Populism the ‘most menacing challenger’ to democracy


European democracy seems to be in jeopardy, and there is no shortage of culprits, notes Takis S. Pappas, associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Macedonia and coeditor of European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (2015). Amid the worry, it is crucial to be clear about two things, he writes for The Journal of Democracy:

First, not all of democracy’s challengers are the same, despite a promiscuous tendency to label them all “populists.” Second, their rise is not traceable to a single cause, and hence should not be expected to prompt a single response. Parties and movements that do not belong to the same species should not to be treated as if they do—it will only make the search for causes and solutions harder.

Populism, which is the flipside and negation of political liberalism, is by far the most menacing challenger, Pappas writes for the journal, a publication of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO:

As empirical research shows, it thrives where political institutions—especially the rule of law and safeguards for minority rights—are weak and where polarization and majoritarian tendencies are strong. In such environments, populist parties can be expected to win power via the ballot box and even to win reelection. Populism is so threatening because it has a contagious quality—the appearance and rise of a populist party will predictably push a country’s other parties in a populist direction—and because populism can lead to the decay of liberal institutions and the consolidation of illiberal polities.


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