Democracy’s defense mechanisms eroding. Populism here to stay?


In the age of migration the important characteristic of many of Europe’s populist parties is not that they are national-conservative but that they are reactionary, notes Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Many Europeans are gripped by fears of migration and technology, which pose a threat to their identity and economic future. The response to this has been anything but calm, he writes for The FT:

As the political commentator Mark Lilla notes, for the reactionaries, “the only sane response to apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over”. Nobody represents the new reactionary spirit in Europe better than Viktor Orban.

But Orban’s Hungary is an unlikely role model, Krastev adds. A country that holds ever-decreasing appeal to its own people will struggle to position itself as the model of Europe’s future.

Authoritarian regimes are gaining ground today, but Condoleezza Rice is not convinced they are as strong as they look, G. John Ikenberry writes for Foreign Affairs. Democratic breakthroughs are difficult to pull off, she concedes, but the human yearning for freedom is impossible to extinguish.

The world has never been immune from strongmen, but there are signs that defense mechanisms are eroding, The National Post’s Graeme Hamilton writes:

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University, has studied decades of data from the World Values Surveys, an initiative begun in 1981 to measure beliefs and values. In a paper published last year in the [National Endowment for Democracy’s] Journal of Democracy, he and Roberto Stefan Foa wrote that people in North America and Europe have become “more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.”

“Earlier generations have a real sense of what it means not to live in a democracy,” Mounk said in an interview. “They have fought against fascism or have experienced fascism or they have been alive at a time when communism was a real force in the world. When they assess liberal democracy, they assess it in relation to these other systems, and they recognize these other systems are bad.”

Europe’s populist surge lost momentum with the election of French President Emmanuel Macron. But his efforts to initiate democratic renewal are foundering, says analyst Robert Zaretsky, in part because the source of Macron’s vaunted “democratic revolution” was civil society, he writes for Foreign Policy:

The French, he declared, were fed up with the traditional parties on the left and right. Like his nemeses on the hard left and right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, Macron offered a kind of “dégagisme” – tossing out the bums. In his book, he blasted “the same faces and same men” who continued to apply “recipes from the previous century” to meet this century’s great challenges. By voting for his newly formed party, the voters would send professional politicians packing, their place taken by amateurs who represented the best and brightest of civil society.

In an essay entitled “The Labyrinths of Politics”, Macron presented his vision of how politics should be conducted, notes historian Hugo Drochon, author of Nietzsche’s Great Politics:

In “The Labyrinths”, he criticized the “hiatus” between political debate and policy implementation: once a political decision had been made, there was a disconnect between that decision and its implementation. To solve this problem, Macron the lion proposed to clarify the role that each institution was to play, so that public policy might be able to overcome its immobility and become efficient again. He argued that the ideology of the left and right had to be replaced with proposals for competing visions of society.

Modern populism has existed in one form or another since the 19th century, but the spread of populist movements in Europe today stems from a serious crisis of representation, in which citizens are questioning their faith in traditional parties and other democratic institutions, notes Freedom House researcher Jake Palmer, who lists a number of factors behind the crisis:

  • First, the traditional, social democratic left has yet to recover from the triumph of market-oriented liberalism that was associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, many left-leaning parties have sought to adapt and compete by drifting toward the center, but this has alienated key elements of their traditional working-class base. Such voters have consequently been receptive to populist appeals, including from the right.
  • Second, as management of the globalized economy has shifted from national governments to transnational institutions, many citizens have come to associate the ill effects of economic change with a loss of national sovereignty and democratic control. The perceived lack of democratic accountability at institutions like the European Union and the World Trade Organization makes them easy targets for populists who promise to strengthen national borders and curb the free flow of goods and people.
  • Finally, the proliferation of social media and other new communications technology has exposed weaknesses in traditional party machinery and allowed charismatic populist leaders to connect directly with grassroots supporters. These leaders can claim to represent or embody “the people,” contrasting themselves with distant “elites” who rely on large institutional structures to mediate their policymaking and campaign efforts.

Populism’s rise in Europe and the United States has implications for how we view social class as a basis for voting and political partisanship, says analyst Armin Schäfer, who cites recent studies showing growing disaffection among the working classes in established democracies concerning their sense of their ability to influence the policy decisions that affect them:

Democracy’s great promise is that everyone counts equally—in spite of the many ways in which citizens actually differ. However, recent political science research provides ample evidence that this promise remains unfulfilled. In many ways, politics is tilted against poorer citizens whose voices are not heard. Once powerful, the working class today has become politically far less influential. Trade unions often organize privileged segments of the workforce and center left parties are increasingly the home of high-income professionals. Those who feel poorly represented either turn away from politics in resignation or turn angrily to populist parties.Populism has emerged in part because of the tension between actors in political institutions and associated individuals in the political community today has grown to the point where democracy is approaching an existential crisis, argues Henrik P Bang, Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.  Liberal democracy has traditionally emphasized the relationship between the building of robust institutions and the accumulation of social capital. But the populist notion of popular sovereignty as relying on the exercise of strong and decisive leadership has always been an element of liberal democracy as well.

But populism does not resonate with the young, who have grown up with global neoliberalism, he contends:

This has ‘nudged’ them to seek success above all else from the day they met each other in the daycare centre. The young are not disciplined to comply by ‘hard power’ and ‘duty norms’ but by ‘soft power’ and ‘engagement norms’. In addition, they have learned from day one that their own life is not a life peculiar to themselves. Everyone has to be active, inventive, faster, ‘change ready’ and self-responsible to attain success in neoliberalism’s competitive world.

Despite fascism’s defeat on the battlefield and the collapse of communism under the weight of its own contradictions, in the 21st century critics from within liberal democracy have broadened and intensified their case against classical liberalism, according to Peter Berkowitz, the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution:

On the left today, traditional liberalism is under attack for one of its great attributes: its formal offer to all citizens of rights of religion, speech, contract, and criminal justice. These, the critics allege, purport to be neutral but succor harmful utterances and opinions; foster inequalities of wealth and status; and sustain pervasive discrimination. …..At the same time, a faction within conservatism loosely tied to the populist wave …. contends that classical liberalism generates a hyper-rationalistic politics that elevates cosmopolitan goals while debasing local loyalties and group attachments.

While Europe is contending with populist contagion, there are serious barriers to the populist model in the United States which protect liberal democracy from serious damage, says Kurt Weyland, a Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

These include the Constitutionally-mandated separation of powers; U.S. presidents’ limited patronage powers; and the absence of an acute economic crisis, he writes for The Washington Post.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email