Why populism threatens democracy


This Sunday’s election in Austria vote will test whether a center-right party can slow the rise of the radical right by adopting its agenda, according to Manès Weisskircher, a researcher at the TU Dresden (MIDEM – Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy) and Matthew E. Bergman, a lecturer at University of California at San Diego.

The political mainstream, and in particular the center-left, has failed to find alternative strategies to deal with the radical right and the issue of immigration in the long run. As a result, the election will likely show that Austria, which received one of the highest number of asylum applications in 2015 and 2016 in Europe, has turned sharply to the right, they write for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage.

Populism is what Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Muller refers to in What is Populism as the permanent shadow of representative politics, notes one observer:

That is, it is intrinsic to modern representative democracy that any aspiring political actor can speak in the name of ‘real people’ as a way of contesting current political elites. Thus populists will always be able to play off representatives of major political parties.

Pierre Rosanvallon (above) argues that the importance accorded to responsiveness to particularity is a relatively recent transformation within democracy, analyst Bernardo Zacka writes for The Boston Review:

Democratic citizens, he claims, are no longer willing to accept a one-size-fits-all model of treatment. They expect officials to listen to them and to respond with some flexibility to the specificities of their case. This comes out in a range of familiar criticisms leveled at public service agencies: that they are distant, unconcerned, and immured in red tape.

Rosanvallon, a professor at the Collège de France, regrets that “many genuine democrats hate populism but fail to understand its deep roots.”

The French historian sees the historical sweet spot for democratic equality in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Western European governments, in response to the “first globalization,” invented new forms of social redistribution and social insurance, say analyst Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk. For him, new ways need to be found to cushion citizens from another phase of global capitalist integration, they write for The Nation.

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