The open society and the challenge of populism: Solution and problem

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Formulated as a common conceptual ground for all democracies, Popper's notion of the open society sprang from the mid-20th century context that demonstrated democracy's vulnerability to hijacking through its own electoral mechanisms. Popper's concept may accordingly be considered as a resource for combatting the populist appeal to majority decision and its threat of diminishing individual and minority rights. I examine the affirmative and critical aspects of such a consideration. On the affirmative side, the open-society concept allows room for both majority decision and the rights of individuals and minorities, as well as for particular group identities and class demands, showing that they may all cooperate to facilitate the growth of liberty, knowledge and the quality of life. Democratic institutions are justified from the grounds of this concept. Populism's equation of democracy with majority decision is, thus, incompatible with democracy's essence: decision by majority exists to cater to the vision that justifies that mode of decision making itself and cannot stay legitimate if it scuttles that vision. The more critical interpretation focuses on a detail of the open society's projected development. Popper tasks democracy's institutions with assuring conditions for progress through the expansion of knowledge. Popper expects the same process to modify the civic sphere's scope and content, as political bodies will be increasingly exposed to the expanding insights of scholarship and science. This anticipation involves grading the agents engaged in these two respective spheres, as well as looking forward to the ascendancy of one of them. Accordingly, the open-society concept might validate claims that, when seeking to confine the scope of majority decision through an emphasis on rights and law, constitutionalist and liberal approaches to democracy are subtly elitist.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)529-551
Number of pages23
JournalContemporary Political Theory
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.


  • Karl Popper
  • elitism
  • globalism
  • liberalism
  • majoritarian democracy
  • populism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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