Populism: A Symptom of the Disease Weakening Democracy

In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. “The people” in Western societies are, for the most part, implicitly understood to be white and Christian, blurring the line between race and religion. Contrary to the neoliberal belief that economic globalization would ensure the triumph of Western-style democracy, it appears that democratic institutions everywhere have been weakened by their inability to satisfy an increasing number of voters. In established democracies, major political parties have either been taken over by populist forces, as is the case for the US Republicans, or lost ground to them, as in France. The apparent failure of globalization seems to have energized the right to a greater degree than it has the left.

The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” remains relevant today. The protection of political freedoms and minority rights is an essential test of democracy. Populist leaders not only attack the institutions of global capital, they also disregard the checks and balances of institutional democracy. This creates a dichotomy between “the people” and the (largely unspecified) “ruling elites”, despite the reality that populist leaders themselves are clearly part of the latter. No matter. Their ability to channel anger and frustration at the status quo, and to promise easy solutions, seemingly grants them immunity from being attacked for their own exploitation of the system. Trump, Putin and Erdoğan are all notable for the extent to which they profit personally from their control of state institutions.1

We need to realize that something is actually happening in the Western countries that is not happening in developing counties. As national economies are increasingly subject to the flows of international capital, the ability of governments to control them declines. This has resulted in increased economic inequality in wealthy countries and led to greater voter dissatisfaction – and a search for political scapegoats. An emphasis on nationalism is one manifestation of this search. They distrust the intermediaries of liberal democracy – parties, pressure groups, media – preferring to resort to rallies and direct contact between leaders and mass audiences. Populism, observes Moisés Naim, is a strategy to obtain and retain power now propelled by the digital revolution and the threatened insecurity created by the neoliberal project. Populism is not new, it’s a ‘rhetorical tactic’ that demagogues around the world have always used to gain power and to hold on to it.2

As “identity politics” becomes increasingly understood as the politics of victimhood rather than empowerment, it is essential to remember that no one movement has a single identity, nor can it achieve liberation without larger social and political change. The current language of “equality” centres almost entirely on civic and political rights, not on social and economic equality. In human rights language, these are first- and second-generation rights. To people struggling to survive in a rapidly changing economy, this emphasis on “rights” can sound dismissive and elitist – one of the standard complaints about identity politics. Ever since Donald Trump rode a wave of white working-class support to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, an important debate has emerged among progressives over how to reorient their message to incorporate “identity politics” together with addressing the economic gap. We need a politics of shared values rather than one based on separate identities.

Growing cynicism about politics is also, in part, the product of neoliberal attacks on the state, which depict governments as disconnected from real lives and bent on taking away our money and our freedoms. The past few decades have seen a systematic delegitimization of the idea that the state exists to provide collectively what we cannot provide as individuals. This leads to declining commitment from more and more people to maintaining public services, and increases inequality. Not only have unions declined, so too have middle-class business and social associations that often provided the base for the conservative parties. The Brexit campaign as well as Donald Trump’s bid for presidency were intensely shaped by ‘post-truth politics’ with false information circulating widely on social networks and voters believing in lies publicly conveyed by opinion leaders. Populists thrive on a mix of passion and ignorance, and they need to be countered on both levels.

A democracy relies on power-sharing arrangements, courts, legislatures and a free and independent media to check executive power. Since these institutions obstruct the free reign of populists, they are often subjected to blistering attack. This is especially the case with the right-wing variety of populism that is spreading across the U.S. and Western and Eastern Europe. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have shown that economic elites and the organized groups representing their interests powerfully shape U.S. government policy, while less well-off Americans and the mass-based interest groups that represent their interests have essentially no influence over government. Perhaps because they recognize how little influence they have over government, lower-income citizens participate less at every stage of the political process – voting, contacting candidates, taking part in campaigns and demonstrations – than do those with higher incomes. Low levels of participation are linked to diminished government effectiveness as well as increased dissatisfaction with democracy.3

Populists claim to talk in the name of the people, but scorn the idea that politics is an elaborate system of building consensus through persuasion and mutual respect. Populists may claim to talk in the name of the people, argues Jan-Werner Müller in his study, but one should not be deceived. When populists actually assume power, he warned, they will create an authoritarian state that excludes all those not considered part of the proper ‘people’. Populism is invariably divisive, thrives on conspiracy, finds enemies even when they do not exist, proceeds to criminalize all opposition to it, plays up external threats, and more often than not insists its critics are working for ‘the deep state.’ With respect to the health of democracy, therefore, beware of the populists. They may talk the democratic talk, but hidden behind all that rhetoric is a dangerously anti-democratic impulse.2

Populism, Frank Furedi argues, has virtually become a term of abuse directed against anybody critical of the status quo. Worse, it implied that the revolt facing the West today was not a legitimate response to deep-seated problems but was rather the problem itself. Globalization has resulted in significant increases in GDP for countries like China and India, but for the West generally, the past thirty years created down-side problems as wealth became ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, middle class income stagnated, and underemployment became legitimized. Thus, what was great for the corporations and the consumer turned into an economic tsunami for traditional bastions of labor. Populism, the revolt facing the West today, appears to be a legitimate response to deep-seated problems associated with globalization, and not the problem itself. This poses the question whether populism is a symptom of the disease, rather than the disease weakening democracy.

James Montier and Philip Pilkington note the problems associated with globalization can account for a great deal of the reason for the rise of populism because of ‘a broken system of economic governance’. They claim neoliberalism arose in the 1970s and has been characterized since by four significant economic policies and only one of which they identify as globalization and these are: “the abandonment of full employment as a desirable policy goal and its replacement with inflation targeting…; a focus at the firm level on shareholder value maximization rather than reinvestment and growth…; and the pursuit of flexible labour markets and the disruption of trade unions and workers’ organizations.” This neoliberal paradigm has skewed the balance towards capital and away from labour. Moreover, instead of triggering change, the 2008 crisis accentuated the flaws in this format of globalization, laying the groundwork for the populists.2

Populism is very much an expression in the West of a sense of powerlessness: the powerlessness of ordinary citizens when faced with massive changes going on all around them; but the powerlessness too of Western leaders and politicians who really do not seem to have an answer to the many challenges facing the West right now – powerless to prevent off-shoring and tax avoidance. In turn, many ordinary people might feel they have no control, and express this by supporting populist movements and parties who promise to restore control to them. If politics is the art of the possible then what is possible is itself determined by political choices and requires debate and coalition building. The new policies to strengthen democracy need to address the growing economic gap and create opportunities for all. The disease affecting democracy is the neoliberal aspect of globalization, consequently populism is a symptom not the disease.

1 Dennis Altman (30 July 2017) Discontents: identity, politics and institutions in a time of populism. http://theconversation.com/discontents-identity-politics-and-institutions-in-a-time-of-populism-80882

2 Michael Cox The rise of populism and the crisis of globalisation: Brexit, Trump and beyond. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/86880/7/Cox_Rise%20of%20populism%20published_2018.pdf


3 Sheri Berman (08 Jan 2018) Populists have one big thing right: Democracies are becoming less open. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/08/populists-have-one-big-thing-right-democracies-are-becoming-less-open/?utm_term=.304dc0be0e28

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