Culture or economics? What is populism and how did it happen?



In the face of populist fantasists and authoritarians, liberal democrats must draw inspiration from Cicero and Jefferson and reaffirm the wonders of democracy, argues Philip Collins, the author of “When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches That Shape the World – and Why We Need Them.” Albert Camus (left) once defined democracy as the system for people who know that they don’t know everything, he writes for The New Statesman:

The populist utopian has all the answers. The omniscient figures have been, variously, priests, philosophers, intellectuals, scientists, or the party. Plato believed in the rule of the sages, the Stoics in the power of reason, the 17th-century rationalists in metaphysical insight and the 18th-century empiricists in science. The populist believes in himself.

Are economic factors to blame for the rise of populism, or is it a cultural backlash? The answer is a bit of both: economic weakness strengthens social conservatives’ illiberal views, according to analysts John Springford and Simon Tilford. Economics alone do not explain the rise of populism and growing rejection of liberalism in developed economies, they write for the Centre for European Reform:

The stagnation of median real incomes in the UK and US no doubt partly explain the election of a populist President and Britain’s vote to quit the EU. But other countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, have experienced very little growth in median incomes without populist thinking gaining ascendency. Similarly, median workers in the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria have done well over the last 20 years, including since the financial crisis, and yet these countries are home to some of the strongest populist pressures in Europe. Culture also matters: in particular the levels of social conservatism, attitudes to immigration, and history.

Culture is a neglected factor in explaining political behavior, according to the Sofia Platform’s “Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experience of Change after the End of Communism.”

“Institutions and elites usually take priority in countries in transition, but unless attention is paid to the society at large, legacies of the past will loom in the present, opening space for illiberal and populist forces to determine the future of democracy,” the authors contend. (Download a free copy here.)

Populism has become the main threat to liberty and liberal democracy around the world. Its appeal to nationalism and xenophobia afflicts rich and poor countries alike, and it builds its false promises on policies that ultimately aggravate social and economic problems, says the CATO Institute.

Francis Fukuyama, Stanford CDDRL Mosbacher Director and National Endowment for Democracy board member, gives an overview of populism as a phenomenon and puts it in context.

On Wednesday, November 15th at the Cato Institute, 2010 Nobel Laureate in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa (right) will speak on The Challenge of Populism, addressing the main themes of a new book on the topic, especially as they relate to Europe and the Americas. A discussion with Alvaro Vargas Llosa, editor of the book (El estallido del populismo), and editor Gabriela Calderón de Burgos, a contributor to the book, will follow. RSVP

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