in order to address the transformation of patterns of societal integration. This forms the basis for a critical analysis of the implications of changing community form and especially communications media for populist political proposals
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